Poor Things (2024.10, Beautiful , Sex )

Poor Things, the story of a baby’s mind in an adult woman’s body, is probably the most bizarre movie I’ve ever seen. It is also one of the best. (5*)
Poor Things
Poor Things

Poor Things – Snapshot

Poor Things is the best movie I have seen in a very long time.  Caught somewhere in a surreal vortex between science fiction, comedy, drama and horror, the film takes you on a journey with Bella, an infant’s mind developing quickly in a fully grown woman’s body.  Although the explicit and persistent sex will not work with everyone, it is a honest recognition of its power in human life.  (5*)

Where to Watch:

Stream: Hulu

Rent/Buy:  Google/Prime/Fandango/Apple/YouTube ($6)

(Note: This is, perhaps, the most graphic R-rated film I have ever seen.  If you are offended by very explicit sex acts, full male and female frontal nudity, or internal body parts (like a liver) being bandied about, you will probably find this movie offensive.  However, if you can get past all that, you are in for a treat as those scenes are not gratuitous but are essential to set the tone and tell the story.)

Poor Things – The Oscar Buzz 

Oscar Nominations (11) / Oscar Wins (4) :

Best Picture

Director (Yorgos Lanthimos)

Adapted Screenplay (Tony McNamara)

Leading Actress (Emma Stone) WINNER

Supporting Actor (Mark Ruffalo)

Cinematography (Robbie Ryan)

Film Editing (Yorgos Mavropsaridis)

Original Score (Jerskin Fendrix)

Production Design (Price/Heath/Mihalek) WINNER

Costume Design (Holly Waddington) WINNER

Makeup & Hairstyling (Stacey/Coulier/Weston) WINNER

With eleven nominations, and five of them “major”,  Poor Things scores a 17 on my Oscar Quality Index (OQI), the second highest (next to Oppenheimer) of all 24 general interest movies this year.  Furthermore, with nearly an equal number of major and minor nominations, the movie was predicted to both tell an interesting story at the same time it promises a visual and sonic spectacle.  The movie delivers beautifully.  Director Yorgos Lanthimos has assembled much of his standby team to do this film and so there is a lot of implicit communication about intent.  It shows in how all the pieces come together.

What is perhaps extra-revealing about the Oscar pattern for this movie is not only that it was nominated in all three of what I call the visual arts categories, but it won all of them – a result I don’t recall seeing before. We will start our analysis with them and work our way up to Best Picture.  This is a huge film and that means we have lots to discuss!

One of the most obvious points of interest in Poor Things is the incredible set design.  The film was made in Hungary and, possibly, the remarkable sets are the result of less expensive but very talented set designers.  But still it is very hard to believe that this film was made on a reported $35 Million budget.  Of course, significant portions of the design involve backdrop paintings, but still they also include rooms with stunning details.  You can’t help but pay attention to the soft features built into the wall designs in Bella’s bedroom.  But that doesn’t prepare you for the elaborate re-construction of the streets of Lisbon, Bella’s first stop on her Grand Adventure.  The elaborate street scenes are taking place on a soundstage some 500 feet long.  The sets were so intricate and elaborate that they required appropriating additional space in another studio in Budapest.  The viewer should enjoy noticing things like a carriage, mechanically powered, but with a horse’s head – that is alive – attached to the front.  Or watch Bella play with a Chog (half chicken, half dog)! Each setting becomes a fun and exciting jolt to the imagination and an opportunity to explore the weirdness!   (Be sure and notice the shape of the windows at the Paris whore house!.) This is a first-time Oscar nomination for all three of the Production Design winners on this film – but I suspect it won’t be their last.

You also can’t help but notice the costumes.  Set in the late 1800s, the men all wear somewhat period-appropriate attire, although you will notice in every case that something is always just a tad off.  But pay attention, especially, to Bella’s outfits.  In the later parts of Poor Things, when Bella has grown up, her puffed up sleeves fold and turn to evoke female genitalia.  Although Holly Waddington has worked on other films, this is also her first Oscar nomination.

