Bombast and Thoughtlessness in ‘Poor Things’

Yorgos Lanthimos and Emma Stone's newest film is bright and ambitious, but ultimately feels shallow

The following review contains spoilers.

Things can get complicated when one of your favorite independent voices in film breaks into the big leagues. Yorgos Lanthimos has been steadily gaining steam with each project, crafting increasingly bigger, more fantastical films as he rises in status from prince of the Greek Weird Wave to pseudo-indie Hollywood darling. Rightfully, he has been fully enjoying and utilizing the mass of resources that comes with such an ascension. Granted, my closest loyalties lie back in 2009 with Dogtooth, but it has still brought me great joy to see Lanthimos find platforms on which to explore bigger ideas and more extravagant aesthetics. The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017) is by far my favorite of Lanthimos’ English-language films (I still get chills when I think of the question posed by Nicole Kidman to Colin Farrell, “General anesthetic?”), and The Favourite (2018) is certainly a great film. The Favourite was also, however, the first Lanthimos feature film since 2005 not written by Lanthimos himself or in collaboration with his longtime co-writer Efthymis Pilippou. The Favorite’s screenplay was instead written by Tony Macnamara and Deborah Davis; Macnamara went on to write the screenplay for 2021’s Cruella, and, most recently, Poor Things (2023).

When Lanthimos and Pilippou left the writers’ room, some of the team’s most interesting eccentricities went with them. Most prominent of these losses was the surreal, deadpan dialogue that had transformed living, breathing, flesh-and-blood actors into delightfully benign plastic dolls, rigid and unchanging on the outside with seas of emotion and vitriol raging just beneath the surface. Gone too was Lanthimos’s sly habit of mixing the subversive with the mundane, his uncanny ability to, for example, conjure a palpable and unbearable sense of dread from an otherwise innocent teenage rendition of Burn by pop singer Ellie Goulding. Lanthimos’s off kilter realities were often permeated by an insidiousness that was hard to pin down, placing the viewer in a funhouse of mirrors, or else the murky depths of the uncanny valley.

Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2023 Searchlight Pictures All Rights Reserved.

While The Favourite is a good film by any standard, it was a marked departure from Lanthimos’s previous work in the surreal towards a more palatable conventionality, and produced in me a sense of mourning for a rare and singular film personality. There was less of the director of Alps (2011) who wasn’t afraid of risk and transgression. The dialogue that could once be compared to a synthetic, lobotomized Naomi Watts a la Mulholland Drive (2001) was replaced by witty quips and sharp exchanges that seemed – to my disappointment – perfectly natural. Greek villas-turned-psychological prisons and modern-day pagan curses were replaced by comfortably familiar royal palaces and comparatively tame romantic trysts. The crown prince weirdo of surrealism, it looked to me, was embarking on a career as a more agreeable, less artistically challenging, crowd-pleaser. 

All that being said, there’s nothing wrong with crowd pleasing, artists change and grow, and their art would turn stale if they didn’t. I loved The Favourite despite my very subjective misgivings, I love Yorgos Lanthimos, and I was ready to love Poor Things. But I couldn’t escape the insistent feeling that this next step toward conventionality would be the step too far. I feared this new film’s universally enthusiastic critical response, and its conspicuous global release just in time for Oscar season, foretold a big, beautiful, but ultimately compromised project, fearful of divisiveness. 

Poor Things is, to be sure, Lanthimos’s biggest, busiest, most expensive-looking film yet. It is nearly two and a half hours in length, the narrative traverses the whole of Europe, it is visually maximalist and stylistically extravagant. The camera pulls, zooms, and sweeps across scenes with flashy virtuosity, creating a kinetic energy that at times helps the long run-time feel shorter, but at other times feels exhausting and superfluous. Fish-eye lenses and juxtapositions of color and black-and-white are also found in the bag of visual tricks. All of the leading cast members are spectacular, with Mark Ruffalo embracing his comic sleaze and Emma Stone giving a truly marvelous performance that will surely define and legitimize her career as a serious artist. Certain supporting roles shine as well. Of particular note is Kathryn Hunter as the tattooed and eccentric Parisian madame, a role she embodies with a misty otherworldliness.

Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2023 Searchlight Pictures All Rights Reserved.

Poor Things is indeed a further departure from the older Lanthimos styles of eerie surrealism and sustained unease. The energy is explosive, very little is held back. While it is certainly a pleasure to see Lanthimos at his most ecstatic, there is a lot that gets misplaced in the frenzy. There is no shortage of exquisite arrangement in the mise en scène, but the unrestrained camera flourishes lose some of their impact in their overuse. The meticulous scene orchestration is sadly not enough to produce any exceptionally memorable shots or takes to speak of, save for perhaps a model cruise ship set against a fittingly gaudy sky. The lack of definition in Poor Things’ camerawork stands in stark contrast to, for example, the shocking and powerful overhead shot of a hospital elevator in The Killing of a Sacred Deer, or the magnificent low-angle tracking shots of Olivia Coleman in The Favourite. Macnamara’s script has its high points of humor and wit, and while I won’t try to compare it to the robotic strangeness of Lanthimos’s earlier writing styles, it is still somewhat less clever, less remarkable, than Macnamara’s work on The Favourite. Some might fault me for the unrelenting comparisons, and Poor Things may indeed be more sensuously exciting than most films in theaters today, but in the midst of all the goings-on of Poor Things there is an unshakable sense that some former greatness has been lost in the hubbub. 

