When I was in high school in the early aughts it was the peak of "emo" culture as the wave of pop-punk music and hairstyles had fully enveloped the youth. Punk rock had completely overtaken the music scene that had previously belonged to the pure pop acts at the turn of the millennium. A good portion of what would have previously been categorized as the "mainstream" crowd was now more than happy to sport t-shirts from Hot Topic toasting their favorite bands; the more undiscovered, the better. At seventeen and eighteen this was more than enough to pique my interest in the shifting allegiances and blurred lines of high school cliques in the real world yet the bigger revelation that came out of this was an examination of the "goth" community. Beyond their shared interests in (again) music, I began to question what it was that motivated them to dress so distinctly and so differently. Furthermore, why the need to take it to such an extreme? My initial thought was simply that: to be different. Maybe that's exactly what it was or maybe it served as a signal to those who also dressed that way that they were of like minds. While this was certainly a probable explanation the overarching intent of the intensity of their look was seemingly to stand out and stand apart. This naturally led to internal inquiries of what is exactly different about you if what you're doing to be different is solely for that reason. And then, if there is this whole group of people who dress the same solely to be different then aren't they just another clique themselves? Of course, these social circles are formed due to similar interests, participation in the same activities, churches, tax brackets, and so on but as someone who likes to think of themselves as moderate in every facet of life the difference in "goths" and every other clique went back to the question of intent. Was there meaning behind the mohawks and dark make-up? 

While I never fleshed these questions and ideas out with anyone, this was the beginning seeds of understanding the rather broad (and simple) lesson that how you present yourself physically wasn't the aspect that would ultimately determine what makes you different from someone else. This isn't a slight against the goth crowd either, but more an observation and kind of affirmation that such exterior effort shouldn't be necessary in order to feel seen and valued. There's no shame in wanting to feel singular and validated - high school today must be a thousand times more complicated in these regards with what a mess social media has made in not only feeling the need to stand out in your bubble, but against the entirety of the internet - but if there is nothing beyond the desire to be different than simply being different that is when we enter the territory of someone's entire personality consisting only of being non-conforming because that's what they do. When considering all of this through the lens of high school circles, weird for the sake of weird began to feel as hollow as the goths no doubt assumed most of the jock's heads were. Weird for the sake of being weird is what brings me to Poor Things and whether or not the way it presents itself was simply to set itself apart or if the attempts to subvert and push the envelope were in fact to serve a bigger, more well-rounded series of ideas. That, or at least be in service of lampooning some very specific, but recognizable facet of the world in which viewers could relate to the point their opinion of the film might transcend the intentionally strange, possibly superficial surface.

Dr. Godwin Baxter AKA God (Willem Dafoe) is something of a mad scientist too caught up in fulfilling his nickname.
Photo by Yorgos Lanthimos

To push the analogy just a bit further, Emma Stone is a thirty-five-year-old woman from Scottsdale, Arizona and Yorgos Lanthimos is a fifty-year-old man from Pangrati, Athens, Greece. Like Poor Things, their pairing also seems odd and if taken at face value, a little strained. Despite having worked together before, the opening section of this film sometimes feels like a competition between the two around who can push their boundaries the furthest. Lanthimos with his interpretations or Stone with her performance? Working from a screenplay by Tony McNamara (Cruella, The Favourite) that is based on Alasdair Gray's (who was Scottish, I might add) 1992 novel of the same name, the aesthetic choices paired with certain character quirks initially tend to skew toward the luxuriously self-indulgent as the decadence of the production and costume designs speak for themselves. That isn't to say they aren't grandiose - they are intentionally so - but to what point does this surrealist period setting play into the plot or story? To make the case of the film's intentions even more contentious concerning whether there is more going on than an elaborate diatribe on polite society brings us to the fact there is scarcely anything in the way of plotting for the first hour of the film. Moreover, this opening act is meant to introduce and contextualize Stone's Bella Baxter. Again, it is a fascinating kind of character and situational study that yields much intrigue and likely even more questions than viewers might care to know the answers to, but is unquestionably intriguing, nonetheless. Though the introduction to what Lanthimos is crafting can certainly feel more ostentatious than involving I would be lying if I said it doesn't eventually pull you into this world even if his style doesn't necessarily enhance his themes; the multitude of themes and the borderline gaudy style each being enough to warrant investigation in their own right much less the giant amalgamation that Poor Things is.

