Excellent Poor Things

Review of Poor Things (2023) by Yorgos Lanthimos

Tim Burton, overrated squatter of a genre, look how it is done properly! In the fabulous, unlikely achievement that is Poor Things, “quirky”, “weird”, “gothic” really works, but for adults. “Quirkiness” got redefined as the new normal, bringing forth the mad inequality and oppression of women’s behaviour in and by society. It needs brain surgery to do so, everything else seems not to home in, not to be “acceptable” enough, still. Finally something quirky without teenage smirking and ironed out by a mind of commercial considerations and endless test screenings – see a lot of results from Disney. Wednesday is close, but still has a teenage aura, but Poor Things might get the parents to the barricades – something the Munsters do not achieve as almost every parent professes a certain nostalgia for the dark-humoured “black” family drama…

Photo by ©Disney

Poor Things feels like a miracle – that film should not exist…not in this production quality, not with these stars attached, not in our cynical times of box office optimisation and risk mitigation. Bizarre is a word I will not use here, as it seems overused in all the reviews and no, its normality is exposing expectations as bizarre – and that is its power.

Who sold that script, who sanctioned this marvellous score – what Hans Zimmer could not do for Dune part 2, a first-time composer does for Lanthimos’ Frankenstein allegory – who kept the vision up and secured a budget, so that it can unfold the biggest impact? It is not an artwork, maybe, but a work of art, a rare arthouse opportunity cloaked in Hollywood production level. The book Poor Things: Episodes from the Early Life of Archibald McCandless M.D. Scottish Public Health Officer by Alasdair Gray from 1992 may be a good start, as a postmodern reworking of the classic tale, but to forge this into a movie with Mark Ruffalo and William Dafoe is another level – not to forget the force of nature Emma Stone embodies. Dancer enough, child enough, women enough, seductress enough to pull off a “complicated” as well as simple presence, fresh, lively and sombre & funny in all seriousness, all in one, without appearing to be ridiculous for even one moment. Finally somebody is using Mark Ruffalo’s range well enough to show a different face than the ruffled father (All The Light We Cannot See, 2023) or the scientist turning green monster (Bruce Banner, the Hulk). Maybe Larry Kramer‘s AIDS-era play, The Normal Heart (2014) did that trick, too…

Photo by ©Disney

That score – the movie’s music is another actor, its own beast supporting and forwarding the plots, gently grasping our lobes, still rattling us and shaking our anticipation. It’s jazz without Jazz, Philipp Glass in a different materiality, less heavy than Ligeti, less reduced than the 12-tone technique of Schönberg, somehow uncomfortable sound design fused with avant-guarde history of John Cage and John Zorn – and infinitely more fresh than  Zimmer’s work (sorry for the double bashing, Hans!). Jerskin Fendrix keeps us suspended and at the edge until the end, throughout the beautiful cast – what started as an disconcerting acoustic journey blends into a totally reasonable and beautiful rendering, a lullaby telling the moods of the story on an acoustic level and luring us in, wrapping us in sounds far from each other’s birth place, like a body mended by electric currents. An unlikely accomplishment adding to the synchronous emergence of factors making this feature film remarkable and unique.

Wes Anderson tries again and again but stays in his nice family ties and 60s atmosphere of colours, never really swinging the swords he sharpens. Poor Things is not nice and takes no prisoners because the world is not, and the director has the guts to stay focused onto that like in a vivisection. “A film like a surgical procedure” should read every second review – but like so many movies I reviewed and revered in the last years, there is a strong and strange counter-current of haters, who use all their might and scoop from their complexes and syndromes to talk down and diminish what they cannot stand. It is very telling and may be a marker for outstanding quality, being that divisive. Gender inequality, female sexuality and self-efficacy are not easy to stomach for some who have problems with one or all of these concepts, I suppose. Greek director Giorgos Lanthimos who made a dent already with Dogtooth, The Lobster and the period comedy The Favourite pulls of the unexpected: an intelligent movie which is relevant today and deeply rooted in our fears and hopes, analysing the roots of societal problems of women (and men) with the lens of a fairy tale, packed with enough gore and light-hearted fun that it’s depth is concealed just to be palatable. Still it comes into the brain of the viewer like a chain saw. The problems are too fresh and too well known.

Photo by ©Disney

Poor Things does not work half-assed, it needs to stay on track, without compromises, or else it would become a drag. It needs to be rendered beautifully in Mannerist art deco sets, ship-designs not seen since The Fifth Element, stairs, angles, chairs which would make Murnau and Fritz Lang envious. All this to underline that the storyline in essence is based on “the” gothic novel written by 21-year-old Mary Shelley, founding the genre of science fiction single-handedly – a female writer in the beginning of the 1800s. Her name and that of her father William Godwin found its way back into Poor Things, as the creator and surgeon, the father-figure for Bella in the film, is also called Godwin – shortened often to “God” as a pun. The motto of Shelley’s novel is preceded by a quote from the verse epic Paradise Lost (1667) by the English poet John Milton, which concentrates the basic conflict of the plot in two lines:

“Have I asked for it from you, my creator, / 

That you should be made of clay People formed me?”

Photo by ©Disney

From the unasked awakening, the creature derives its claim to its creator for equal opportunities for happiness in partnership and family, which it demands more and more the longer it goes. And so Bella does, too, fiercely. Alas, all is more embedded in kindness and she, as a beauty, has much more opportunities and degrees of freedom than the male “monster” created by Dr. Frankenstein. In Poor Things the Doctor is clearly the poor monster, and of course are we, as an audience. Her freedom is not based in society’s acceptance, but rather gets tolerated like through a weird fascination about an exotic bird, a feral beast which leaps onto the table for the entertainment of the bored high society. For the theme being cruelty, Bella seems much more protected from the cruelty of common men than Frankenstein. She learns about the upper class debauchery and chooses to live in the moral gutters for a while, but as a choice. She is not thrown to the dogs of the docks and returns broken, she rather breaks the haughty and self-conscious dandies and pulls off one miracle after the other. In this it is a fairy tale of positivity, of things, as poor as they may begin, to work out on the long run, with dignity intact. One can only ask – why do we have to get catered a story of such straightforward honesty about the conditioning of female minds in a world ruled by men in a manner or brutal resurrection involving an infant brain. The narrative vehicle seems gross and inacceptable, but the result and setting makes everything she does and say acceptable – a genius stroke. But also a sad note, that in 2024 we still need such a strong fictionalisation to be able to look our ugly, deformed face in the mirror. Sexuality in the film is a mode to break through our conditioning. Voices could blear: only the mentally retarded can enjoy sex so much, so unfiltered, and argue it is pornographic enough or not graphic enough? Can that be enjoyable or detestable?

Photo from PeakPx, CC0

I have the feeling our critique will reveal our attitudes and scars. Listen carefully when somebody is hating or loving Poor Things – it will reveal everything about their personal story and people will be helpless in sharing it. Imagine the person with the main praise or critique written on the forehead or printed on a t-shirt. It will be spot on. There are not many movies which can elicit such a response. This is a gem.

Photo by ©Disney
LINKS
  1. https://www.searchlightpictures.com/poor-things/

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Herwig Egon Casadoro-Kopp
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