POOR THINGS. (Anti)fairytale about beauty and beasts [REVIEW]”

On September 1st, at the 80th Venice International Film Festival, the world premiere of the latest film directed by Yorgos Lanthimos took place.

Paulina Zdebik

4 September 2023

After excellent role of Abigail in The Favourite, it would have been a waste of potential not to invite Emma Stone to his next project, which Lanthimos was well aware of. In Poor Things, casting her as the one-of-a-kind Bella Baxter, he utilizes her acting potential in a way you haven’t seen before and probably didn’t even expect. The main character of the latest film by the Greek director is absolutely mesmerizing from the first moments she appears on the screen. It’s impossible to look away from her, even when she exhibits behavior – to put it mildly – atypical and definitely not always visually attractive, although even in those cases, she remains at least… unpretentiously charming and evokes infinite sympathy in the viewer. Stone skillfully plays out the various stages of her character’s mental development through both facial expressions and physicality.

Bella Baxter is a flesh-and-blood woman, and observing how she matures and discovers herself is an incredibly fascinating process. This is a role that undoubtedly has the chance to leave a lasting mark on cinema, functioning as a symbol of the modern woman in the context of liberation from all the conventions deeply rooted in society for centuries, which is repeatedly emphasized by the film’s characters. Lanthimos – intentionally or incidentally, although I would lean towards the former, as I have no doubt that all his works are carefully thought out – has created one of the most feminist portraits of recent years.

Not to suggest that men in Poor Thingss are insignificant. Although, with some exceptions, selfish and ruthless, they play significant roles in Bella’s character development. They spark the changes within her and are the key to understanding who she is and where she’s heading. Ironically, in their attempts to “tame” her, they help her understand what freedom truly is, something she desires so much. Despite being strong and distinctive characters, it’s the male cast that deserves credit for their performances. Willem Dafoe as Dr. God(win) Baxter has elements of both an absolute genius and a deranged madman. It quickly becomes apparent that there’s a reason for that – his past has shaped him in an incredibly brutal way. Ramy Youssef and Mark Ruffalo in the roles of the respectable Max McCandles and the seductive Duncan Wedderburn, respectively, are equally impressive. Their characters, created by them, complement each other perfectly on screen and never overshadow Emma Stone’s performance as Bella Baxter.

In Poor Things, Lanthimos draws heavily from German expressionism. The theatricality and artificiality, along with the plasticity of the depicted world, frames filled with spaces, set design (by James Price), and costumes (by Holly Waddington) dominated by curves, deformations, and perspective shifts, all contribute to a mysterious, dense, sometimes surreal atmosphere. This is further emphasized by the use of fisheye lenses, a vivid contrast between black and white, and a transition to unrealistic, vibrant colors and retro-futuristic elements reminiscent of Metropolis… The references are endless, not only in the visual aspect but also, and perhaps primarily, in the plot. Bella Baxter herself, artificially revived or summoned to life, corresponds to the archetype of the expressionist dark hero with a mysterious profile and is an obvious reference to the iconic character of Frankenstein. The difference is that, despite not being entirely human from a physiological point of view, she remains the most human and beautiful – both outside and inside – of all the characters from beginning to end, while the people she encounters on her journey become increasingly “beastly.” As Harry Astley (Jerrod Carmichael), a man who brutally awakens the naive Bella, says at one point, opening her eyes to the reality of suffering: “We are all cruel beasts. Born that way, die that way.” This statement provokes Bella’s outrage, and she decides to strive to remain a truly good person, inside and out, throughout her journey, while the people she encounters on her path become more and more “beastly.”

In the context of Lanthimos’s latest film, the phenomenon of people leaving the screening is particularly intriguing. Although the theater was packed at the start, the number of viewers gradually decreased over time – perhaps not dramatically, but certainly noticeably. If watching a woman discover her own identity, including her exploration of her own sexuality, on the big screen is something you find inappropriate, then be forewarned that you’ll likely join the aforementioned group. However, if you do decide to leave, you’ll certainly regret it, because what Lanthimos offers us works best as a cohesive whole, in which, as in fairy tales, each character ultimately gets what they deserve.

The Greek director remains true to his established film style while offering something entirely different on multiple levels from what he has created before. Poor Things is an experiential journey that immerses the viewer in a fascinating trance, and the sounds of the atmospheric music composed by Jerskin Fendrix, perfectly complementing the beautiful visual and intriguing narrative layers, linger in the mind long after the film ends. In his latest film, Lanthimos, like an expressionist artist – as Kasimir Edschmid wrote in 1919 – “doesn’t so much depict the world as he creates it – he stops seeing but has a vision.” This vision, like Bella Baxter, is beautiful on multiple levels and absolutely unique.


Paulina Zdebik

By birth, a native of Gdańsk, and by place of residence - a Katowice, Parisian, and currently a Warsaw resident. A student at the Krzysztof Kieslowski Film School at the University of Silesia. On film sets, she feels most at home as a director or in costume design. Besides making films, she also enjoys writing about them. A big fan of "A Clockwork Orange," Xavier Dolan, Yorgos Lanthimos, the French New Wave, and...horror films.

See other posts from this author >>>