"...lingers in your imagination like a vivid fever dream."

Rich Feminist Reworking of Frankenstein

(011124) Poor Things is a bold, beautiful, and bizarre genre defying film that is difficult to categorize. It seamlessly weaves together elements of science fiction, surrealism, and feminist social commentary, plus absurdism, into a very a starling, and unconventional dramady. It is one of the tastiest and satisfying cinematic soufflés of the year, and seeing it helped to end the year on a high note.

The film was directed by the Greek film maker Yorgos Lanthimos who has made his last few films in English. He also did Dogtooth (2009), The Lobster (2015) which was number 2 on my top ten list of that year, and The Favourite
(2018) which was number 9 on that year’s list. Poor Things was my third favorite American film of this year.

He is associated with Greece’s weird wave movement films which explore how the powerful control and oppress people and often tell their stories through the lenses of alienated protagonists. These films also frequently utilize absurdist dialogue plus grotesque images reflecting dissatisfaction with the current Greek government and societal social structures as a whole. Weird wave films deal with the same kind of themes as the postmodern writings of Michel Foucault who is also concerned with historical power dynamics in different times and societies.

Yorgos Lanthimos found the perfect partner in Emma Stone, and the pair worked together splendidly in The Favourite
. They make up one of the better recurring director/actress teams in all of cinema; although Kelly Reichardt/Michelle Williams are even more remarkable (see Meek’s Cutoff, Certain Women and Showing Up). Stone’s energetic engaging, spirited and irresistible performance helps keep the film afloat, and she gives one of her most memorable and best performances.

The film has received near unanimous critical acclaim and it won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival where it got a 15-minute standing ovation. Also, it received nominations for seven Golden Globes including Best Film- Musical or Comedy (although I am not sure I would classify this as a comedy) and Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture, Comedy or Musical. My review of another Golden Globe nominated film; Fallen Leaves will soon appear on this site.

The film was based on the Alaisdar Gray novel, Poor Things: Episodes from the Early Life of Archibald McCandless M.D., Scottish Public Health which I read before this review. The film makes several changes, for instance, the book has different chapters told by different narrators while the film’s point of view is omniscient but mostly focuses on what Bela is seeing or thinking.

Although, I also liked the book which is less chronological, I found it hard to follow at times (but I loved the illustrations by the writer). However, I absolutely loved the movie which did everything better. Like its source novel, the movie is an amusing and clever meditation on gender, social class, and what it means to be truly independent in both today's and yesterday’s society. Also, they both delight in shocking the audience and skewering social convention.

The plot of Poor Things’ is kind is like an alternate version of James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein in which the female creation was destroyed almost instantly and had no voice or choices. This film and its source book ,Poor Things imagine what would happen if the female creation grew up, matured, and rebelled against the patriarchy (which is represented by several men in the film and places the female monster who is probably the most human character on a fascinating path to self-discovery parallel but quite different than the one in Strays.

One of the big twists here is that film’s version of Dr. Frankenstein and the monster, played perfectly as usual by a subdued Willem Dafoe are the same person (I expand on this in my upcoming lecture, details below), and he (Godwin Baxter) egotistically likes Bela to call him God which may be significant that Mary Shelley’s real dad was also named Godwin. So, in a way when she rebels against him and leaves his home it is like Eve leaving Eden or since she also leaves her fiancée (another doctor) and refuses to submit to him, you could also see her as a Lilith figure. Also, you can see her as being parallel to the writer of Frankenstein author since, Mary Shelley herself who left her father (also called Godwin) to be in an illicit relationship with the already married Percy Shelley.

Early scenes that depict Bella’s sheltered life are shot in black and in white. She is kept away from the outside world by her father-creator, Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe). When color enters back into the film, Bella fittingly escapes from her false Eden into the real world. But when she learns some harsh truths about Lisbon, the film becomes dark both visually and thematically.

Early on when she has jerky movements and when she interacts with people, she does not know the proper way to behave. If she dislikes food, she just spits it out, and she has a really bizarre awkward inhuman dance that is almost as memorable as the ones in the Wednesday show or the film Megan. When she sees an elderly woman for the first time she says, “Hello interesting older lady!” But when she is inappropriate, she makes us question whether the niceties of society or social conventions are necessary.

