Monday, December 18, 2023

Vindication of the Rights of Woman: POOR THINGS

With Poor Things, director Yorgos Lanthimos returns to his pet themes: freedom and control, society and individualism, intellect and appetite. Within them, the Greek provocateur loves to push buttons and test the boundaries of discomfort. He sets up rigid systems and see his characters squirm under their demands. His international breakthrough Dogtooth is a tragedy set in a worst-case scenario disinformation-based homeschooling setup, while his dreary The Lobster is a depressing world of romantic pressure in which unlucky singles are turned into animals, and his gripping Killing of a Sacred Deer finds eerie body horror revenge inflicted on an alienated nuclear family unit by an unsettling interloper. Even his biggest hit to date, period piece of royal courtly intrigue The Favourite, drips with a devilishly funny satire of politicking and interest peddling within his usual concerns. In Poor Things he pushes his ideas to fanciful Frankensteined abstraction in a steampunk fantasy Europe of an imagined Industrial Revolution past—a little Mary Shelley, a little German Expressionism, a little Tim Burton, a little Jean-Pierre Jeunet. But it’s all of a piece for a work about a revived body stumbling into the world and slowly learning what life is all about.

Shot with his favored fisheye lenses and pushy, panning, zooming, looming cameras—and scored with a calliope-meets-theremin brio—the movie finds a mad scientist (Willem Dafoe) bringing a beautiful corpse (Emma Stone) to life with a mind made freshly tabula rasa. Named Bella Baxter, she flails and stumbles and babbles, trying to master language and motor skills, like a grown woman with a toddler’s mind. It’s quite a spectacle, funny and sad and off-putting and compelling all at once. It might give you a sense of Lanthimos’ approach here that the mad doctor’s new assistant (Ramy Youssef) takes one look at her and gasps: “what a beautiful retard.” The movie gawks and scowls at its characters’ madnesses and eccentricities. As Bella grows into her body, society fills her mind with ideas. She strains against the confines of her experimental status and demands to be let out into the world. There she encounters a variety of men—buffoonish seducers (Mark Ruffalo) and suave cynics (Jarrod Carmichael) and nasty brutes (Christopher Abbott)—who want to have her and control her and affect her and mold her. And yet Bella is so stubbornly, persistently herself that she’s uncontainable by societal standards. She hasn’t been indoctrinated with the shame  she’s expected to feel and stereotypes to which they assume she'd conform. There’s some pointed commentary in the fact that she’s most desirable to the men when she’s at her least capable. The more she learns, the more she confounds their expectations, the more they go mad for her, in all senses of the word. She navigates a series of gross-out gags and slapstick and drama and sexual encounters with a growing awareness and a blissfully inquisitive need to take it all in and understand.

The potentially simple concept is exquisitely elaborated and vividly imagined in all its complications and contrasts. The screenplay by Tony McNamara, who brings some of The Favourite’s charmingly mean ear for dialogue, takes clear delight in running Bella through a crash course in philosophical constructs, a one-woman Enlightenment living the concepts Rousseau and Locke and Hobbes and Voltaire had to merely ponder. And it’s all so fleshy, too, with Lanthimos’ usual preoccupation with bodily fluids and functions, making her a Candide in situations that’d blush with frank vulgarity but in fact give nary a flinch. She likes to copulate as much as she cogitates. But for all the overt mixture of the highfalutin philosophizing and lowdown dirtiness, the movie’s at its most fun as it dances across that chasm. It’s a riot of production design—weird vehicles and elaborate sets—and costumes—all frills and flowing cutaways and cinched edges. And within that, the performers turn loose in masterfully silly eruptions of straight-faced shock and delicate pratfalls and casual nudity. It’s Stone’s show—a stunningly technical and deeply felt play with high drama and fearless comedy. But everyone in the cast joins in the fun. Every line reading turns into candy, and every serious swerve of intellect is chased with a grinning irreverence. Ultimately, this is Lanthimos’ most hopeful picture, embodied with a stubborn, grinning belief that the stuff of life is pleasurable and, though people may be as cruel as they are curious, the right fresh mind is capable of positive change. As Taylor Swift wrote, "we were built to fall apart / then fall back together."

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