‘Poor Things’: Don’t start the Revolution without me!
Emma Stone in 'Poor Things.'

Could it be that the very best film of 2023 is actually a sexual and revolutionary tract?!

Director Yorgos Lanthimos’s Poor Things is the vigorous, sensuous, iconoclastic odyssey of a young woman through Victorian Europe to self-discovery. As much as it’s a trip of bright lights, lush colors, and florid images, it’s a film grounded in the idea of social change.

Experimental surgeon Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Defoe) has inserted the brain of an infant into a young woman’s body. Godwin tries to guide the growth of this “daughter” Bella (Emma Stone in a remarkable performance). He allows her a limited apprenticeship in his laboratory. He sets up his guileless best student Max (Ramy Youssef) as a romantic partner for Bella.

But Baxter isn’t able to control Bella’s pitch forward. As her body and brain adjust to each other, Bella unevenly staggers through a strange, comical world of danger, growth, and romance. Her movements, much like Dr. Frankenstein’s patchwork creation, appear as awkward, as her brain must feel, apprehend, and synthesize new information at a breakneck speed.

She escapes the lab and her initial ambivalence about Max, speeding away with the lascivious, slimy lawyer Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo), who wants nothing more than a sex partner. Bella is happy to oblige. She is a quick study, leapfrogging her tutor and leaving him in a cloud of smoldering libido. Her resources exceed and crush his ability to perform. Direct, more than cruel, she informs him “my heart has become dim towards your swearing, weepy person.”

Her travels through Alexandria, Lisbon, Paris, Marseille and beyond are more than a sexcapade.  Bella absorbs the lessons of her encounters with the poor and the rich, working women and bourgeois poseurs, stuffed shirts and dirty underwear, feminism and hedonism, exploiters and the exploited.

Lanthimos’s creation, based on Alasdair Gray’s 1992 book, is hard to resist. Through the fish-eyed lenses of cinematographer Robbie Ryan referencing Coppola’s Bram Stokers Dracula, he gives us brilliant distorted dreamscapes populated by colorful images of animal and human body collages stitched together, flamboyantly textured costumes courtesy of Holly Waddington, and naturalistic cities of Gaudí nightmares.

As Bella, Stone draws on her considerable range and idiosyncratically fluid physical repertoire. Ruffalo descends from threatening cad to pathetic over-reacher. Defoe’s Godwin holds this thespian centrifugal force together as a calming force, much as his face was stitched together by his father, also an experimental surgeon. Clearly the cast is enjoying telling their story.

Critics, however, have only skimmed the surface of the movie. The more conventional reviewers have been obsessed with the picture as “strange,” “bizarre,” “freakish,” or even a “crazy quilt of horror.” Others have in passing mentioned Bella as a Dr. Frankenstein-like creation. But Lanthimos’s construction, like Dr. Frankenstein’s “monster,” offers a far wider and deeper-ranging social critique.

Certainly, it is telling that Bella’s creator was named Godwin and not just because he was a god-like creator. Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley, the 1818 author of Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, was, like her husband poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, and her father William Godwin, a political and social radical whose ideas were anarchist and socialist.

Bella’s ideas, like those of her creator Dr. Godwin Baxter, and his creator film director Yorgos Lanthimos, are strongly rooted in similar egalitarianism, rationalism, feminism, and socialism. Lanthimos et al. have in mind the creation of more than just stunning, engaging entertainment. They are clamoring for a new society.

The trailer can be viewed here:

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Michael Berkowitz
Michael Berkowitz

Michael Berkowitz, a veteran of the civil rights and anti-war movements, has been Land Use Planning Consultant to the government of China for many years. He taught Chinese and American History at the college level, worked with Eastern Kentucky Welfare Rights Org. with miners, and was an officer of SEIU.