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Venice 2023 review: 'Poor Things' - Yorgos Lanthimos' new film is already one of 2023's very best

Poor Things
Poor Things Copyright Venice Film Festival
Copyright Venice Film Festival
By David Mouriquand
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Awards are coming - you can be sure of that...

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After wowing Venice in 2018 with The Favourite, leading Greek Weird Wave exponent Yorgos Lanthimos reteams with screenwriter Tony McNamara and Emma Stone to adapt Alasdair Gray’s 1992 cult novel... The results make Poor Things not only the strongest film of the Venice Film Festival so far, but also one of this year’s very best.

When eccentric and grotesquely scarred scientist Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe) takes his student Max McCandles (Rami Yousef) aside after class one day, he asks the fresh-faced apprentice if he’s interested in a secret project of his. 

Little does he know quite how unorthodox Baxter’s methods have become...

The confidential experiment in question is Bella (Emma Stone), Dr. Baxter’s creation. She is a young woman brought back to life after a mysterious suicide attempt, a blank slate unmoored by social niceties or the prejudices of her times. The specificities of her inner condition shall not be spoiled here, but safe to say that Bella’s body and mind are not yet synchronized. She is learning, and Baxter needs some assistance. 

Confined to their house, she throws tantrums, develops language and motor skills, and explores her increasingly insatiable sexual yearnings.

“She grabbed my hairy business!” exclaims housekeeper Mrs. Prim (Vicki Pepperdine).

Indeed she did, and with the unveiled joys of masturbation come an increasing curiosity for all things human... And all that needs a little push, which comes in the form of Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo), a rakish moustachioed solicitor who recognizes Bella’s expanding hunger for the outside world. He wastes no time in whisking her away to Lisbon, Alexandria and Paris – with the begrudging avail of the father figure she calls ‘God’, who realises he cannot keep Bella cooped up any longer.

What starts as an erotic escapade – filled with “furious jumping” – sees Bella grow progressively aware of the injustices and politics of the world, as well as what society expects of womanhood. She is awakened - and not just sexually. But considering that agency (sexual or otherwise) are threatening to the jealous and gatekeeping patriarchy, the hedonistic adventure “full of sugar and violence” for some soon morphs into a “diabolical fuckfest of a puzzle” for others...

Poor Things is so damn good, it’s hard to know where to start the praise.

Set sometime around 1900 in a steampunk-meets-Disneyland world, absurdist maestro Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster, The Favourite) truly makes the source material his own. It’s a deliriously brilliant cross between Mary Shelley’s 'Frankenstein' and Georges Franju’s Eyes Without A Face – with a few noticeable callbacks to 'Alice in Wonderland' – one which uses the language of Gothic conventions to talk about the role of men and women in society, as well as address the question: Can people be improved?

Every set, prop, costume, and cuter versions of The Island of Dr. Moreau’s hybrid creatures are something to behold in this brilliantly nuts voyage of self-discovery. Production designers Shona Heath and James Price, as well as costume designer Holly Waddington deserve massive plaudits. So does Director of Photography Robbie Ryan, who frames the world (both in black-and-white and garish colours) with frequent fish-eye lens - a device he utilised in The Favourite and here reflects the detached yet wonder-filled POV of Bella and her continuing questioning of herself and the universe that surrounds her.

Stone is arguably the best she’s ever been here. Her hilarious and wonderfully weird “pretty little retard”, as McCandles refers to her when he first meets her, is a performance for the ages. Whether its her facial expressions, subtly evolving voice timbre, dancing, or line delivery of gems like “let’s touch each other’s genital pieces”, she truly embodies the “changeable feast” that is Bella. If there’s any justice, her efforts will be rewarded come the end of the festival, as well as awards season next year.

Her note-perfect performance of a woman refusing to conform also buttresses the richness of the material. There are pages and pages to be written about how Bella and her growing agency symbolizes (and ultimately upends) all the typical tropes that female protagonists are traditionally assigned, moving from ingenue to whore to enlightened being, as well as – by design – both mother and daughter.

It's a truly fascinating aspect of Poor Things, and one which will only develop with rewatches. Very eagerly awaited rewatches.

Stone’s career-best turn is matched by Ruffalo, who is having a great time here as the slimy bachelor who progressively loses his clasp on the whole situation. Both are blessed with Lanthimos’ mastery of tone and Tony McNamara’s screenplay, as there’s absolutely no shortage of laugh-out-loud lines and immensely quotable zingers throughout Poor Things. McNamara’s mordantly funny script ups the whimsy and weird factor on show; it’s one of his best yet, and provoked rapturous laughter and applause from the audience.

Thematically layered, raunchy, marvellously executed and above all fun, Poor Things is a triumph.

As Dr. Baxter says: “It’s all very interesting what is happening.”

That's putting mildly, Doctor. And thank you for the diabolical fuckfest.

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Poor Things premiered in Competition at the Venice Film Festival and hits cinemas in December.

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