The win in the Makeup & Hairstyling category is perhaps an obvious one.  Willem Dafoe’s, (Bella’s “father” figure Godwin Baxter) makeup alone took three hours to apply and two hours to remove.  The prosthetic work was overdone, but that was part of the design.  Baxter is a surgeon performing fantastical operations and he suffered some of that himself.  (This is a case where Frankenstein is indeed a monster in his own right).  Bella’s hair grows rapidly, mirroring her own emotional and intellectual development.  By the end of the movie the extensions in her hair are more than four feet long!  But pay equal attention to the hair styles of all the other women, and some of the men – these aren’t your standard-issue haircuts.  Nadia Stacey worked on The Favourite and received a nomination for Cruella, quite likely working on Emma Stone.  Mark Coulier has previously won this Oscar for  his work on The Grand Budapest Hotel and The Iron Lady and has other nominations for Pinocchio (19) and last year’s Elvis.

You can’t just look at Poor Things, you also have to listen to it.  Sound Designer Johnnie Burn,  who won the Sound Oscar this year for The Zone of Interest , also previously worked on The Favourite and The Lobster with director Lanthimos.  If you are going to create strange creatures and other objects, they will need to make their own unique sounds.  Burn wasn’t nominated for Sound in this movie, but perhaps should have been.

But what totally confounds the ears is the music.  Jerskin Fendrix wrote the score for Poor Things and received a nomination for his work.  This is not only his first nomination, but the first movie score he has ever written.  Fendrix is indeed young having released his first album (Winterreise) only in 2020.  Trained at Cambridge in piano and violin, his score relies on a lot of electronic music, new instrumentation, distortions of traditional music sources, organs, and mistuned instruments.  His score for this movie is perhaps one of the most bizarre you have ever heard – it goes perfectly with the film.

Poor Things received nominations, but not wins, in both of the critical movie skills, Cinematography and Film Editing. Both of the nominees also worked with Lanthimos and received earlier nominations for The Favourite. Cinematographer Robbie Ryan employs lots of interesting camera tricks in Poor Things to produce appropriately bizarre results.  He uses both black & white as well as various degrees of color saturation in the color portions and different lens types to deliver visually unnerving results consistent with Bella’s evolution.  Editor Yorgos Mavropsaridis has been working with Lanthimos since his early films and it is clear that the two of them share an understanding on how a movie should look and feel.

The technical attributes of a movie make a story visually and sonically appealing.  But the story is why you watch a movie and the telling of the story is in the hands of the actors, the writers, and the director.  Poor Things received nominations in all of those areas.

There are four main actors in this movie and although they all did great work, only two of them were nominated.  Ramy Youssef plays Max McCandles, a young medical student who is brought on by Bella’s “father” to initially assist in his work but with potential romantic interests later.  McCandles is delightfully naive but full of very good intentions.  I am not familiar with any of Youssef’s earlier work.

Bella’s “father”, Godwin Baxter, is played perfectly by the formidable Willem Dafoe.  Godwin is portrayed  as both Frankenstein and a “monster”.  But, ultimately he is just a mad scientist with a fondness in his heart for Bella, although he has strange ways of showing it.  Dafoe has had a strong acting career with four Oscar nominations – including supporting roles in Platoon, Shadow of the Vampire, and The Florida Project.  He earned a leading actor nomination for his Vincent Van Gogh in At Eternity’s Gate.  I did not like The Florida Project at all, although I don’t think it was his fault.  I did enjoy his performance as Van Gogh and I really liked his not-nominated performance in The Lighthouse.  In Poor Things we can always count on him to inject heavy doses of the unexpected and, as a surgeon who delights in reassembling human bodies, his scenes are the source of the most gruesome parts of the movie.

