From mainstream masters like Martin Scorsese and David Fincher to indie talents like Emerald Fennel and Ryûsuke Hamaguch, this year’s BFI London Film Festival played host to some of the world’s premier filmmakers.
And while there was plenty to look forward to, Yorgos Lanthimos’ Poor Things was undoubtedly on everyone’s must-watch lists after winning the prestigious Golden Lion in Venice in September.
Equal parts bawdy and bizarre, this adaptation of Alasdair Gray’s award-winning novel triumphs where many avante-garde films fail. It shakes together a cocktail of impressive experimental elements (the cinematography and set design are particularly mesmerising) while managing to remain wildly fun from start to finish.
In the first half an hour or so, Lanthimos introduces us to his cast of characters through a black-and-white lens. We meet Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe), a disfigured scientist who shares the defining traits of both Doctor Frankenstein and his monster; Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef), Baxter’s eager assistant; and Bella Baxter (Emma Stone), a peculiar, childlike woman entrusted to Godwin’s care.
While adults not acting their age is one of the more entertaining tropes of Lanthimos’ films, Bella’s behaviour is exceptionally childlike. In fact, we soon find out that she isn’t simply the victim of an unfortunate brain injury, as Baxter first tells us, but a product of his unconventional experiments – and that she actually does possess the mind of a child.
This makes things all the more uncomfortable when Godwin proposes that McCandles marry her, and he readily accepts. But things take a turn when Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo) – the buffoonish lawyer charged with drawing up the marriage contracts – whisks her off on a trip across Europe.
It’s at this point that Lanthimos turns the dial up to 1000. For starters, the greyscale filter is done away with, revealing the exquisite steampunk set design in its full glory. It’s a strange and surreal version of the 19th century, where the iconic trams of Lisbon rattle overhead instead of along the roads.
However, the Victorian social conventions remain intact in this counter-reality. And some of the film’s funniest moments involve Bella – with her social naivety and burgeoning sexuality – bumping up against ‘polite society’. Wedderburn does all he can (which is not much at all) to prevent her from spitting her food out in restaurants and punching babies.
While the absurd world of Poor Things takes a minute to get used to – and its uneasy aesthetic won’t be for everyone – it’s Stone’s performance that grounds the whole piece. Her sincere commitment to the role helps us buy into the ludicrous reality, and her natural charm leaves you with no choice but to root for her peculiar protagonist.
Ruffalo’s portrayal of the preposterous man-child is another highlight, setting off the audience of my showing in a chorus of cackles with every pompous swish of his head. But Wedderburn isn’t simply foolish fodder for laughs. Although a nincompoop, like all the men in the film, he tries desperately to possess Bella, and it’s gratifying to watch his infatuation push him to ruin.
Ultimately, that’s what this freakish coming-of-age story is about: Bella navigating the various male archetypes that wish to control her – some misguided, others genuinely evil. As one character tells us, it’s the tale of “a woman plotting her course to freedom”.
But, as Bella amasses knowledge and experiences, the men’s hold over her becomes more slippery. Poor Things is an outlandish tribute to the enduring power of a free spirit when faced with oppressive forces and a celebration of life. It’s a delectable buffet that provides a feast for the eyes, as well as nourishment for the soul.
All the while, the script balances these themes with a delightful barrage of lewd humour in a way that doesn’t diminish their seriousness. It’s about as perfect a mix of genital jokes and social commentary as you’re ever going to get.
Poor Things will be released in cinemas on January 12th 2024 in the UK and Ireland
Are you planning on watching Poor Things? If so, let us know what you think in the comments below.