Nothing Will Weird You Out More Than a Yorgos Lanthimos Comedy
In the opening scene of Poor Things, Emma Stone dies. Things hardly get any less weird over the course of the next 140 minutes, which feature abhorrent behavior, kinky sex and unholy experiments done on animals. That Poor Things, which recently won the top prize at the Venice Film Festival and is a major Oscar contender, is also one of 2023’s funniest movies might be a surprise. But once you know it’s directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, it all makes sense.
In seven films in 14 years, the 50-year-old Greek director has cornered the market on the dark and the odd, viewing the world through a twisted, bleakly amused perspective. Whether in his 2009 breakthrough Dogtooth (his third film) or more recent English-language efforts like The Lobster and The Favourite, Lanthimos wants us to laugh at things that usually repel us. He looks at the absurdity of life and takes it up a couple notches, testing just how much we can take. But Lanthimos isn’t some sadistic sicko giggling through the window, mocking his luckless characters who are often left bloody, emotionally scarred and worse off than when we first met them. Quite the contrary, he invites us to see ourselves in them. We laugh because we understand their disturbing set of circumstances — quite often, and quite uncomfortably, we can relate.
Based on a novel by Alasdair Gray, Poor Things is Lanthimos’ second film with Stone, who was terrific in The Favourite as a scheming, striving poor young woman who finds herself rubbing elbows (and other body parts) with the ailing, deluded queen (Oscar-winner Olivia Colman). Stone has always had a knack for comedy, but The Favourite saw her operating in a higher gear, showing off a delightful nastiness. She’s even more out on a ledge in the new movie, where she plays Bella, who has jumped to her death from a London bridge into the icy water below. She’s brought back to life by Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe), a mad scientist who is Poor Things’ resident Frankenstein.
Bella is no monster, though: With a childlike mind and no memory of what happened to her, she wanders around his home, learning how human beings operate, barely able to move or speak properly at first. (She’s like a silent-comedy star in her rubbery, loosey-goosey gesticulations.) Not that this is one of those sappy tearjerkers about an innocent teaching the audience the importance of kindness and generosity — pretty soon, Bella discovers sex and decides she wants lots of it. To call Poor Things a “coming”-of-age story is both a terrible pun and hilariously accurate.
Much of the credit for the film’s success goes to Stone. Also a producer on Poor Things, she taps into the ace physical comedy she previously flexed briefly in movies like La La Land. But here, she and Lanthimos let Bella run free as an empty, goofy vessel unburdened by the rules of a society that dictates that women disparage themselves for, well, everything. Bella will go on an odyssey of self-discovery, but really, she’s just looking for her next thrill, devouring life with an insatiable appetite.
Initially, that journey involves her taking off with Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo), a slimy, cocky lawyer who thinks he’s God’s gift to the fairer sex. Duncan promises to show her the world, but he pompously declares that he doesn’t want her falling in love with him. (He doesn’t do commitment.) But this rake’s mistake is assuming that she’s just any woman — unaware that men play mind games to make women feel inferior, she walks all over him. Bella’s worldview is simple. She just wants to screw because screwing is fun — when it isn’t any longer, she’s going to move on. Duncan’s fragile ego collapses in hysterical fashion.
Lanthimos has never shied away from showing us upsetting images: dead animals, humans being tortured, a beating heart inside a chest, blood dripping from a young person’s mouth. Poor Things has a few shocking sights, telling its cockeyed feminist Frankenstein story with bits of gore and rampant nudity, not to mention the creepy creatures Godwin tries unleash upon the world. (He has an odd habit of sewing the bodies of different animals together to see what happens.) Lanthimos creates a fantastical world that’s part steampunk, part turn-of-the-20th-century global escapade, utilizing fisheye lenses to make everything seem even more warped than it already is. But it’s not empty provocation or bratty self-indulgence: What he’s after is a bizarre satire about the patriarchy in which Bella eventually understands what an awful place the world can be, and how she can make it a bit brighter. Mostly, by having sex with who she wants.
It would be inaccurate to call Poor Things a horror movie, but it does reside in a tonal terrain in which you may find yourself unsettled, unsure of exactly where it’s going. This is often the fun in Lanthimos’ films. The Lobster’s first half concerned a bleakly funny future that requires everyone to have a mate — the single are turned into animals — and then brazenly changed course in its second half, placing Colin Farrell’s melancholy loner in a community of radicals opposed to the very idea of coupling. The Killing of a Sacred Deer starred Farrell as a husband and dad menaced by a sinister young man (Barry Keoghan) who inexplicably has the power to inflict misery on the man’s family.
Frequently, the humor in a Lanthimos movie doesn’t come from jokes or one-liners — it’s from the shock of being discombobulated in his quirky universes. In Dogtooth, a violent and scathing film about overprotective parents, we’re placed in the home of a family with three adult children who behave like kids because their development has been so stunted by their mom and dad, who tricked them into believing they must stay inside the house so they aren’t killed by monsters right outside the walls. Lanthimos crafts surreal, sorta-familiar landscapes in which the characters are trapped — we in the audience can exit the theater, only to discover there’s no escape from our real world, which isn’t so different.
For all its surprising moments of gore and hairpin plot twists, Poor Things is all heart thanks to Stone, whose risen-from-the-dead curiosity moves around Europe to Egypt and back again, gaining wisdom and empathy along the way. We’ve seen so many movies in which naive, Forrest Gump-like protagonists take on the big, scary world, but Bella is different. She may be innocent, but she’s no dummy, able to size up people quickly. She’s endlessly funny because she’s not hung up on the same insecurities that bedevil the rest of us. She knows what she wants and she goes for it. She’s our DGAF role model.
Viewers who don’t like their comedy laced with eccentricity are going to have a hard time with Poor Things, which is populated by oddballs, outcasts, misogynists, fools and shattered souls. (Godwin’s horribly disfigured face echoes the torment inside him.) But the movie isn’t a freak show, because Lanthimos never stands back and points at his characters. He never has: No matter how bizarre their circumstance, he finds humor in their determination to make the most of an unenviable situation.
What’s so comic about his nightmare worlds is that, the longer you stay in them, the more normal they appear. His near-futures and alternate realities are just fresh ways of seeing the ridiculousness of our day-to-day lives, which are pretty stupid the more you think about them. In his past films, Lanthimos has skewered heteronormativity, family, even the grieving process. (His little-seen Alps was a dark comedy about people hired to role-play as the bereaved’s deceased family members.) With Poor Things, he’s concocted a super-horny comedy about a Frankenstein’s monster who comes back from the dead to kill the patriarchy. He’s a filmmaker who loves to make it weird.