Mark Ruffalo was nominated for supporting actor for his role as Duncan Wedderburn, the “gentleman” who takes Bella into the world and begins her “education” into adulthood.  In part because of the very explicit sex scenes with Emma Stone, Ruffalo reportedly has said that this was not only the most fun he’s ever had making a movie, but also the most difficult role he has ever tried.  Reportedly he continuously lacked confidence in his work, although he becomes not only a  tragic figure in Poor Things, but also an extremely funny one.  Perhaps because of the deeply unhinged nature of the plot, his uncertain delivery is entirely appropriate.  Ruffalo was previously nominated for supporting actor in Spotlight, Foxcatcher, and The Kids Are All Right

Let’s face it, though, Poor Things is owned by Emma Stone as the main character, Bella Baxter.  I’ve been enfatuated with Emma Stone for a decade now, first with her Oscar-nominated supporting role in Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) and again in The Favourite.  And she showed she could sing and dance as well as act in her Oscar-winning leading lady performance in La La Land.  Stone has said that Bella Baxter is the most difficult part she’s ever played and that’s not really hard to imagine.  Bella is a baby’s mind awakened in a 25-year old sexually capable woman’s body.  Frankly, I am unaware of any other movie role remotely similar.  Bella has to learn to walk, talk, and, yes, make love, and does so in just a few months.  Stone moves her character through this evolution with remarkable credibility, intelligence, and humor.  She clearly earned the Leading Actress Oscar because of the extreme difficulty of the role and her nearly perfect execution.  Mark Ruffalo has said that he took a lot of motivation to do his part from Stone’s sense of humor and commitment to her work.  Stone is at the core of Poor Things’ success.

The screenplay for Poor Things had to be conceived while the author was on psychedelic drugs!  Besides the stunning visuals and sounds, and the superb performances, it is impossible to ignore the intriguing dialogue and the simply unheard of plot design.  Although the dialogue starts in almost a childlike manner – Bella, after all is initially a toddler – it proceeds to intellectual conversations involving the fine points of cynicism with poetry from Emerson, and a heavy dose of feminism.  Ostensibly a story of the kind of late 1800s London life where the well-heeled went off to see the world before settling down at their family business, Bella’s travels involve a fantastical Lisbon, heart wrenching Alexandria, and bawdy Paris before returning home.  And along the way Bella learns more and more about her own body and how sex, food, drink, and conversation can give her pleasure.  It is the kind of story that quickly changes in profound ways – if you have to stop this movie it is to give your mind a rest.  Screenwriter Tony McNamara deserved his Adapted Screenplay nomination and, quite possibly, should have won it.  He received an earlier nomination for The Favourite and also wrote another Stone vehicle, Cruella.  Clearly, McNamara knows how to write for Emma Stone. (Poor Things is adapted from the novel of the same name by Alastair Gray, a Scottish writer most prolific in the 1970s.  I haven’t read the original book but understand that this story is only “loosely” based on the novel and then only on some parts of it.)

As mentioned at the beginning of this section, this film is the product of Yorgos Lanthimos who assembled the team, worked the original idea, and directed this film – if Emma Stone owns the screen, Lanthimos is responsible for putting everything on it.  He received an Oscar nomination for his screenplay for The Lobster and another one for directing The Favourite.  Lanthimos seems to have a penchant for surreal environments and characters retaining childlike attributes.  Absurdity, odd behavior, tragic humor, and social awkwardness are all things he enjoys in his films.

Finally, it is no surprise, after receiving ten other nominations, including four major ones, that Poor Things was also nominated for Best Picture.  I have one more movie to see out of this year’s ten candidates, Oppenheimer, but I find it very difficult to believe that it is better than this one. 

