FOUR AND A HALF STARS Created by her scientist father, Bella Baxter embarks on a journey of self-discovery.
PERIOD COMEDY US English #POORTHINGS
Starring Emma Stone, Willem Dafoe
Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos has a rep for polarising audiences. Either your on board with his totally bonkers world view, or you’re not. POOR THINGS is no exception, in fact it’s possibly the most bonkers of any of his films including positively off-the-wall affairs such as THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER or THE LOBSTER. The provocateur has taken Alasdair Gray’s cult sci-fi fairytale, lowered the satire, upped the sex, expanded the crazy and fleshed it out with notes of feminism, steam-punk and retina-scorching production. If it sounds like your kind of thing, POOR THINGS has a lot to offer, starting with a baby’s brain transplanted into a grown woman’s body. Still with us? Excellent.
It’s the late 1800s and pregnant Bella (Emma Stone in a career best) commits suicide. But this being a comedy she is found by the fevered, if not mad, scientist Dr Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe) who takes the brain of her unborn baby and uses it to revive the woman. Thus she becomes child and mother at once, a staggering, wildly uncoordinated toddler housed in a much older body: a mess of unsynchronised chaos that breaks things cheerfully and urinates with glee. Yet new Bella grows up quickly and Godwin, aka God, is fascinated by the resounding success of his experiment. So too his assistant Max who clearly has a thing for the future Bella.
Being her father’s daughter, Bella is a curious woman who grows increasingly intrigued by life outside Godwin’s house and its population of goat-ducks and chicken-dogs (he's a scientist remember). Enter the mischievous cad Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo) who offers to take her on a (sex) tour of Portugal, Egypt and France to improve her understanding of the world. Being a cad, she leaves him in Paris to work in a brothel and further her education. It’s a mind-expanding experience, if nothing else. But once the spell of Europe palls, it's back home to God, and to Max.
Of course this view of Europe is an approximation and a very approximate approximation at that. Super stylised and deliberately unbalanced, they’re confected settings with occasionally recognisable landmarks to settle the brain then trip it up again. Sumptuous foregrounds and extraordinary, painted backgrounds recall Wes Anderson or perhaps Terry Gilliam at his most elaborate. In fact, much of the construct recalls the kind of film Gilliam would like to make if only he had the discipline of Lathimos.
So in many regards POOR THINGS is a coming of age tale, albeit one wrapped in the deliciously warped sensibilities of its director. It’s also an exceedingly witty and very sweary one as you might expect from screenwriter Tony McNamara (THE FAVOURITE and THE GREAT). Viewer be warned: if abundant profanity and nudity isn’t your thing, look away now. But if you’ve read this far, it probably is your thing. Excellent.
This is also, depending on your taste, a comedy that sources much of the fun from the obvious pleasure of the film’s leads, notably Stone who is, without doubt, having the Best. Time. Ever. But it’s also her commitment to the entirety of the role that makes POOR THINGS what it is. There's Bella the absurd infant, Bella the inquisitive youth, Bella the woman charting her own course as well as Bella the sex enthusiast - many a vivid scene staged without a hint of bashfulness. There’s even Bella The Wistful as Lathimos changes gears to bring the film toward its 'happy ending'. This is a tough part to navigate, made tougher by the bonkers world in which Bella lives. Yet Stone stays the course and makes it, within it's own absurd boundaries, real. It would be a much lesser film without her.
Which is not to say that POOR THINGS is without its challenges. For a start it asks a lot from audiences to stay with it for nearly two and half hours. There’s a high degree of challenging themes and scenes - provocateur is the director’s signature after all. Yet repetition also creeps in as Lathimos works to bring the strings of his plot together in the final hour and by then, most of the jokes have been told. Still, it remains piercingly clever to the very end, an ending made more satisfying by its overall, and surprising, niceness.
Nice, but bonkers. You're either in or you're out. Polarising. After the screening most audience members were looking at one another, lost for words. Those who could express themselves settled with ‘what the hell was that all about?’, then, suitably challenged, busied themselves trying to make some sense of what they’d just seen. Lathimos would have liked that very much indeed. Excellent.