Tuesday, January 2, 2024

Poor Things: Barbie Goes Victorian

You’ve heard of Dr. Frankenstein, who created a monster out of bits and pieces of human beings. And you’ve heard of Pygmalion, the ancient Greek who sculpted a beautiful woman and then fell in love with her. (The story was modernized by George Bernard Shaw, author of a play about linguist Henry Higgins, who turns a cockney flower girl into a duchess by teaching her how to speak the King’s English. Of course, Shaw’s play became a beloved romantic musical, My Fair Lady, in which confirmed bachelor Higgins and former flower-seller Eliza Doolittle come together in the finale.)    

 I mention all of the above because a current hit film, Poor Things, combines elements of the Frankenstein monster with Pygmalion’s beloved Galatea. The pieced-together woman who develops into an unlikely love object first shows up in this film as a childlike innocent who can barely speak, and walks with an unsteady gait. The odd and fascinating details behind her creation are something you won’t hear from me. Suffice it to say that she calls her much-disfigured patron “God” (his name is Dr. Godwin Baxter), and that initially she clings to his every word. But her boundless appetite for life leads her to discover corners of the world—and her own body—she was not anticipating. So she’s off on a series of erotic adventures in the various capitals of Victorian Europe, portrayed via Yorgos Lanthimos’ highly original filmmaking as the most charming of stage sets. (Lanthimos seems to share with Wes Anderson a passion for fanciful art direction, but I’m convinced Lanthimos, who previously released The Lobster and The Favourite, has much more to say.)

 It's easy enough to call Poor Things kinky. Certainly it’s full of sexual couplings, blunt language, and body-revealing costumes (and the lack thereof). We certainly see a great deal of Emma Stone, who—in the innocent-abroad role of Bella Baxter—discovers both the joys and the humiliations of sex. It’s fun to remember that Stone, a producer as well as the star of this film, made her breakthrough in 2010’s Easy A. There she played the bravura role of  a smart, nerdy (and virginal) teen who pretends to be the local tramp as a way to navigate the rigid social scene at her high school. In Poor Things, the “tramp” label would have no meaning for Bella. Totally committed to satisfying her own wants and needs, she judges the behavior of others in terms of the level of satisfaction they bring to her. Still, she’s constantly evolving, learning that the bed-jumping that had so delighted her in the arms of the roguish Duncan Wedderburn (a slimy Mark Ruffalo) is not always the route to personal satisfaction.

 Bella’s path turns out to be full of men who want to control her. There is, first of all, her “creator,” the obsessive scientist eerily played by Willem Dafoe. There is Wedderburn, a sexual libertine who finds the tables turned when he falls for Bella. There’s another man who emerges late in the film, and seems to have the means to bend her to his will. All these can be said, by final fadeout, to be among the “poor things” to which the title refers. Men don’t fare well in this film, except perhaps for Max (Ramy Youssef), the gentle science nerd who loves Bella for herself.

  Poor Things is a triumph of cinematography, musical scoring, set design, and the melding of past and present. Bella Baxter is a heroine for today, a Barbie who has taken a different (but parallel) route to self-realization.


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