In a year of cinema characterized by ironic juxtapositions—“Barbenheimer” and, to a less ubiquitous but arguably more memeable degree, “Saw Patrol”—it is no wonder that a film which is both comedy and drama, inspires both fear and nostalgia, and is both serious and tongue-in-cheek, feels undeniably current. Commercially, the two defining movies of 2023 were Barbie, which challenged conventional gender roles by reappropriating a pop culture icon as a deconstructor of social norms, and Oppenheimer, a portrait of a controversial figure grappling with the human consequences of scientific achievement. Thematically, Yorgos Lanthimos’s Poor Things (2023), a surrealist bildungsroman of a woman wrestling with her existence in a society dictated by sharp moral judgments and sexual politics, blends the best aspects of these two films together to create something truly spectacular.
Based on Alasdair Gray’s 1992 novel, Poor Things is a twist on the trope of a childlike narrator questioning the social conventions they encounter. Bella Baxter (Emma Stone) has the mind of an infant, but the body of a grown woman. Echoing works like Frankenstein (1818) and Emile (1762), the story documents the intellectual development of its protagonist through heuristic edification. As much as the film is a character study of Bella, it is also a rough sketch of post-Enlightenment Western philosophical thought: from the Scientific Revolution’s rationalism, to the emotional liberation of Romanticism, transcendentalism, Marxism, and, finally, the Absurdist acceptance of the flawed yet fulfilling lives we lead.
Rich with existential themes, the movie’s fantastical visuals contrast its serious moral propositions. Its avant-garde style winks at the audience to take everything with a grain of salt, yet the film remains substantive (if only to Lanthimos devotees and first year philosophy students) because its aesthetic reinforces Bella’s wanderlust. Temporally, the narrative is ambiguous: the characters inhabit the ideological setting of the late 19th century, interact with steampunk-esque technology, and dress in clothes that could comprise a contemporary Simone Rocha collection.
The film flaunts visual metaphors and referential humor. Bella’s creator, Godwin “God” Baxter (Willem Dafoe), is named for William Godwin, Mary Shelley’s father; A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) gets a particularly on-the-nose reference; and Nietzsche disciples are sure to get a kick out of the ending. As the setting shifts from the confinements of God’s house to the world’s cosmic periphery to a soundstage elaborately decorated to look like a 19th century Parisian street, Poor Things cheekily acknowledges the daguerreotypes and surrealist artwork from which it took inspiration.
Holly Waddington’s costume design is one of the most exceptional aspects of the film. Subverting traditional Victorian silhouettes with mesmerizing fabric textures, she pays fastidious attention to the practicality of the garments and their symbolic significance at various stages of Bella’s development. In the opening shots, a woman dressed in a blue gown with voluminous, armor-like sleeves made from layers of stiff satin jumps off a bridge. When the film’s heavily gendered themes begin to unravel, the connotation of clothing as armor becomes a symbol of kept womanhood. Bella’s wedding dress, a translucent, white a-line gown with enormous tubed sleeves, is another stand-out. According to Waddington, this piece represents Bella’s entrapment while also highlighting her figure—visually communicating the dichotomy between her brain and body which underscores the entire film. She looks like a woman, but moves with the unfamiliar awkwardness of a child. As she exponentially progresses from childhood to adulthood, we are meant to struggle with the discomfort and familiarity of this unconventional coming of age.
Whether you believe her to be a woman, a child, or something in between, Bella is primarily an object to the men who surround her. To her creator, Bella is an experiment. When God enlists his student Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef) to observe Bella’s development for his research, Max becomes smitten with her and proposes marriage. Although their romance is chaste, the gap in their cognitive development is nevertheless disconcerting. Bella’s desirability and Max’s infatuation with her critique society’s fetishization of girlhood naivete.
Poor Things’s foremost focus is Bella’s maturation, sparked by her sexual awakening. She gets her first taste of liberation when she discovers masturbation—or, as she puts it, “happy when I want.” She leaves her father and fiance when narcissistic womanizer Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo, in a riotous comedic performance) lures her to Lisbon for a sexual rendezvous. Suddenly, the black and white film bursts into brilliant color, symbolizing Bella’s emancipation.
Emma Stone’s performance as Bella—arguably her most complex character to date—grounds the film in genuine emotion. She is unabashedly curious, erratic, and indignant, her feelings becoming more complex as she is exposed to more of the world. Stone, who previously worked with Lanthimos on The Favourite (2018) and is already slated to star in his next project, And, has described Poor Things as a “rom-com.” Though the film resists genre categorization, it is, fundamentally, the story of a woman embarking on a spontaneous journey seeking love and adventure only to discover herself and her place in existing social structures, which she then subverts. So, yeah, not too far off from Easy A (2010). Though this hefty role requires Stone to toe the delicate line between ingenue and character actress, she portrays Bella Baxter as naturally as Olive Penderghast, precluding this challenge by saying “fuck it, I’m going to have fun.” And that she does. The film’s power lies in its ability to connect with its audience, which is only made possible through Stone’s performance which evokes childhood nostalgia, adolescent angst, and existential anxiety with ease.
Poor Things is a visual feast. In addition to exhibiting intricate costume design and whimsical world building, it also boasts career-defining performances from Ruffalo, Dafoe, and especially Stone. A worthy contender for the accolades it has received and will continue to receive, the film is a testament to the collective filmmaking process and the medium’s revolutionary potential to ponder the relationships between fantasy, politics, and the self. If you see Poor Things solely for its aesthetics, you might leave feeling compelled to pick up a copy of Candide (1759)—consider yourself warned.