‘Poor Things’ Is Disturbing But Brilliant, Worthy Of An Oscar

‘I’ ON CULTURE

I found the new movie Poor Things to be both beautiful and horrifying; fascinating and off-putting. Director Yorgos Lanthimos is famed for doing strange movies, and this one certainly fits the bill. It has a lot of slapstick humor mixed with bizarre imagery. For those who love all those Victorian age dramas on public television, you will feel at home here just before you begin to fall through Alice in Wonderland’s rabbit hole.

Bella Baxter (Emma Stone) committed suicide by jumping off a bridge while she was pregnant. Weird surgeon Godwin Baxter (Willem Defoe), who answers to the name God, recovers the body and replaces her dead brain with that of her unborn but still living baby. Bella’s body is that of a grown woman but has the mind of a toddler. Medical student Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef) is recruited to chronicle Bella’s mental development.

She quickly learns to walk; she gains intelligence and becomes curious, particularly about her own sexuality. She and Max are engaged, but she runs away with sophisticate Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo), who takes her on a grand tour of Europe. But the rakish Wedderburn finds out that Bella has a strong independent streak and combines her naivety and compassion to go her own way. And that changes everything.

This is the kind of epic that often provides ripe satirical fruit. Rabelais did it with Gargantua hundreds of years ago where a gigantic alien visits earth. Robert Heinlein did it with Valentine Michael Smith in Stranger in a Strange Land and Douglas Adams with Ford Prefect in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Outsiders to a culture can create the most interesting observations. And Bella Baxter is exactly that, although with a bit of Frankenstein thrown in.

Things take a bad turn when Duncan learns he cannot control Bella, and they travel, which opens her mind to philosophy, especially the idea of helping the poor. She gives away all their money, which leads her to becoming a prostitute and gets involved in socialism. But she winds up back with Godwin and Max and prepares to marry Max as originally planned. But Duncan finds her husband from before her suicide and things get really nasty.

The imagery is gorgeous and the ideas occasionally stunning. Lanthimos uses the stilted dialogue that we occasionally see in the fancy shows but turns them on their ear.

There is a dispute about the use of sex in the film. After all, Bella experiences sex while her brain is still that of a very young child, and that is disturbing. Of course, her body and presumably her hormones are those of a grown woman. It does bother me, but I can see it as an artistic choice.

Stone is brilliant. It is not surprising that she has been nominated for an academy Award, and some predict she will win. She begins as a blank slate, able to learn all sorts of things, but without enough context. Bella is strong at a time when women were supposed to be subservient. She quickly learns to turn all of the strange customs into things for her benefit. She somehow remains the pure survivor no matter what kinds of indignities she must pass through.

Even better, the rest of the cast matches her. Defoe plays a brilliant weirdo, as he has done so often in the past, and does it really well. Ruffalo shows he is more than the Hulk in a standout performance. Youssef is strong as perhaps the sanest person around, and Christopher Abbott is very good as the horrible husband.

This is clearly not a movie for everyone. The R rating should keep out the young, but many of us who are older may face more than a few shocking moments. The nudity is graphic and the language occasionally more so. On the other hand, the ideas in the movie are striking; not necessarily good ones, but we so seldom deal with anything complex any more. This movie is designed to make you think.

Should you see it? Well, if you are easily shocked, I would skip it. On the other hand, if you can deal with the subject matter, you will find that it deserves the nomination for Picture of the Year at the Oscars.

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