Godwin hired a medical assistant, Max (Rami Youssef from Bohemian Rhapsody and
Oppenheimer) who is very attracted to Bella, and since he seems to be a nice, reliable man she quickly agrees to marry him although she is not really mentally or emotionally mature enough make such a big decision. However, he refuses to consummate the relationship before marriage in keeping with the normal social patterns for a gentleman of his era. But this turns out to be a big mistake because like an adolescent she is bursting with sexual energy.

In the meantime, she “eats the forbidden fruit” or becomes sexually awakened. She starts masturbating and develops a strong physical attraction to a rakish lawyer named Duncan Wedderburn (played by Mark Ruffalo) who seduces her and they engage in a lot of what she calls “furious jumping.”

She felt trapped her whole life, so when Duncan asks her to go on a trip around the world, she finds it Impossible to resist, but first he makes her promise that she won’t fall in love with him. For a while she has the same kind of sexual freedom that the real Romantics like Percy Shelley and Lord Byron championed. But things get complicated because the former playboy Duncan eventually falls in love with her and proposes, but she just sees their relationship as a short relationship or a temporary means to gain knowledge. At one point she informs him in a matter-of-fact manner, “My heart has become dim towards your swearing, weepy person.” After they separate, she expects she can just pick things up and go back to Max, but there are some big twists and things don’t go as you would expect. The ending is quite shocking and it echoes both Tod Browning’s twisted classic Freaks and Frank Henlenotter’s Frankenhooker, which believe it or not one of my better film professors, William McBride actually taught.

Bella gains some further wisdom from her dealings with a jaded Madame Swiney, wonderfully played by Kathyrn Hunter. who provides some of the film’s best lines, such as “horror and degradation make us whole.”
The film is also interesting because of its steam punk setting which combines elements from different eras (mostly Victorian with modern day), so it simultaneously feels old and new. For instance, while many buildings look Victorian, there are sky carriages on wires and there is a cyborg vehicle made up of a horse’s head and steam engine.

If Ken Russell; directed a psychedelic adaptation of Bride of Frankenstein based on a script by a modern feminist, this is how it might turn out. The film walks the tightrope, but it narrowly avoids Russell’s main flaw of making overripe films that show us too much (he was all about excess.) giving us the equivalent of a stomachache.

Also, the film has some of the year’s most visually inventive cinematography and it looks great to start to finish with tons of scenes with symmetrical and perfectly balanced shots that are enormously appealing to the eye. The cinematographer Robbie Ryan shot many scenes in “fisheye lens style” on 16-millimeter film on a 30-millimeter camera framing which tends to curve landscapes and some shots that look like old pictures. This technique that the director also used in The Favorite, gives the film one of the most memorable and unique looks of any films released this year.

It also resembles
Barbie and it has been called an adult Barbie perhaps both films are about controlled women who live a patriarchal controlled environment to go on journey to find better ways of living. The film also looks as good as Barbie but it is far more erotic and more understanding of human nature.

A tasty delight from start to finish. This gloriously bawdy and odd film will put off some, its sex scenes will probably put off cinematic puritans, but it lingers in your imagination like a vivid fever dream.

Directed by:    Yorgos Lanthimos
Written by:    Screenplay by Tony McNama, Based on the novel
 of the same name by Alasdair Gray
Starring:    Emma Stone, Mark Ruffalo, Willem Dafoe
Released:    12/08/2023 (limited opening), 12/22/2023 (wide)
Length:    141 minutes
Rating:    R for strong and pervasive sexual content, graphic
 nudity, gore and language
Available On:    At press time this was available on Max streaming

For more writings by Vittorio Carli go to www.artinterviews.org and www.chicagopoetry.org. His latest book "Tape Worm Salad with Olive Oil for Extra Flavor" is also available.

Mister Carli is going to speak about how the Frankenstein Monster has evolved in the media at Moraine Valley Community College in his upcoming lecture: “The Complete Character is Nowhere: The Evolution of Frankenstein and His Monster in Films, Comics and Songs”
This event is scheduled on Wednesday, March 6th, noon-12:50pm, at Moraine Valley Library Lounge (Building L).

Come to the New Poetry Show on the first Saturday of every month at Tangible Books in Bridgeport from 7-9 at 3324 South Halsted.
This is now a monthly show featuring Poetry/Spoken Word, some Music, Stand Up and Performance Art and hosted by Mister Carli. For more information e-mail: carlivit@gmail.com for details

Upcoming features at the Poetry Show:
February 3-Special Daley College Show featuring Ana Arredondo, Jeremy Basso, Christian Cofield, and Genesis Jiminez

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