In a surreal alternate Victorian London, a renowned surgeon and lecturer – Godwin Baxter [Dafoe] – conscripts one of his students to document his most prized experiment. With that, Max McCandles [Youssef] meets Bella [Stone]. McCandles is initially told that Bella suffered a head injury but quickly learns that she is a unique creation – the living brain of an unborn baby placed in the body of the dying mother. Bella rapidly matures and is betrothed to McCandles. However, in order to draw up a legally-binding contract, Bella is introduced to cad and lothario, Duncan Wedderburn [Ruffalo], who convinces Bella to travel to Lisbon with him. Feeling she wants to experience the world before settling down to marriage, Bella agrees, and thus her hedonistic exploration begins.
Going into this film, you have to understand this is unapologetic Lanthimos surrealism, unrestrained unlike before. Too many people watched The Favourite with preconceived notions of what to expect and were left bewildered by the end result. This time round, everything about the presentation screams “you’ll either be entranced or appalled.” Because while The Lobster and The Killing Of A Sacred Deer depicts peculiar characters navigating our world, what we’re given here is Lanthimos by way of Jeunet, Gilliam and Del Toro. And, in essence, a truly unfiltered, unapologetic look at the world through the eyes of someone who is trying to come to terms with the entire human condition and experience in the most succinct and scientific manner. But despite this, she is unable to sever her emotional reaction to it all.
To the untrained eye, the whole movie is lurid nonsense. But beyond the surface, it’s surprisingly grounded and sincere. A Frankenstein story of opulent madness that hides a journey of self discovery. And if it transpired that this was based on an 19th century French or Russian novel (minus the more macabre fantastical elements) it would be unsurprising. Which is ultimately because the source material is an intentional send-up of 1800s literature, layered with gothic romantic notions and morbid fascination. And while Poor Things could have had a period appropriate look and feel, opting for a contemporary nouveau, almost German expressionist direction was a strong decision. This adds a touch of whimsy, charm and wonder to what are, frankly, a series of miserable and macabre encounters and situations. All of which is accompanied by an almost aggressively twisted score. With Jerskin Fendrix interjecting with stabs and twangs that feel like a child getting to grips with what an instrument is. Joyfully reacting to the sounds even if they feel off-key or incompatible – which feels all too appropriate as a reflection of Bella’s discoveries. And learning this is a debut piece from Fendrix is all the more impressive.
This may sound unusual but I don’t think I’ve seen an actor commit so wholly to a role as Stone has with Bella. Of course all actors give themselves over to bring a character to life, but there’s no ego or limit to what Stone is seemingly willing to do for this character. Which makes for truly engrossing and compelling viewing. As Bella navigates her way through a series of metaphorical prisons, she embraces liberation and freedoms that upset the men around her. All in aid of experiencing the world, for all its flaws and triumphs. Yes, this is a victim of the ‘born sexy yesterday’ trope but it’s interesting to see how the film handles it. Gleefully indulging at first, but as Bella matures and grows out of this stage, the men infatuated with her for this one attribute grow frustrated and actively think less of her. In other words, the more she explores the world, her body and expresses herself, the less control men have in her life and that irks them.
I also have to commend Ruffalo and Dafoe for absolutely understanding the assignment. Dafoe plays Godwin as such a hilariously twisted oddity. A man of unfathomable curiosity and, oddly, compassion. At once a victim of circumstance as well as a heinous perpetrator of horrors. Whereas Ruffalo feels like a sister-piece to the breakdown of Ken in Barbie, an immature chancer who acts purely on instinct, with the most fragile of egos and basic of needs.
The film, however, does have one exceptional drawback: it’s indulgent to the point of being egregious. The initially frank coverage of sexual freedom is bold to start with, but the shock factor wears off as Bella becomes jaded. And while this is likely intentional, it leaves the audience listing somewhat and, as the third act starts to drag, we’re left wondering where this is going. Before the film settles on a rather rushed final twist conclusion that could have used more time to breathe. I’ll also add that, while not necessarily a mark against the film, the premise of a child’s brain in an adult body going on a journey of sexual awakening, is going to be difficult for some to watch. As well it should be. But this isn’t helped by the film’s fairly limp conclusions and lack of holding those responsible to account.
All in all, I’m grateful Lanthimos has the resources to make such oddities. Cinema should be a spectrum of stories, and when people are decrying stale, formulaic features, it’s nice to know there are still eccentric European misfits out there crafting striking worlds for us to explore, analyse and discuss.
12 January 2024
The Scene To Look Out For:
I’m always here for an outlandish Lanthimos dance sequence. And while Bella is in Lisbon, frustrated with how Duncan is treating her, we are offered a beautifully cursed dance with a strangely hypnotic chaotic nightmare of a tune. Paired with a performance that is spectacularly wild and erratic, before eventually devolving into jealousy-riddled violence.
A story of this nature is as much about the people as the events that take place. Reminiscent of something like Big Fish or The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button, we’re gifted vignettes of the eclectic types of weird and wonderful people we meet in our lives. I particularly liked Kathryn Hunter as Swiney, the endearing madam of a brothel, Jerrod Carmichael as the cynical Harry, and Suzy Bemba as Toinette – maybe Bella’s most earnest companion.
“I have adventured and found sugar and violence. It is most charming.”
In A Few Words:
“An unfettered bold and sometimes brave feature, but one that will immediately turn certain audiences off.”
Total Score: 4/5