' ' Cinema Romantico: Poor Things

Monday, January 29, 2024

Poor Things

In writing about “Shakespeare in Love” years ago for Premiere Magazine (in an essay collected in his book The Big Picture), and more specifically, writing about Gwyneth Paltrow’s Oscar-winning turn in the same movie, William Goldman noted that it was a great part: after all, she got to play a girl and a boy. That observation returned to me watching Emma Stone in director Yorgos Lanthimos’s “Poor Things” as a kind of updated version of Frankenstein’s monster, Victoria Blessington turned Bella Baxter, a woman who jumps to her death as the movie opens only to be brought back to life by Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe) who she might call God but who proves less mad than sweetly, paternally eccentric. There is one catch though - Bella is resurrected by way of a brain belonging to an infant, meaning that despite being a grown woman, cognitively she is starting from scratch. That means Stone gets to play an adult and a toddler but all rolled up into one, yielding a feat of oddball physicality, an actor’s dream, a little like Vincent D’Onofrio in “Men in Black” but with the veneer of prestige drama. And though Stone is superb, limbs flailing, arms akimbo, a performance as Elaine Benes’s dance, she’s superb in so far as the role goes, ultimately limited by the movie she’s in.

Because “Poor Things” also wants to turn its Frankenstein monster story into one of female liberation as Bella eventually leaves her weirdly moving makeshift family behind to see the world with the help of a scurrilous attorney played by Mark Ruffalo with the air of a patrician pirate. If you have seen a previous Yorgo Lanthimos movie, it might not surprise you to learn that this liberation takes a decidedly lewd turn, and why not, that’s all part of it, sexual liberation. But the longer “Poor Things” goes, the clearer it becomes that sexual liberation is virtually all it is interested in, as intellectual and epicurean pursuits are blithely mentioned but never really explored nor followed up on. What’s more, Bella’s interiority winds up feeling all the more superficial contrasted against the vitality of the exterior world rendered by so many grand visual effects and production design. Indeed, Lanthimos’s camera still feels as leering and sneaky as ever, in those patented fisheye shots and voyeuristic angles, constricting the character, compromising her freedom, still just a rat in a director’s cage.

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