Poor Things – Related Movies

The Favourite (Direction, Screenplay, Stone, Cinematography, Film Editing, Sound, Makeup&Hairstyling)

The Lobster (Direction, Film Editing,Sound)

Dogtooth (Direction,Film Editing)

La La Land, Birdman… (Stone)

Cruella (Screenplay, Stone, Makeup&Hairstyling)

Spotlight/Foxcatcher/The Kids Are All Right (Ruffalo)

At Eternity’s Gate/The Florida Project/The Lighthouse (Dafoe)

Marriage Story (Cinematography)

The Zone of Interest (Sound)

Bohemian Rhapsody/The Grand Budapest Hotel/Elvis/The Iron Lady (Makeup&Hairstyling)

A special note should be added regarding The Favourite, the Lanthimos movie that has the most direct connection to Poor Things, in people, story, content, and style.  Both films received a huge number of  Oscar nominations and both of them won Leading Actress (Olivia Colman in The Favourite).  In my review of The Favourite,  I wrote “this is a strange movie where the viewer is never quite certain what is going to happen next.”  That describes Poor Things equally well.  And in both films I loved the performances, “especially of Emma Stone.”  And I raved about the set and costumes as “fun to look at.”  But I could only muster 3 stars for The Favourite, largely because “I couldn’t identify a significant theme or message.” And I summarized it as “a gilded mess.”

It seems that Lanthimos, though, has learned and developed his thinking.  Poor Things may deal with similar themes of female sexuality and how men always seem to mess it up.  But that message was weak and undeveloped in The Favourite.  In Poor Things he has it mastered.  If you were at all intrigued with ideas touched on in The Favourite especially regarding women and sex, you will love Poor Things!

Poor Things – What Others Think

Critics were mixed on Poor Things with many of them raving about its high production values, Stone’s performance, and its exploration of the messiness of relationships.  Christy Lemire (RogerEbert)  noted that  this was Lanthimos’s “best yet”.  She raves “Everything here is wonderfully bizarre, from the performances and dialogue to the production and costume design.”  She closes with “A more apt description is: It’s the best movie of the year!”

Not all critics agreed with that sentiment, of course – critics are a diverse lot.  Manohla Dargis (New York Times)  wrote “Because Lanthimos isn’t interested in less obvious, blander human qualities like gentleness, the movie grows progressively monotonal, flat and dull.  Its design is rich, its idea thin.”  She concludes her review “you start to feel as if you were being bullied into admiring a movie that’s so deeply self-satisfied there really isn’t room for the two of you.”  Oh well – I’ve disagreed with Dargis before…

Audiences are even more difficult to pin down on Poor Things.  I use two different measures of audience movie ratings and they are widely divergent.  One scale placed this film third out of the 24 general interest movies, while the other dropped it all the way down to eighteenth!  Clearly, this film is controversial and I guess it isn’t hard to see why.

Poor Things – Special Mention

Sex – Yeah, obviously I can’t possibly discuss this topic adequately in a few paragraphs.  But I wanted to clarify a few notions that I think underly the essential message of Poor Things and also inform my opinions about this movie.

The importance of sex in human life is, I think, frequently underestimated for many reasons.  But it is impossible to ignore that our genes have this powerful drive to survive and so they have generated in us a furious and compelling need to engage in the acts of sexual procreation.  Those needs are fulfilled by making our bodies super receptive to sexual stimulation.  Let’s face it – sex feels good, in fact more than good – it has an addictive hold over our bodies.  We need sexual release.

But sex is both an incredible benefit of being human and also a prison that shadows and constrains almost everything we think and do.  The need for sexual release can easily become a motive for destructive acts that can damage the physical and psychological integrity of another person.  We end up doing a delicate dance to find and engage a sexual partner and the rhythms of that dance are often vague and sometimes volatile.  And yet, because of the power that sex has over us, we all must, in one way or another, find that path to gratification without violating the social norms that the “others” have constructed for us.

Male sexuality is, I think, fairly primitive in motive and consequence.  For men the sex acts are pretty much just a means to orgasmic bliss.  Duncan Wedderburn, in Poor Things, is the prime embodiment of that, both comic and tragic.  It is funny, perhaps, when Bella, after three rigorous acts of “furious jumping” wants to go again, but Duncan is exhausted and, actually, can’t!  Bella in her child-like innocence asks whether that is a flaw in the male physiology.  He can’t reply with anything except “perhaps”.  We men have been blessed with the gift of a seemingly unlimited sex drive but harnessed with limitations.

