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Poor Things movie review: Emma Stone is captivating in this Oscar-nominated, visually stunning tale by Yorgos Lanthimos

Mar 09, 2024 05:33 PM IST

After The Favourite, director Yorgos Lanthimos and actor Emma Stone deliver a weird, unhinged coming-of-age fairy tale unlike anything else you've ever seen.

When a character in a movie works, when it truly works, their little habits and traits pass on to the viewers. The way they talk, or stand, or even communicate- burn in our memory like an afterthought. Such is the case with Bella Baxter in Yorgos Lanthimos' Poor Things, played by Emma Stone with tremendous ferocity and feeling. She is an experiment: a woman with the brain of her own unborn child, that was cut off from her body after she tried to kill herself. In some ways she is her own mother and daughter, but also, she is neither. She is very much her own work in creation. (Also read: SAG Awards 2024: Lily Gladstone's win over Emma Stone shakes up Best Actress race ahead of Oscars)

The premise

Emma Stone plays Bella Baxter in Poor Things.

"It is only the way it is until we discover the new way it is," she says, and so, we follow her journey as she discovers life in all its joys and sorrows, boundless sexual pleasures and heartbreaking violence, disdain and terror, art and revolution. Lanthimos is working here with a riotously funny adaptation of Alasdair Gray's 1992 novel by Tony McNamara, and begins Bella's journey through a confident choice of black and white. Stone carves Bella's early stage with an unsteady gait, undeveloped speech and a wide-eyed wonder.

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This is the time when Bella is still living with her guardian Godwin Baxter (a terrific Willem Dafoe, who is almost unperturbed under the layers of makeup). He is a surgeon, hiding his traumatic past, who safeguards his creation from the world. Bella calls him God. He even has the sweet Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef) come in to note her progress, who in no time falls in love with her. But before she is wed, she must set forth on a wild adventure, first ignited by the lawyer Duncan Wedderburn (a hilariously evil Mark Ruffalo). Lanthimos bursts the bubble of Bella's black and white world and breaks into glorious colour- when she first has sex with Duncan. Bella calls it 'furious jumping' and wonders why can't people do it all the time.

The absurdity in sex scenes

For Bella, sex is an important step in the path towards her self-discovery. She takes ownership of her body and uses sex as a means of production when she needs it, later at Paris, when she is left on her own will. The gaze is never titillating, and is restricted only when Bella makes the choice. For Poor Things delves on the absurdity of human experience, and the unmistakable distraction that the very concept of sex receives from society. Why is it that polite society can't talk about it more? Bella wonders, and then grows further to share a detached distance even on the subject of her carnal pleasure. Poor Things is more interested in how her mind develops- from a sense of innocent curiosity that steadily hardens as she discovers the world in all its savage, wondrous beauty.

This is Lanthimos's most richest work to date, and the director assembles an extraordinary technical crew to make it all work. The one that strikes the eye immediately is Shona Heath and James Price’s breathtaking production design, for as Bella experiences the world in 19th century Europe, we- the viewer, see through her. The sets are straight out of a Dali painting- especially the world-building that takes place in Lisbon. Of great assistance here is Robbie Ryan’s cinematography, with its ingenious use of fish-eye lenses, accompanying Bella with a sense of wonder and curiosity. As for Bella's puffed sleeves in mismatched outfits that take shape as she grows along the process, Holly Waddington’s costume work is a thing of unending beauty. The cherry on the cake is Jerskin Fendrix’s thumping, energetic score- one that harmonizes with Bella's steadily hardening spirit.

Still, the dizzying spell of Poor Things works largely because of the presence of Emma Stone, whose Bella Baxter is a creation of awe-inducing technical mastery and skill. When we meet Bella again after her adventures, as she confronts Godwin in a state of reconciliation, the difference in her demeanour and spirit is shocking to witness. Emma Stone, in what is surely her career-best performance, carves the entire arc of her evolving conscience, all through her different stages of experience, with tremendous skill and nuance. Bella Baxter is a singular creation for the cinema gods to cherish and nurture.

Poor Things is a film of peerless ambition and creative abandon, and places Yorgos Lanthimos as one of the generation's most unique voices. To live life is to feel every emotion as it arrives, to bravely take on the wounds that society inflicts on the way. Existing in a world that balances beauty with violence, horror with empathy is a blessing. But it also hurts. Bella wants it all, and in her will to live, she turns the world into her oyster.

Poor Things in available to stream on Disney + Hotstar.

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