Poor Things: A cinematic masterpiece or a work of horror?
Content warning: the film depicts scenes of blood, interior organs, dead corpses, graphic surgery, suicide, sexual assault, prostitution and nudity.
The film “Poor Things” got some of the most mixed reviews that I have ever seen, making it arguably one of the most impactful films of the year. I have to admit, I am amongst the group of confused viewers. I left the theater with my head spinning, questioning everything I have ever known. One thing to note is that I have yet to encounter a person or a review without strong opinions on this movie.
I think that classifying this movie as a comedy really sets the audience up for a shock. A comedy has a specific connotation, allowing the audience to enter with preconceived notions. This genre is often easy to watch and light hearted, with predictable punch lines that are guaranteed to garner a chuckle or two. This movie is simply incomparable.
The casting of this film was one of the most impressive elements. This film won the Golden Globe for the best motion picture — Musical or Comedy Motion Picture — but I think the award that should be highlighted is Emma Stone winning Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy. Playing an infant as a 35 year old is an immense challenge, something that she highlighted in an interview with the New York Daily News: “I think just in general the kind of societal things you grow up with around judgment of your body, judgment of other people, shame and all kinds of aspects of yourself. Restarting from scratch, that was a very inspiring part of Bella and a difficult thing to sort of strip away but also extremely freeing.” I have seen Emma Stone in many films and I believe that this was her best so far. There was never a moment where I saw the unproblematic, media trained, sophisticated person that the public has come to know. Instead, she physically and mentally embodied every aspect of her character, and I believe that her performance was one of the strongest parts of the film. In everything she did, from her walk to her gestures, she resembled a toddler, which is something I found visually shocking. The idea of using this movement style is not associated with grown adults, especially those in high social circles like Bella’s character.
Other cast members also did a spectacular job portraying characters that we do not see in our everyday lives. Willem Defoe plays a character named Godwin, referred to as God by Bella. This symbolism is fascinating, as he is both her creator and her imprisoner. This juxtaposition mirrors how some feel about God and religion: prisoners to the practice in fear of the consequences of stopping this one sided devotion. Without her God, Bella would not exist. However, she ends up having to turn her back on him to experience the world and learn, only returning at the very end. The character of God toes the line between a scientist and a butcher, deriving great pleasure from experimenting with and cutting up once living beings, often combining different species in a Frankenstein like manner. This film explores the differences between doctor and butcher, two careers that are not often compared but hold many similar aspects.
The last actor that I will highlight at this time is Mark Ruffalo, playing Duncan Wedderburn. Again, I feel this is one of the strongest performances that I have seen from him to date. He plays a man who goes from being a sleazy lawyer infatuated with the naïve, childlike behavior of Bella to a man locked in an asylum. This character is used as a vessel to show a grown Bella, as her actions that result from learning about the world and the duality of man are the reason Wedderburn goes crazy. The views and expectations that he has built due to his time in the world often are very closed-minded and contradict Bella’s open-mindedness. Ruffalo sobbing after Bella gives all of his money to starving children is a scene that I still see in my head weeks later. The true vulnerability that is shown over money is somehow relatable, as it is necessary to thrive in our society whether you like it or not. The audience is not supposed to like his character, but cannot help but leave the theater impressed with the work of Ruffalo.
This film is meant to be watched by people looking for something to artistically admire. While the story is captivating, it is not one for all audience members. I have heard and seen that many people did not make it through the entire movie, leaving at various points. “Poor Things” feels like something you shouldn’t be watching, but somehow you can’t look away. While I am a fan of many aspects of this movie, I do agree that the pacing was not a strong point. With a two and a half hour run time, sex was clearly used for shock value. The sheer amount of sex scenes that were in this film negatively impacted some of the more major plot points. While sex is used as a form of liberation, the line between liberating moments and porn is blurred. Another line that I believe is blurred is the one between shock value for engagement and shock value as deterrent.
While I may not agree with all of the pacing choices, this movie is one of the most beautiful I have ever seen. The steampunk Victorian imagery, combined with the Frankenstein-esque theming, lead to amazing costumes and beautiful coloring. The world shown on screen mirrors ours but clearly isn’t; it feels like both the past and the future at the same time. The clothing and mannerisms are similar to the London of the past that is often portrayed in the media. However, the vehicles suspended on wires in the sky give a futuristic feel. The soundtrack for this film is also unlike any other that I have seen. The piece of music that stood out the most to me was the introduction. The audio is just music for the first few minutes and the sounds are both childlike and hold a creepy, eerie tone. It sets the scene for a beautiful innocence that is simultaneously not right. Just from the first few notes of music, the audience is able to gauge the tone of the film, which I find very impactful. This film is an adaptation from a novel that was published in 1992. One creative aspect of the film was the section titles shown on screen, emulating chapters of a book. It broke up the story in what I believe to be a positive way, allowing the audience a moment to breathe and appreciate the music as well as the visuals.
If approached with an open mind, this film allows audience members to rethink some things that they have previously accepted and dive into some topics that are often thought of as taboo. Many things are just accepted as social norms without a second thought. Seeing an adult completely ignore these ideas and behave in a black and white way allows the audience to reexamine what they have just accepted as reality, questioning the validity of societal pressures. The audience is supposed to feel uncomfortable, and then eventually wonder why exactly they are feeling this way. Watching the journey of self discovery and exploration of a child that will never have to experience puberty toes the line between thought provoking and disturbing. The child’s mind is sexualized so frequently and intensely, but the question of how inappropriate it is has no answer due to Bella’s physical age. It was also super interesting to watch an adult discover the horrors of the world and react accordingly. In our society, children are desensitized to horrors like poverty and starvation from a young age, unable to do anything and accepting that it is just a part of life. As a physical adult, Bella has the power to take action, making a grave sacrifice on her part to try and change the systematic issues of the world. This comes at the same time as her discovery of philosophical principles, sparking her curiosity and allowing her to learn about imperfection.
This film explored many things that I have not ever seen on screen. The discovery of masturbation at the dining table was both shocking and destigmatizing. The importance of watching her sexual awakening is highlighted as the movie turns from black and white to color the first time she has sex. This choice has gained wide responses, as a Daily Star article argued that this choice insinuates “that Bella’s life was bland and boring until she had a penis inside of her.” This article argued that the film was misogynistic due to the relationship between Bella and men. However, I disagree with these statements. I believe that the transition to color was a representation of Bella discovering both herself and the world. I feel that this choice was a statement about freedom and independence, showing the world as brighter when she was finally able to live in it.
This movie also dives into a lot of subjects that are often seen as taboo. Genital mutilation and queer sex are both things not normalized by our society and shown on screen in a way that works to destigmatize them. Additionally, the film normalizes the versatility of sex and sexual desire through her work as a sex worker. Many different types of desires are displayed as Bella uses sex work as a way to discover and study philosophy. This concept illustrates many issues in our economy such as the inaccessibility of higher education. Bella sees the world of sex work through a black and white lens as what is necessary to get the future that she wants.
To round it out, I think that “Poor Things” was a cinematic masterpiece. The colors, the angles, the music and the costuming were unmatched by any other film that I have watched this year. However, I do think that the length and the use of sex for pure shock value could be improved. I would recommend giving this movie a watch, just not with parents or children and especially not on a first date.