The sexuality of women, though, is a different story and is exactly what Poor Things tries to explore.  The device Lanthimos and McNamara use is the artificial idea of a rapidly maturing baby’s mind in a fully-sexually developed 25 year old woman’s body.  How indeed does a brain learn to harness both the incredible pleasures and the earth-shaking consequences of her sexuality?  And how do the men in her life change how she learns those things?  And what becomes of a woman who isn’t beholden to the confines of social convention?

It is exactly this notion that Lanthimos fleetingly explored in The Favourite, but has fully realized in Poor Things.  Sex is such an integral part of being human and yet it is something that we have a hard time understanding.  Poor Things does an outstanding job of bringing  sex front and center which is exactly where it belongs.

Poor Things – Michael’s Moments

Poor Things is the most interesting film experience I’ve had in a very long time.  The attention to visual detail is reflected in Oscar wins for Production Design, Costumes, and Makeup&Hairstyling.  The elaborate sets – in many cases only painted backdrops – are staggering in their attention to so many small things.  The costumes invoke a peculiar familiarity within a noticeable drift to absurdity.  The hairstyles and Godwin Baxter’s monstrous face are both repelling and delightfully humorous.  The sonic effects further the emotional swing between funny, tragedy, and the just plain bizarre.  And the soundtrack, with electronic noise oscillating in and out of pitch, purposely out-of-tune violins, and pulsating organ music deliver an emotional touch resonating perfectly with the visuals.  The experience rattles your mind with feelings somewhere between absurdly funny and downright horrifying. And it changes quickly.

But all of that sensory assault pales to the story itself.  Imagine, as best you can, how the mind of an infant would respond if placed in the body of a sexually ripe young woman?  That is the basic premise of Poor Things, a movie caught in a genre battle between drama, science fiction, comedy, and horror.  The movie blurs all those boundaries in a profoundly intriguing mash-up. Director Yorgos Lanthimos and his goto screenwriter, Tony McNamara have conspired to take you on a late 1800s European Grand Adventure of sorts.  At that time in history, it was common for well-off European children to see the world before they settled down to take over their family’s businesses.  So Bella (Emma Stone), a sort of “daughter” of Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe), our mad scientist, sets off with the cad Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo).  She wants to experience the world before she marries one Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef).  Duncan, of course, is charmed by Bella’s childlike innocence, and totally interested in devouring her perfect young body as often and in as many different positions as he can.  (Many of the themes of female sexuality were explored, with less success, by Lanthimos, McNamara, and Stone in their earlier The Favourite.)

But an infant mind has its own way of developing, and Bella grows up quickly, learning everything she can about her sexual capabilities and how they can be a source of both pleasure and power.  Duncan quickly discovers that Bella is no longer possessed by a child’s limitations and, ultimately, his own inability to control her.  The movie is wonderful exposition, and history, of the role of women since humanity was born, their millennia’s of sexual repression, and their recent awakening out of awkward oppression to positions of equality, if not dominance!

Emma Stone won the Leading actress Oscar for her performance as Bella and it is clear that she earned it.  If you even start to think of the difficulties of taking a character from infant understanding to fully cognizant adulthood in the matter of a few months you can appreciate that it was an incredibly difficult role to play.  Bella, in an adults body, has to learn to walk, talk, converse, and exchange ideas with other people.  She also learns what all the various parts of her body can do, including her genitals.  Early childhood fascination with self pleasure takes on a whole different meaning when the body is already fully developed.  

Poor Things is such a good film that I can’t keep finding enough superlatives to describe it. If you are willing, the movie will challenge your senses, your intellect, and your heart.  It is the most bizarre film I have ever seen.  It is also one of the best of this year, or any year!  (5*).

Poor Things
Receive a notification every time there is a new review or post.

Leave a Comment