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How to be Human: 'Poor Things'

Updated: May 3

Peggy Hepburn's 3-Word Review: Retrofuturism! Sex! Frankenstein!

Poor Things, 2024

Poor Things is a cinematic schmorgasborg, a plenitudinous hall of mirrors, and, frankly, a breathless sexcapade. Plus: a triumphant return to the screen by the lovely Miss Emma Stone, who hasn’t really been in a talked-about film since La La Land.

The entire film rests on very wobbly feet, indeed, always at the precipice of falling apart, & yet somehow, as if by magic, it holds steady — this metaphor is apt, since Emma Stone’s character is essentially a female Frankenstein’s monster, a re-animated corpse of a pregnant woman found by mad scientist Dr. Godwin Baxter, played by the perfectly-cast Willem DeFoe, who has taken the brain of the unborn fetus & placed it in the head of the deceased woman: et voilà, we have our Bella, a completely original creation both in terms of the world within the film & in terms of modern cinema.

The concept is simple yet wild & fraught: a baby’s brain? in the body of a grown woman? It sounds like the plot of an episode of Dexter’s Laboratory, yet Stone manages to portray this odd character with humor & panache, stumbling in black-&-white in the opening, then gradually finding her feet and setting out with a dubious character, Duncan, played by a dashing Mark Ruffalo, into a world full of breathtaking color. The switch from fisheye lens & grainy black and white to highly saturated, cartoonish color is distinctly tied to Bella’s developing (& potentially distorted, one imagines) Weltanschauung.

Dr. Godwin (whom Bella refers to as ‘God’, a play on words that is a kind of Kafka-like blunt joke about his role in her creation, & who, by the way, looks as if he’s been stitched together himself — he explains at one point that his own father experimented on him as a child in the name of Science & Progress, being raised by such a man lends him the heightened aloof scientific temperament that makes for such comical dialogue throughout, & which temperament is handed down to Bella as well) insists on keeping Bella locked within his compound (not a terrible place to be confined, admittedly, as it’s a sweeping fin-de-ciècle architectural dream house full of the doctor’s kooky experiments with lifeforms: a dog with the head of a goose, that sort of thing), nominally because she is his ‘experiment’, but really because he obviously loves her like a daughter. She is observed night and day by one of Godwin’s students, Max, played by an adorable Ramy Youssef, who is clearly in love with & fascinated by her, as well as caught in the odd position of scholarly dedication to Godwin as well as natural moral repulsion.

The bulk of the film proceeds after Miss Bella has set out with the salacious Duncan & discovers the crown jewel of human pleasures: sex, & all its concomitant complications. She is essentially learning how to function within the human world, a child of science who must grapple with the seemingly ludicrous confines of society’s strictures, which taken prima facie are more than a little silly, when you really get down to it. It is in this way that the film manages to be lighthearted while tackling some of the deepest questions about what it means to be human, especially one of the female variety. Add to that the stunning art direction (are the sets & steampunk contraptions another distortion of Bella’s childlike outlook on the world? or are we occupying some retrofuturistic alternate universe? or both?) plus the sheer weirdness of the story make for a high-minded answer to the quixotic impulse that Barbie attempted earlier this year: here is a genuinely powerful femininity, a girl, a child really, who strips the world to its barest bones & finds herself puzzling over how she shall navigate it. 

—Peggy Hepburn

Illustration by @madamestarlite.


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