Poor Things



Main Cast: Emma Stone, Mark Ruffalo

Director: Yorgos Lanthimos

I am sorry to announce that production on Tiger Queen, my musical extravaganza based on the thrilling story of Carol Baskin, has had to be placed on hold. We were in the midst of shooting the absolutely fantastic opening number, a highly complex and intricately choreographed montage depicting Carol’s formative years and the mysterious disappearance of an early husband, when the Anhauser Playfield, where we were shooting, was suddenly surrounded by heavily armed Florida state police. Apparently there were complaints from the neighbors regarding the charming costumes run up by my seamstresses, Mary Gee and Kim Dee, which depicted various exotic tropical flora and fauna.  They are apparently in violation of some new state law that forbids minors from being subjected to overly fanciful costumed adults in a public setting as it might impinge on their correct psychosexual development.  We were let off with a warning but our filming permits were revoked and it’s unclear when we will be able to have them reinstated.  The policemen were ever so nice and I signed autographs for all of them before they headed off to Sarasota Children’s Theater to raid their new production of Bambi.

Liza Minelli in Cabaret (public domain)
Is she staring at my toe?

Being at loose ends, I’ve decided to take a little trip to calm my nerves and had Joseph, my manager, charter a gulf stream jet to fly me to New York City for a long weekend. I figure I can catch a few shows, spend some time with some old friends, and perhaps take a meeting or two which might lead to my returning to the Great White Way.  I head there’s a new production of Cabaret opening and I feel I have at least one more Sally Bowles left in me.  I’ll be sure and pack my bowler hat and Louise Brooks wig just in case.

I should have done the film version for Fosse.  The audition process had the part of Sally down to me and that upstart Liza (who claimed she could be my daughter – but that’s not possible as even then I was an ever youthful thirty nine years of age).  The final screentest should have clinched the role for me but as luck would have it, the drum kit from the cabaret band came loose from its moorings and the bass drum rolled over my right foot cracking my fourth metatarsal and I wouldn’t be healed up in time for the shooting schedule.  I swear that Minnelli girl arranged the whole thing.

Anyway, while on board the plane, I had time to take in a film while winging it up the Atlantic seaboard.  My choice was last year’s Poor Things, which won Emma Stone her second Oscar last month. I had heard it was a good film from some sources and an interesting film from others.  I had deliberately not sought out too much information about it before viewing, hoping to be surprised.  I don’t know what I was expecting, but what the film turned out to be surpassed all of my expectations.  Emma Stone gives a fearless performance in a shocking and amazing central role with an incredible supporting cast to back her up and a director who is not afraid to stick to a unique vision of the world.

Poor Things is the story of Bella (Stone), a childlike creature and adoptive daughter of a Victorian anatomist cum mad scientist (Willem Dafoe).  Despite her very adult body, her mannerisms and understanding of the world are infantile.  One of the scientist’s students (Ramy Youssef) comes to visit and is mesmerized by her and falls in love and is engaged to tutor her in better manners and social deportment. Eventually a shyster lawyer appears on the scene (Mark Ruffalo).  He is fascinated by Bella’s naivete and uninhibited approach to life and he runs off with her to the continent.  Bella continues to experience life and grow as a woman, driving the lawyer to drink, gambling, and eventually the asylum, before deciding she would be happier at home.  Just who and what Bella is, why she acts the way she does, and what sort of antics she gets up to on her journey are best left to be discovered by watching the film.

Stone is sensational and it’s no wonder she won the Oscar.  She portrays Bella’s physicality and development with layers upon layers and is not afraid to be shocking or immodest when it is called for.  Bella is a feral creature trapped in the strait jacket of late Victorian social mores and she is not in the least bit afraid to push things to the limit.  The three major men in her life also give fine performances, especially Ruffalo who needs to show the slow unravelling of a man as the unstoppable force of the woman he loves destroys his belief system and his life. 

What lifts Poor Things above the commonplace, besides the acting, is the visual look.  (Both the costumes and the production design won Oscars).  The film was made in Budapest but on soundstages and dressed cityscapes that create a steampunk Europe that never was, full of saturated colors and architectural whimsey. The cinematography, for purposes of storytelling fades back and forth from this technicolor wonderland to grim black and white at times but it never feels forced or artificial.  The costumes, especially the outfits worn by Bella, exaggerate the sleeves and the pouter pigeon silhouettes of the period in ways that would never have been worn in real life but which help delineate character and power relationships.  Director Yorgos Lanthimos obviously knows exactly what he wants and how each little detail will help with the story he is trying to tell, one of individual empowerment and the need to blast through societal conventions.

Poor Things is not a film for children, with its somewhat frank depictions of sexuality. And it doesn’t shy away from nudity or play coy the way so many Hollywood films tend to.  The language is also at times equally explicit.  I’m glad I was out of Florida airspace by the time I put it on or else the Florida state police might have been trying to confiscate my Roku stick. But, if you are a thinking adult interested in a good genre-defying story, great performances, and a unique visual world, by all means, give it a whirl.

Chicken dog.  Thrown food.  Foot piano playing. Operating theater. Gratuitous sex instruction.  Bridge leaping. French madame. Egyptian poverty. Funicular railways. Gratuitous Hanna Schygulla. Herbaceous border eating. 

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