Poor Things Emma Stone Mark Ruffalo Yorgos Lanthimos review

Yorgos Lanthimos’s new film Poor Things is a masterful playground of wonderment and pain

4.5 out of 5 stars

Adapted from a novel by Alasdair Gray and set in a phantasmagorical alternate universe, Poor Things is the latest film from Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos.

Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe) has brought to life a young woman, Bella (Emma Stone) — a newborn mind in a beautiful body. Bella stumbles through the world with the ambling heavy-footedness of a toddler learning to walk. 

Willem Dafoe in Poor Things. Photo by Atsushi Nishijima

Locked in a menagerie with Godwin’s other creations, Bella learns to “be” within the safe confines of his towering London home, which spirals upwards towards the clouds. No ordinary creation, though, like a “Dolly Surprise” toy, Bella doesn’t age like other people, her hair becoming a flowing black cape that begins past her shoulders as the film opens and trails on the ground by the film’s end. 

When men meet the doll-like Baxter, they are charmed by her. She’s a beautiful woman, to be sure. Emma Stone’s wide eyes and slightly crooked smile echo the uninhibited emotions of a young child. She’s always trying to figure out how many teeth she should be showing but is also unburdened by the self-awareness to care very much. Her beauty moves them to be sure, but more by her naivety. Inspired by her beauty and curiosity, Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo) kidnaps a willing Bella from her prison and takes her to Lisbon, and then the world. 

Ramy Youssef and Emma Stone in Poor Things. Photo by Yorgos Lanthimos

Yorgos Lanthimos, best known for The Favourite and The Lobster, has gained critical appraisals for his films’ leftward strangeness. He favours a stiff, monotone performance style that gives way to brief spurts of hysteria. Even his Greek works, before he entered the English language market, were heavily influenced by the movements and behaviours of the animal world. The actors’ faces edge towards blankness, inscrutable unemotiveness. Their bodies are limp until called into action; it’s not unusual that they bark, hack or squeal. They contort their body into four-legged shapes and movements, and their interactions with the “real world” are frayed and atypical. They’re not just outsiders in the sense they don’t belong. They are often isolated and ignorant of how the world works. 

Lanthimos’s films are shot in a way that echoes this otherness. Starting with The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Lanthimos began to embrace a more wide-angle lens. The effect was almost mythic, as characters shrunk in urban environments that suddenly took on awe-inspiring tones, an ironic touch given the film’s impersonal, sterile environments. He took it even further in The Favourite, working with cinematographer Robbie Ryan, by using a fish-eyed lens, which he also uses in Poor Things. For The Favourite, part of the inspiration for this style was drawn from the works of pre-Raphaelite painters, like Jan van Eyck, who incorporated convex mirrors into their work. This style continued in Poor Things, with a new, more fantastical impact. 

Cult MTL December 2023 Poor Things Emma Stone
Poor Things on the cover Cult MTL’s December issue

Writing for Hyperallergic, Olivia McEwan discusses a Tate exhibit on “Reflections” inspired by the works of van Eyck. In it, she explores how the introduction of convex mirrors were used to reject naturalism but also communicate “via complex symbolism as opposed to an explicit narrative.” The piece similarly alludes to writing by Alison Smith, who suggests that a mirror in The Awakening Conscience (1853) — painted by William Holman Hunt, depicting a woman pulling herself away from her lover’s lap — references an attack on the mores of Victorian-era sexuality. The woman, likely the man’s mistress and a kept woman, sees the world through the window (which we see through the mirror behind her), drawing her into a more profound sense of consciousness. She is awake, and even if she looks back, the mirror guarantees she can only look outward from now on. Like Pandora’s Box, what has been unlocked can never be put back. 

While it’s unclear if this specific painting was a direct inspiration, we see a similar rise in consciousness with Bella throughout the film. Her naivety gives way to experience and knowledge of the world. In Lisbon, she wanders the streets bathed in golden light, designed like an exterior playhouse, drawn in by the sound of a singer. Pulled into an alley, she hears a woman singing fado music — a traditional Portuguese song with melancholic undertones. My sister-in-law, who sings fado professionally, recently explained that it is not background music; it’s music you must stop and witness. As Bella does this in the film, wide-mouthed, one senses a shift in her world. She’s already discovered “furious jumping” (her word for sex), but now, Bella is ready to dive not only into her inner world but the experiences and realities of those around her. 

Bella’s experience of sex throughout the film remains refreshing and eye-opening, disconnected from any morality. For her, it is first about pleasure and later about survival and, most importantly, about intimate connection. As she similarly learns about philosophy and inequality, her views on sexuality remain open. The film refreshingly treats the expansion of Bella’s erotic imagination as integral to her personal development and autonomy. Eroticism becomes a critical lens through which Bella can see the world. Pleasure becomes a liberating force against taboo for her, helping shape her into a strong, reflective and independent person.

Yorgos Lanthimos’s filmmaking has never favoured the fantastic more than it does here. The world shifts from black and white to colour. The environments are rich in textures, and even man-made worlds twist with the unpredictable curvature of the organic. When the movie embraces colour, it is explosive, like a bright morning after a long, dark night. The quality of light is astonishing, brilliant but textured, and, as seen through an ultra-wide lens, expansive in a way that suggests that the material world is not just what we can see but what we experience. Few films in recent years have succeeded to this degree in capturing the infinite possibilities of imagination and curiosity to shape a better world. 

Kathryn Hunter and Emma Stone in Poor Things. Photo by Yorgos Lanthimos

Yet, as can be expected, Lanthimos doesn’t shy away from violence or brutality. Not all is right in the world of Poor Things. As Bella learns more about the world, she also learns of its cruelty and inequality. She also learns of her past life in the film’s sobering and horrific finale, which casts a strange hue on the rest of the film. Far more profound than a “nature versus nurture” narrative, the film suggests violence innate to a world of privilege that might ultimately be unforgivable. The film presents in broad strokes an upperclass society that sees those below as less than animals. Lanthimos has been accused of being nihilistic, but he manages to counterbalance it through Bella’s ability to witness the wonderment of life and humanity and her ability to be awakened to its violence and endure.

Most importantly, Poor Things maintains consistent playfulness and a light comedic touch. Stone and Ruffalo, in particular, are astonishingly gifted comedic talents who lean into the fickleness of passion and desire as a means of expressing one of life’s greatest pleasures and burdens: the burgeoning anxiety of romance as the backbone of so much human (in)action. It’s a film that never allows its characters to forget the violence of birth while also finding the poetic beauty that underlines the cruelty of our existence. ■

Poor Things opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, Dec. 15.

This article was originally published in the December 2023 issue of Cult MTL. 

For our latest in film and TV, please visit the Film & TV section.