Thursday, July 18, 2024

“Poor Things” is an engrossing crossing of genres from Yorgos Lanthimos, curator of things off-kilter and unsettling – as evidenced by such engrossing, psychologically dark works as “The Lobster” (2015), “Dogtooth” (2009) and “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” (2017). The film, based on Alasdair Gray’s 1992 novel that borrows heavily from Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” isn’t so much about reanimation as it is about reawakening. In this case, the subject is Bella (Emma Stone, who was Oscar-nominated for her last collaboration with Lanthimos playing a lady-in-waiting in a love triangle with Queen Anne in “The Favourite”). Her mind has not caught up to her body, as we hear her creator, Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe), remark to his affable Igor, a soulfully dark-eyed apprentice named Max (Ramy Youssef). 

The time, as you can imagine, is Victorian London, which is rendered with more of a fantastical Disney theme-park vibe than Merchant-Ivory authenticity. Bella, as we first meet her, has a childlike brutishness. She delights at the giant bubbles emitted at the dinner table by Godwin – who in primal grunts she refers to as god (nothing heavy-handed there, though it is true that Shelley’s father was the philosopher William Godwin) – as the result of some deviant, Cronenbergian dialysis machine. Later, she punches Max in the nose with a gleeful smile and rapid “look at what I did” handclaps. In a quick flash through the receiving room door, a duck-headed dog scoots by; there are other cross-phylum curios roaming the homestead too, a harmless, friendly homemade menagerie. The special effects are well done. Godwin himself is hard to take your eyes off of, or perhaps too hard to linger on, as his face is panels of stitched flesh that look almost like you could peel them off and rearrange them. 

For a while it’s a cozy, happy existence. The scientists poke at cadavers while Bella, mimicking them, hones her skills for a future at the local abattoir. As her mind becomes more adult, Godwin betroths her to Max, and the need for legal documentation brings a lecherous attorney into the mix. Mark Ruffalo’s Duncan Wedderburn might not be Snidely Whiplash, but he’s not far off, and he absconds with her for a hedonistic traipse across Europe. Sex is a vigorous and rewarding wonderment to Bella, an act she refers to as “furious jumping”  through which she proves to be quite the vessel of female empowerment and independence, disappointed nearly to the point of scolding Duncan when he can’t go another round and unabashed about receiving another man’s attentions and more. “Poor Things” could be taken as “Fear of Flying” before there were airplanes. What began as an uneasy predatory play by Duncan gets inverted and twisted as Bella’s backstory comes to light in slow strokes.

For the fabric of such a phantasmagoric yarn Lanthimos has stitched together a dark fairytale coverlet evocative of Tim Burton with the Kafka-esque surreality of “The Lobster” or “Dogtooth.” In Portugal, zeppelinlike sky trams float overhead, barely tethered to wispy wired tracks; later, on a cruise, waves crest in pastel rolls of opulence; a Parisian brothel Bella takes up employment in is endowed with a seemingly endless maze of antechambers – secret doors behind secret doors. 

“Poor Things” marks a stunning visual achievement that one-ups itself continually. But if not for the heroic, all-in effort by the cast, Lanthimos’ toil might have been for naught. Youssef and Dafoe make subtle yet critical contributions as cuck and creator; Ruffalo owns his part with amiable smarm and a faint vestige of vulnerability Not enough can be said about Stone and her evolution from grunting child inserted into an adult’s body to stirred woman with no regard for the patriarchy who is, as a result, free to skirt its curtails and checks. The lens on men behaving badly – and well – is intriguing, especially when the action comes home to roost and proves that Duncan isn’t the worst card in the deck. The ending may be a bit too neat, but the sojourn of Bella’s awakening is full of surprise. 

Cambridge writer Tom Meek’s reviews, essays, short stories and articles have appeared in WBUR’s The ARTery, The Boston Phoenix, The Boston Globe, The Rumpus, The Charleston City Paper and SLAB literary journal. Tom is also a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics and rides his bike everywhere.