Review: ‘Poor Things’ and Telluride Prove That Cinema Is Here To Stay
Yorgos Lanthimos’s latest achievement was a jaw-dropper at Saturday’s Telluride screenings.
Telluride at Dartmouth just wrapped up on Thursday after premiering six new films. The festival opened on Sept. 14 with a showing of Matthew Heineman’s latest documentary “American Symphony.” In the following days, the festival featured Alexander Payne’s New England dramedy “The Holdovers,”the Mads Mikkelsen-led epic “The Promised Land,” the Finnish comedy “Fallen Leaves,” 2023 Palme d’Or winner “Anatomy of a Fall” and — in my opinion — the most riveting film of the lot, Yorgos Lanthimos’s “Poor Things.”
“Poor Things,” based on a 1992 novel by Alasdair Gray, follows the journey of Bella Baxter (Emma Stone), a young woman brought back to life by experimental scientist Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe), akin to Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein.” Bella exhibits clear signs of limited cognitive ability following her resurrection, but she learns more and more about the world’s pleasures and cruelties as she wanes away from her creator’s supervision. Bella decides to go out on her own, traveling 19th-century Europe with a debased lawyer, Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo), exploring her sexuality and existence as a human being along the way.
Lanthimos’s newest creation, with its grotesque imagery and rather blunt dialogue, is not for the light of heart, but it is my new movie of the year. “Poor Things” lit up Loew Auditorium with an equal amount of gasps, laughs and screeches from the sold-out crowd last Saturday. However, I cannot talk more about the film without talking about the man who helmed its production. Lanthimos is a Greek filmmaker whose absurdist style and unnerving worlds have centered largely on the peculiarities of human relationships and societal norms.
Having seen the majority of his filmography prior to “Poor Things,” I knew to expect a wild ride. “Dogtooth” (2009), “The Lobster” (2015), “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” (2017) and “The Favourite” (2018) all showcased Lanthimos’s immeasurable talent, but more importantly, his dedication to a deeply absurd vision. Lanthimos is a fearless filmmaker, managing to put his camera in situations where we feel extremely unwelcome. For example, when Bella works as a prostitute, we are subject to scenes where she experiments with many different types of partners, some erring on the side of discomfort for both her and the audience.
His unique ability to extract the things we despise most about ourselves as humans and display them on the big screen separates Lanthimos from other directors and “Poor Things” from other films. The film removes the restrictions we have as humans and strips each character down to bare bones. Bella herself is treated as a primal animal; mentally an infant in a woman’s body, she, much like Frankenstein’s monster, experiences the world with a clean slate. Lanthimos wants us to imagine how it would be to rip society of all its norms, all its etiquettes and just live as animals. Through Bella’s journey, we get a glimpse of such a life.
As you can imagine, however, not everything is smooth sailing. Through a variety of peculiar sexual experiences, an introduction to money’s power through Wedderburn’s gambling, the experience of seeing poverty firsthand in Alexandria and some somber interactions with music and food, Bella learns that life in the real world is more than just fun and games. There is a tragedy to our existence.
Although it may be surprising, where Lanthimos excels is finding laugh-out-loud humor in this intense story. The blatant dark comedy is executed in a way that doesn’t detract from the film’s soulful interior but aids it. The acting and writing come together to assist this. Whether it’s Stone’s blunt chides on femininity and toxic masculinity, Dafoe’s dinner table burps or Ruffalo’s overtly hilarious desperation and eventual disgust for Bella, the cast is full of comedians at the top of their game.
Enlisting comedians Ramy Youssef and Jerrod Carmichael as part of the cast is another clear sign from Lanthimos that this film is meant to be funny, and the choice forces the viewer to bask in the utter comedy of our own existence. Not only are Bella’s experiences humorous, but they can be interpreted as joyful in a sense as well. There is a real beauty in taking life as it is — dancing in a ship ballroom, enjoying delicious pastries, having great sex, making meaningful relationships and finding true love. Lanthimos’s tale has its tragic moments, but deep down it is also an appreciation for our shared experiences as human beings.
“Poor Things” at its core is a feminist narrative, led by Stone, who gives a fantastic performance. Bella’s transformation echoes that of many modern film heroes. As Bella learns more about the unfair world she lives in, she grows more confident and learns to live on her own terms; not on Wedderburn’s, not on her former husband’s and not even on her creator’s. By the end, she has come out of the circle of birth and death into a state of supreme being, in control of her destiny with the life she so desired all along. The true meaning of this film lies in Bella’s newfound autonomy from the men who have controlled her life since her creation.
Stone’s free-spirited aura and unfettered style of expression fall right in line with who Bella is and what she represents. Underneath the inflated use of score, sex and other-worldly mise-en-scène lies a brilliant, tender and mature performance by Stone that carries this film to its genuinely comedic and satisfying finale.
“Poor Things” is a film that must be seen on the big screen, and the Hopkins Center and Telluride have allowed many of us to experience and enjoy that feeling. With “Poor Things,” Lanthimos may have given art films the push they need to once again touch the public’s hearts and rejuvenate the spirit of connection that films provide us all.