Venice 2023: ‘Poor Things’ – Emma Stone on a Voyage of Awakening

by Alex Billington
September 1, 2023

Poor Things Review

“How do they make the pastry so crisp?” The most important question of the entire film. The pastry being referred to is the iconic pastel de nata from Lisbon, Portugal – which is indeed delicious, and is consumed many times throughout this exquisite film. Even though she despises most food, the pastel is one item she delights in. Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos is back again with yet another provocative, one-of-a-kind, stunning cinematic creation unlike anything we have ever witnessed before on the big screen. Poor Things is his latest feature film premiering at the Venice Film Festival, adapted by screenwriter Tony McNamara from the novel of the same name by Alasdair Gray. It might be the raunchiest film of the entire decade…?! With all the pointless debates on social media about sex scenes & nudity in cinema, Lanthimos has decided to dance in & decidedly say – screw that, sex is an important part of life and here is my glorious film taking us on a grand journey of sexual awakening & womanly emancipation. Now let’s feast on pastel! It’s brillaint.

By now we all know that Yorgos Lanthimos is a cinema provocateur of highest order – starting with his original Greek films Dogtooth and Alps, continuing into his English-language era with The Lobster and The Favourite, now taking us on a voyage into the kingdom of pleasure with Poor Things. The good news from this world premiere in Venice is that none of the marketing released so far has actually hinted at any of what this film is REALLY about and ohhh holy shit it’s going to blow people’s minds – and stir up debates and discussions unlike any other. (Don’t read on if you don’t want to know anything else about the film.) Poor Things is “the incredible tale about the fantastical evolution of Bella Baxter, a young woman brought back to life by the brilliant and unorthodox scientist Dr. Godwin Baxter.” The script is deliciously Lanthimos, even though he didn’t write it this time, filled with quippy, dry one-liners and bizarre humor and misadventures. Emma Stone stars as “God’s” creation – a young woman brought back from death by a mad doctor who is experimenting on mixing & reanimating animals. Less Frankenstein, more so Bulgakov’s Heart of the Dog.

I initially thought this was going to be some Frankenstein story because the opening 30 minutes are about Dr. Baxter zapping her body back to life after removing and replacing her brain. But that is merely a quick reference, as the story becomes something else once she is off to the races. Stone’s Bella is a young woman re-experiencing life all over again. Instead of her body changing or growing up, since it was brought “back to life”, it’s her mind growing up again. Poor Things is really about sexuality, and Bella’s experiences with sex. After discovering her “happy” spot, she is very quickly thrust into the world of men and sex and pleasure – whether she wants to be in it or not. Before you know it, Mark Ruffalo appears as Duncan Wedderburn, a horndog attracted to her who whisks her away on a trip to Portugal where they have sex non-stop – with breaks only to get pastel de nata and drink. But this is only the start of her journey. The rest of the story is about Bella experiencing all the different phases of life as a sexualized woman in a patriarchal society. Yes, she enjoys it, referring to it as happy “jumping” since her brain is still learning the right words. But is she really liberated? Is she free to enjoy it? Or is all this sexualization just the result of horny men everywhere?

Of course, she learns to be empowered and financially embellished by sex, always relishing in the pleasure though eventually becoming tired of the process. And of all the men. It’s a genius take on sexual liberation – something that should get everyone talking. If Greta Gerwig’s Barbie was a surface-level look at feminism, Poor Things is a raunchy deep-dive into the more complex waters of sexualization and women’s liberation. Where will her path take her next, how will she learn to navigate all of the nasty men? To top it off, this isn’t a simple telling of this story. Lanthimos goes all-out with some spectacularly colorful visuals and an entirely fabricated fantasy reality. Yes, it’s set in our (patriarchal) world as we know it, but Lanthimos doesn’t like to tell his stories without any style – he always has to add something unique to the cinematic aesthetic. This time it’s vibrant, Alice in Wonderland-esque visualizations with funky sets and candy-colored skies. Even if it doesn’t particularly add more to the conversation within the film, it’s absolutely entrancing to watch and get lost in. It will be delightful to revisit this film many times just to go back and stare in awe at every frame.

The morning press screening in Venice erupted into cheers as soon as it ended – rapturous praise this film absolutely deserves. Bella’s journey is a powerfully potent, eye-opening look at the world – sharing honest truths about men and sex, while also allowing Bella to discover and walk down her own path of liberation. She is supported by her mad doctor caretaker “God” and a few other characters who respect and appreciate her. Emma Stone is outstanding, another unforgettable role in her remarkable oeuvre. And the wickedly distinct score by Jerskin Fendrix adds another layer of mad genius to the cinematic experience. I want to talk about this film and discuss it more and analyze every single aspect, and when it comes all over theaters later this year, everyone should be talking about it. Lanthimos loves to stir the pot… and you’ll want a taste.

Alex’s Venice 2023 Rating: 9.5 out of 10
Follow Alex on Twitter – @firstshowing / Or Letterboxd – @firstshowing

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