Review: Poor Things is a masterfully decadent third-wave feminist film

Third-wave feminism? That's something about… liberation, diversity, individualism, right? I can't keep up either, lots of titles, names, dates…the Wikipedia entry is too long. Anyway, in a gross attempt to get and keep your attention, I'll summarize Poor Things's point of entry into the topic-


Poor Things starts out all style. The black and white, bizarre editing, and strange, calculated dialogue seems like Yorgos Lanthimos is doing his best full-blown $35 million homage to Guy Maddin, curious medical maladies intact and all. At some point mid-film, the style either retreated a bit, or I got used to it and stopped noticing it in favor of the plot. Hard to say.

Like so many favorite maximalist films, the style isn't just in the imagery. It's in the dialogue, expertly written to mirror Bella's cognitive development; it's in the set design, a farrago of various Victorian gothic motifs and a bunch of other styles I don't know the names of; it's in the acting, all of the actors playing Characters, completely over the top but all very reasonable in their own way. The set design of Bella's home is as much an aesthetically Frankensteinian creation as the Mabusian creatures roaming about and as their creator, God(win).

Bella's progression from weird infant in a woman's body to liberated female-as-force-of-nature comes with a strange entrance. It happens quickly, but understandably. Initially, it's uncomfortable to watch her character masturbate or sort-of approve of come-ons from a foppish lawyer. As her body hosts the brain of the host's unborn fetus (it's complicated), the Bella Baxter that we see on screen is very young. Somehow, though, as the film progresses, it details her sexual escapades without feeling creepy. This is a bold feat testifying to the storytelling and directorial skill of Lanthimos as well as the prowess of Emma Stone. We see Bella in all modes of sexual awakening and eventually, become very proud of her in her self-determination. Excitedly fleeing the confines of her home, gleefully fleeing the restrictions of once-languid Mark Ruffalo's Duncan Wedderburn, hungrily fleeing her stilted but intelligent baby talk in favor of an excessive use of synonyms, it's all a pleasure to watch. Pleasure being the operative word, leave the kids at home.

"Fleeing" though, isn't really the operative word. So many films make the mistake of depicting women's liberation solely as exit from conflict. To be the victim, or proving to be more than a victim, is the greatest mark of power or achievement.

So much of media depict harrowing violence or revenge as a sign of liberation. Poor Things doesn't fall to this trope. It's woman for woman's sake, whether that's choosing to go on adventure with a self-aware but extraordinarily slimy dandy, becoming an active member of a Parisian brothel or hastily leaving the man who loves her to pursue an interesting, if violent side quest. Liberation is the option for choice.

Most characters in the film respect Bella's audacity, and let her go her way. That detail, in this extraordinary world of creatures and ornate set design, is the only bit of obvious fiction.

Lesser filmmakers could easily play out this idea in sloppy, broad strokes. But it takes a master craftsman to make the viewer consider every angle and settle on the same conclusions that the more agreeable characters come to- Bella is her own person, entirely her own creation. Wow.

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