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Home > ‘Poor Things’ (2023): A Review

‘Poor Things’ (2023): A Review

Emma Stone as Bella Baxter in "POOR THINGS."

Rich in Fantastic Wonders

Bella Baxter (Emma Stone) isn’t much of  a monster. She has a few surgical scars, including one on her abdomen that could be from a Cesarean section. She toddles more than walks – but that’s to be expected when your dead brain is replaced by that of your fetus. Otherwise, she’s no more terrible than any two year-old in a body that’s closer to thirty. And that body is permeated with sensual and sexual wonders within and is keen to experience the wonders of the world without, despite its Victorian compunctions. When by chance she meets a rakish lawyer, Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo), who has ironically come to her London home at the request of her father and creator Dr. Godwin “God” Baxter (Willem Dafoe) to draft a contract marrying her to his assistant Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef), she jumps at the seductive opportunity to journey to Lisbon – and beyond – with him.  

What a Wonderful World

Poor Things is rich in fantastic wonders from start to finish. Its substance is the essence of the Frankenstein story. An eccentric 19th century doctor is compelled to piece together a human body from cadaver parts and reanimate it. Frankenstein is suffused with horror and tragedy that fatefully subsume the doctor and the wretched monster that he created. Its pedigree is the Greek myth of “Prometheus,” whose moral is that only tragedy can come when mortals steal the powers of the gods. Cinema echoes Frankenstein in sci-fi thrillers like the Terminator and Matrix series, but almost never in comedies, with the notable exception of Young Frankenstein (1974) and now, Poor Things.

By necessity because of its horrible inciting incidents, Poor Things is a black comedy. What if a pregnant woman killed herself but was reanimated with the brain of her fetus? Of course that’s dark stuff, but Poor Things brilliantly transcends these horrors with a wonderful exploration of that question at its heart. And delightful answers are shown with Bella Baxter’s sensual and often sexual odyssey from the immature self-discovery at the London home she inhabits with God and Max to her adventures through her fantastic, alternate Victorian world with Duncan and other motley characters that eventually and ultimately mature her.

Poor Things (2023): A Review
Willem Dafoe and Emma Stone in ‘Poor Things’ (2023) ; image courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

Characters Out of Character

Perhaps it’s the twists of its fundamental ironies that make Poor Things original, fascinating, and enchanting. A suicidal, pregnant woman is resurrected by a doctor called God, and she and her child become one. Here, it’s the doctor that’s a physical monster – but God is a loving father in the flesh. Whores can be moral. An ingénue ruins and breaks the heart of a rake and a cad. Dark and heavy matters become brilliant and light. Tragedy turns to comedy. 

The trinity of central characters, Emma Stone’s Bella, Willem Dafoe’s God, and Ramy Youssef’s Max, are all effectively played frankly and sincerely. Bella is a chip from God’s blunt and brusque block. She’s flummoxed by the hypocritical politeness of her Victorian world, personified by Mark Ruffalo’s Duncan, whose unctuous facade is volatile and easily evaporates to reveal him as an actual bastard. Bella may as well be an extraterrestrial: she’s in but not of her world. Like Star Trek’s Mr. Spock, she’s a fascinated but detached and logical observer.  

Feast Your Eyes

In the beginning, Director Yorgos Lanthimos portrays Bella’s infantile point of view in black and white with a fisheye lens that stretches to assimilate her world in an extremely wide angle. As she matures, this vision develops into candy colors and Poor Things ripens into a visual delight. Here, Lanthimos conjures his own moving The Garden of Earthly Delights that eschews the Hell of Heironymus Bosch’s original triptych. It’s a delightfully fantastic world of art nouveau design that externalizes organic forms. Here, the red trees in wintery Paris echo bronchi. Bella’s wardrobe by costume designer Holly Waddington involves convolutions that suggest aquatic invertebrates, brains, or labia via painter Georgia O’Keefe. Spliced together creatures inhabit God’s house and grounds. Steampunk carriages, trams, and ships are the modes of transportation.

Poor Things Is Fantastic 

From its story through its design, acting, and cinematography, Poor Things is a fantastic treat for the senses and the intellect. Poor Things was produced by Film 4 Productions, Element Pictures, TSG Entertainment, and Searchlight Pictures, and its wide theatrical release was on January 19, 2024. It will be available to buy or rent on Apple TV, Prime Video, and other transactional video-on-demand platforms beginning on Feb. 27. A streaming release date or platform has yet to be announced, but look for it this spring.

Poor Things (2023): A Review
Emma Stone in ‘Poor Things’ (2023); image courtesy of TCD/Prod DB/Alamy

Poor Things (2023) Official Searchlight Pictures Trailer

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James Keith La Croix has worked in and around the entertainment industry for years. He majored in film studies at Wayne State University and in Live Action Video at the College for Creative Studies. He wrote reviews, interviews, and features on cinema for the Detroit’s Metro Times.

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Cailen Fienemann is a current student at Le Moyne College pursuing her BA in English and Communications with a film studies minor and a creative writing concentration.  Though uncertain about her career end-goals, any job that allows her to write is a cherished one indeed.