Friday, January 5, 2024

Poor Things

"I Have Found This World To Be Full of Sugar and Violence"
Yorgos Lanthimos' film of Poor Things immediately grabs you by the "hairy business" and never lets go. Even the titles starting the movie refuse to be conventional, emerging like stitching around a baby blanket. Then, the film starts proper with a low-res black-and-white sequence shot with a distorting wide-angle lens of Bella Baxter (Emma Stone) waddling around the ornate interior of the work-home of Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe), eccentric scientist and anatomist, whom Bella calls "God."

And so he is, scarred and etched by much surgery-presumably self-inflicted-he teaches anatomy at a London University, where he regularly dissects corpses for the education of his students and puts them back together for his. "What's the purpose of putting the organs back in?" asks one of his audience. "My amusement!" He bellows, and one dare not question him.
Evidently. His estate is populated by hybrid creatures constructed and tended by him: pug-ducks and pig-chickens (with their heads swapped out), all experiments to test the limits of what can be done. Speaking of predecessors, he says they "pushed the boundaries of what was known. And paid the price."
But, Bella is the most important one, an opportunity that arose by accident, and Dr. Baxter made the most of it...uh, her. Now, he tracks Bella's development, her growing vocabulary, her skill-sets, all in an environment meant to keep her safe, despite her abundant curiosity. Bella wants to learn, most particularly about the world outside the Baxter flat, and that, as he notes, is a problem: "So many things in the world can kill you, Bella."
Still, she seeks to learn. Baxter recruits one of his more sensitive students, Max McCandles (
Ramy Youssef) to do the research work that his busy schedule can't accommodate, and, given Bella's combined increasing abilities and interests, someone has to keep an eye on her so she doesn't get in trouble. Dr. Godwin allows a brief foray into the park, but even that doesn't go smoothly, and it's only through the use of chloroform that he and Max are able to get her home.
But, things start to go south when Bella becomes sexually aware, and Godwin suggests that Max marry her as there is obvious affection between the two of them. A marriage contract is proposed and Godwin brings in lawyer Duncan Wedderburn (
Mark Ruffalo) to draw it up. But, Wedderburn is unscrupulous and a cad and his interest in who would inspire such a contract makes him seek out Bella and propose that, instead of marrying Max, that she go off with him on a "grand adventure" traveling the world. To Bella, this seems the best of all possible ideas and she insists that she travel with Wedderburn and will marry Max when she returns. Dr. Godwin objects and tries to warn her, but, ultimately lets her go, realizing that Bella is "a being of free will" and can make up her own mind.
Of course, Wedderburn's intentions are the worst, indulging Bella in what she describes as "furious jumping" and acting a man of the world when all he really wants is control over her. Plus, being sheltered for all her time at Baxter's flat, Bella is unused to the "polite society" that Wedderburn loathes, and still has instinctual issues ("I must go punch that baby!") to the point where he commands her that she is to say only three things at dinner conversation: "Delightful" "How marvelous" and "How do they get the pastry so crisp." She starts to assert herself, slapping Duncan and making her own friends, while he drinks and gambles and begins a downward spiral of self-pity.
It's a coming-of-age story of the innocent learning about the world and the hardships and disillusionments that are learned along the way as her travels teach her in ways being cloistered in the doctor's care could not. Experience is the best teacher, whether you're "Candide" or "Candy" and Bella's travels, the people she meets, the hardships she endures, the sacrifices she makes are all in the benefit of her becoming a complete human being by the time she makes her way back to London.
You might think you've heard this one before, but you've certainly never seen anything like Poor Things. As anyone who's seen his The Favourite can attest, Lanthimos does things differently, using different film formats, lenses, distortions, and with no regard to realism or verisimilitude. His extreme world-building is not unlike Wes Anderson's or Tim Burton's, or Terry Gilliam's, but with a free-wheeling scatter-shot explosion of any expectations or any sort in a delirious mash-up of Dali and Magritte surrealism that ignore the laws of physics and architectural rigor while staying true to the possibilities of psychology and motivation. Think of the films of Tarsem Singh and tilt them another 90° and you'll be closer to Lanthimos' wheel-house.
Even while you're mind is reeling and your eyes are agog at what he presents, one can't help but be amazed at the performances he gets. As creepy as the visage of Willem Dafoe is in this film, his performance as a mad scientist is still heart-felt and, as bizarre as it is, just a little wise. Mark Ruffalo hasn't been this funny...ever. 
But, the miracle of this movie is Emma Stone. One doesn't want to reveal too much of the movie...or the "why" of it...but her Bella Baxter starts out as a fully-formed child and progresses to a cerebral philosophical mind while taking every idiosyncrasy and playing it with a crack comic timing that makes you shake your head in wonder at the inventiveness and sheer "go-for-broke" ingenuity of it. For all the special effect wizardry going on in the thing, she is the glue that holds the thing together for a solid 2½ hours. And her transformation from wobbling infant to sophisticated lady is a triumph. It's all pretty astounding.
And the movie will make an excellent double bill with Barbie.

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