I’m sad to say it only gets worse from there. Comparisons to former glories aside, Poor Things feels empty even on its own terms. There is always something to look at or listen to in Poor Things, but all that flash and excess seem to be nothing more than distractions from a story which, once given a second thought, is thin, mildly frustrating, and scared of committing to any of its half-baked ideas. Poor Things postures to have a lot of things to say, but following anything that looks like a path to symbolism or subtext invariably leads to a dead end. There are some more overt indications of a feminist ethos, but the film’s particular brand of feminism is tame and well intentioned at best, but antiquated and reductive at worst. 

Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2023 Searchlight Pictures All Rights Reserved.

If Poor Things is a film about women’s liberation like so many critics have claimed, the path to liberty starts with Bella’s first orgasm, graciously given to her by the Don Juan dandy Duncan Wedderburn, played to great effect by Mark Ruffalo. After running off with Duncan to explore the world before subjecting herself to a life of scientific study and conservatorship, her sexual awakening continues in a Lisbon where fado and pastel de natas abound. Bella is presented in provocative, porn-ready positions during a sex marathon that fails to resemble the clumsy, amateur, often uncomfortable reality of sexual exploration. Bella moves from one male mentor/caretaker to another until she and Duncan arrive in Paris after being thrown off their cruise ship for lack of funds. Bella asserts her independence from Duncan by finding employment at a brothel. These next points are surely more contentious than the rest, but it is my impression that the bordello scenes conflate sex positivity with sex work. Sex positivity and sex work are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but on an institutional level, support for sex workers is often wrongfully equated with support for the inherently exploitative industry of sex work. I’m no prude, but the implications here seem more than a little problematic. Bella, joyfully promiscuous from the start, may have found sexual and financial freedom from Duncan in the brothel, but the move is hardly one towards liberation. She is now obligated to have sex with men she doesn’t want to, when she doesn’t want to. The film does indeed address this dilemma, but only briefly and without much thought. Bella’s solution to being coerced (her wage, room, and board are on the line) into sex is simply to make a bit of small talk – share a childhood memory, tell a joke – before the transaction. The lesson here is to just make the best of it: you can make a pleasant situation out of being financially forced to have sex just by changing your attitude and having a bit of humanizing fun with the clients. Bella does this, and afterwards doesn’t give a second thought to the oppressive conditions of her new profession. This line of thought, that not wanting to have sex is an attitude problem, is suspect to say the least. Surely a two and a half hour epic about one woman’s liberation could find the time to articulate a more thoughtful outlook on coercive sex and labor. Surely those socialist meetings she attends would have lent her some more pertinent insights on the nature of sex work, were they more than just barely alluded to.

Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2023 Searchlight Pictures All Rights Reserved.

The same carelessness is present in Bella’s other educations and epiphanies. Bella gets a glimpse of poverty while in Alexandria and receives lazy explanations for it from one of her numerous mentors, this one a misanthropic, sophomoric philosopher. She attempts to almost literally throw money at the problem, and the plight of the impoverished quickly leaves her mind. Later on, after supposedly learning so much about the world and the men in particular who inhabit it (most of her educations seem to revolve around her relationship to men), she makes the puzzling decision to settle down with the man who wished to marry her when she had the body of a woman and the mind of a child. Bella’s speech steadily improves throughout the film in step with her apparent enlightenment, but one is left wondering what difference all those fancy words and emancipatory experiences have made if she still ends up in the life of domesticity decided for her by her father in the beginning of the film. I don’t mean to demand that every film must double as a comprehensive political manifesto, but it speaks to a fundamental weakness when a movie so grand in scale has put such little thought behind its core ideas. 

I can’t speak for the Alaisdar Gray novel of the same name, but Poor Things the movie is a jack of all trades and a master of none. Its ambition is spread thin across its dazzling set pieces, various ideas and notions are touched on but never delved into. Emma Stone and Co.’s masterful performances alone are worth the ticket price, and it is only through Stone’s dedication to the role that an emancipated woman can possibly be believed to emerge at the end of the journey. Despite its ambitious premise, the film’s liberatory thesis, if you can call it that, feels half-baked and outmoded. Poor Things is an enjoyable experience thanks to the sights and sounds, and the sheer delight that permeates the performances of Emma Stone, Mark Ruffalo, Willem Dafoe, and Ramy Youssef, but the train stops at enjoyment. Value and substance beyond that, unfortunately, is in short supply.

On Key

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