From this purgatory-like stage of the viewing experience it would be simple enough to default to a checklist of items critics typically note when discussing a film as ambitious as Poor Things even if the reality of the result never matches said ambition. Stone clearly trusts the shit out of Lanthimos regardless of whether they are trying to out-weird one another or not. Her performance here is so unhinged and her dedication, callow or not, cannot really be criticized as such for she is meant to embody an unsophisticated juvenile for much of that first hour. Given how the character develops I can only imagine the type of method it took for Stone to track that evolution from one take to the next, but as it plays it is legitimately stunning how natural it feels and how organically her intellect develops; a real accomplishment in creating and executing this character as well as in script supervision. We can mention how inspired it was to cast Mark Ruffalo to play against type as this kind of cad of a man, a rascal who is so immediately taken with Bella due to her seeming inexperience and unassailable desires, but who becomes less and less enchanted the more she becomes a woman of her own accord and less a doll he can mold to his own liking, but Ruffalo has always risen to the challenge. We still mention it because it's true, Ruffalo is fantastic and such a role couldn't have come along at a better time for the actor who seemed to have lost a sense of direction and urgency in his choices prior. The remainder of the performances, be it Willem Dafoe as the Victor Frankenstein-like mad scientist who himself was an experiment to his own father or Ramy Youssef as the Igor-adjacent assistant to Dafoe's "God" who falls in love with Bella and makes arrangements to marry her prior to the arrival of Ruffalo's Duncan Wedderburn, equally serve their purpose while making the most of the capacity they hold in Bella's journey. Though miles vary on how much or how little these extraneous elements reflect the core subject being dealt with, they are clearly all done with a certain amount of excitement as one can sense the actor's enthusiasm at having the opportunity to play in a world like this. 

Bella Baxter (Emma Stone) is a unique creation, a woman plotting her own destiny.
Photo by Yorgos Lanthimos

It is shortly after the second section of the film aboard a ship that things began to turn though, for as Bella becomes more aware of the world around her and therefore more conflicted by the state of it she begins to explore the nature of humanity and question its ability to advance, improve, and grow or if such ideals are ignorant pursuits in an effort to ease ourselves into the fact this is a cruel world because humans ultimately have no other choice but to be in order to survive. Cruel, that is. The introduction of Jerrod Carmichael's cynic of a character named Harry Astley leverages Bella's lack of wisdom and judgement, but Harry recognizes the uniqueness of Bella in her approach to the world and understands that just because she is naive doesn't mean she is thoughtless, in fact, the truth is quite the contrary. Harry ushers Bella into her next stage of development introducing the idea of the many conundrums of life. How has she somehow been born into the privileged position of sleeping on feather beds each night while dead babies are buried in a ditch beneath her hotel in Alexandria? Bella begins to search within herself for what she can do in order to try and provide some sense of progress for the inequality she has witnessed, but realizes she has nothing to offer outside of Duncan's money whose scarcity is a sickness all its own with no remedy in sight or even considered. Stopping short of becoming a battle of wits, Lanthimos by way of McNamara's script (seriously, if this wins awards for anything it should be adapted screenplay) takes Bella's newfound perspective and tests her sympathies by reversing her fortunes in Paris. This is something of an unexpected turn given the initial bizarre nature and outlandish facade the film presents. That facade seemed only to suit a story analyzing how "polite society" has made us all unnecessarily dramatic and convoluted in our otherwise pointless existence and that there's no shame in enjoying our carnal desires proudly. Sure, there's truth to that too just as there is to the fact that's all some viewers will amount Poor Things to, but these second and third act progressions make it evident this is more than a shallow "goth" perched on their high school's stoop, blaring metal for nothing more than attention.

Even past the grappling with the demands of the world, Poor Things eventually becomes a film about and of discovery. I love and appreciate filmmaking touches such as holding shots for extended (extremely exaggerated) periods of time for comic effect, camera whip pans from Bella and Duncan "furious jumping" one another to a pigeon that has randomly flown in through the window, as well as the structural design of the film set to symbolic images of what it must feel like to be inside Bella's brain at different stages of her development, trust me, I do. What is most satisfying though, is how the film surprised in expanding past its obvious targets and dissecting the many meanings of discovery in this sense that we must experience everything, not just the good, in order to lead meaningful lives. This of course echoes my - for lack of a more original phrase - "style over substance" concerns regarding Lanthimos relying too heavily on his production design and fish eye lenses to convey some type of significance, but along with these admittedly pleasant and quite beautiful aspects, like in life, Lanthimos takes us through the degradation, horror, and sadness of it all as well; delivering those well-rounded and whole ideas I'd hoped for as Bella - and we - come to know this world. Whether Poor Things is arguing for its more cynical view that hope is smashable and realism is not or if it is vouching for something a little more optimistic even if it's only in the hope that life somehow remains bearable it is a complex piece of contemplation zeroing in on what it takes to get to know our worlds and taking from that enough to create the life we please. Oh, the film also includes two of the best line deliveries of the year in Ruffalo's "Fuck off before I break your teeth!" which is immediately followed by him expelling a fart noise from under his mustache as well as Christopher Abbott, who I haven't mentioned yet, being taken aback by Bella's explanation of what has happened to her with a subdued but genuine "ahh" that is so funny even a goth would be forced to crack a smile.  

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