Yorgos Lanthimos, the idiosyncratic Greek director behind films such as “The Favourite” and “The Killing of a Sacred Deer,” has never been afraid to push an audience outside of their comfort zone. His films, marked by stilted dialogue delivered by deadpan actors, avant-garde cinematography and a deeply pessimistic sense of humor, can be most easily identified by one simple human act — sex.
In the press conference at the Venice Film Festival for his newest film “Poor Things” — the eventual winner of the festival’s prestigious Golden Lion — Lanthimos jokingly remarked, “It’s weird, isn’t it? Why is there no sex in movies?”
In Lanthimos’s cinematic language, sex is far more than an erotic expression of passion purely put on screen for aesthetic purposes. Of the many ways sex has appeared in his films, the scenes generally hover around three major exploratory questions: how sex can be used to liberate a body, how it can be used to enact control over another and how it can so easily be commodified. Never have these questions been more crucial in his work than in “Poor Things,” a Victorian-era science fiction film, and never have they been so interesting.
“Poor Things” follows the rapid and curious coming of age of Bella Baxter (Emma Stone), the revived creation of the Victor Frankenstein-esque Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe). In her quest to understand free will and personhood, she leaves the confines of the Doctor’s home to go on a continental journey with Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo), a lawyer whose initial rejection of all things appropriate in society attracts the ever-curious Baxter.
Baxter’s initial coming to consciousness in the world is one marked by excessive hedonism eventually leading to cynical nihilism. Starting with a sexual awakening at the hands of an apple and a whole lot of sex with Wedderburn, to excessively eating sweets, binge drinking and dancing, Baxter looks to experience the world in as many sensory ways as possible.
But upon meeting Harry Astley (Jerrod Carmichael) on a luxury ship to Greece, Baxter gets exposed to a more pessimistic view of the world. She learns that behind the opulence of her own new life is a world of suffering and inequity, and is left to reckon with the helplessness of not being able to fix it.
The film is most impressive in how it tracks the mental growth of Baxter’s character. She begins hardly being able to string together a coherent sentence of more than three words and ends up capable of citing philosophy and understanding human anatomy. But never does the film feel like it is making an illogical leap in her capabilities from scene to scene.
Tony McNamara’s screenplay does a very clever job of slowly introducing new vocabulary for Baxter: Her gradual development into a fully formed individual truly feels like that of a real human, albeit accelerated. And it is fully sold by the best performance of Stone’s career, which perfectly matches the progression of her dialogue with her development of new, more “civil” mannerisms. She begins walking like an action figure, with stiff limbs and a limited range of motion, but as she finds her way in the world, she learns how to physically move through it as well.
She learns to read into the intricacies of human mannerisms and finds her worth as a unique individual, not propped up by the men in her life. And, of course, much of this is learned through sex. Not just the pure act of it, but also the withholding of it and the philosophical discussion of it. This progression from something of pure experience to the contemplation of that very thing’s meaning is a thematic arc that exists in every aspect of the film. It is this development that never makes the film feel stale and always provides something to ponder.
But what makes the film most impressive is its aesthetics. Lanthimos pulls out his full pantheon of camera techniques ranging from harsh fisheye lenses to extreme closeups to peephole framing which bring the viewer into the uncanny worlds only Lanthimos can successfully create. The setpieces of London, Lisbon, the ship, Alexandria and Paris are all styled like intricate dollhouses finished off with a rich color palette which ranges from deep purple and orange skies to steampunk vehicles populating all of the locales.
“Poor Things” is not the most easily approachable film out there. Its scenes are littered with full-frontal nudity and sex and its shots are funky and unsettling — with a fair share of blood and guts, as well. But beyond these potential roadblocks is a touching story about learning to understand humanity in all its cruel complexities. On top of that, it is one of the most daringly successful aesthetic achievements in recent cinema. Lanthimos’s voice can not be mistaken for anyone else’s, juggling all of these elements to create something that is nothing short of art in its highest form.
Finn Kirkpatrick is an arts & culture editor. He is a junior from Los Angeles, California studying Comparative Literature who likes to review movies and other things of that sort.