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Poor Things: A Feminist Frankenstein Odyssey

Image by Searchlight Pictures

Staff writer Marko Blanusa reviews Yorgos Lanthimos’ latest film ‘Poor Things’, providing an insight into its feminist themes and unique perspective.

The latest film from acclaimed Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos is a fantastical, yet surprisingly profound adventure which highlights the absurdities of the patriarchy and traditional gender roles in a hilarious and creative way.

It’s almost Oscar season, and with that come the films at which ‘Oscar-bait’ accusations are levied. You know the ones – stale dramas, formulaic biopics with little substance beneath their prestige veneer. Poor Things, despite being a recent Golden Globe winner and amongst the frontrunners for Best Picture, could not be further from that title. Watching it was such a refreshingly entertaining experience, and its likely awards season success seems to be following in the footsteps of last year’s triumph – the equally whacky but heartfelt film ‘Everything, Everywhere, All At Once’.

We all know the story of Dr Frankenstein and his monster, a cautionary tale of ambition being taken too far and destroying lives. But what would happen if Dr Frankenstein created just an ordinary woman with the mind of an infant? ‘Poor Things’ answers this question that you never even knew you wanted an answer to. Its response – Bella Baxter (Emma Stone). Bella is brought back to life by Dr Baxter (Willem Dafoe) after she committed suicide. However, though her body is that of a young woman, her mind is infantile, and the film charts her journey of discovery. We watch her learn to walk, eat, speak and develop into a young woman once again. Lanthimos uses Bella as a lens through which to deconstruct the absurdities of the patriarchy – her childlike innocence and questioning of archaic social norms allows the viewer to reflect on their own outlook on these issues.

One of the things Lanthimos addresses most directly is the notion of female sexual liberation. This is something that is obviously quite contentious amongst audiences, feeding into the wider debate of the necessity of sex scenes in film, fuelled by recent films such as Oppenheimer containing nudity that was deemed by many as needless, as well as reports that almost half of gen Z viewers want less sex on screen. Personally, I think that ‘Poor Things’ makes a compelling case for their inclusion. The scenes are both relevant to the story of Bella’s self-discovery, and also in the wider context of the film’s themes as a very important part of the human experience. Bella is always keen to have sex, and notices how strange it is that people are so restrictive about something which gives them so much pleasure. Her viewpoint can also be seen as a meta commentary by the director on the taboo status of the sex scene in film. Looking at the story more broadly, it is a committed feminist parable, set in the 19th century, but firmly commenting on relevant issues in the 21st century like sexual liberation, reproductive rights and patriarchal power structures. By examining the female experience from the perspective of someone learning about it, Lanthimos can effortlessly poke fun at social norms and the patriarchy without ever coming across as condescending.

Visually, this is a film I had a hard time looking away from, in the best possible way. The colours pop, and the steampunk set design is mind-bogglingly detailed. I was worried going in that perhaps it would be a bit overwhelming, but I quickly found myself immersed despite these concerns. Something about the combination of the larger-than-life world and inherently human story helped keep the film relatively grounded.

So much of this movie is incredibly unique and unpredictable, and the score is no exception. The music is uncanny and synthetic, but can often build up in unexpected ways to provide powerful moments of emotional catharsis. Composer Jerskin Fendrix said in an interview with The Upcoming that he wanted to make the sound of the film reflect Bella’s naivety and sense of discovery, and I think he succeeded in doing just that. So many of the early cues in the film reflect the main character’s stilted and inhuman presence, wobbling along with little to no rhythm or traditional harmony. By the end, the music often explodes in loud, triumphant bursts. Every element here is working to flesh out the weirdness of the world and its characters.

If I had one critique of the film, it is arguably slow towards its beginning. Bella is still infantile and a little tedious to watch, however this half an hour is crucial to us believing her development and understanding her point of view, and therefore I can excuse it on that basis. In any case, there were enough unique sets and hilarious lines delivered by other characters during this opening which kept me intrigued. Once it does get going, it certainly never slows down again.

Ultimately, Poor Things is a phenomenally bizarre film which kept me thoroughly entertained throughout, and then stayed with me as I processed it over the next few days. Its universal messages keep its steampunk environment firmly grounded, creating an unexpectedly heartfelt and thought-provoking film. Will this be this year’s answer to ‘Everything, Everywhere, All At Once’? I highly recommend you watch it and see for yourself. 

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