Poor Things

Yorgos Lanthimos. I like the way that sounds: YorGOS LANthiMOS!

Sorry, I can’t see a movie from this bizarre Greek filmmaker without going on about his name. It may be, in fact, that I don’t like his movies per se but I enjoy any excuse to say his name. Yorgos. Lanthimos.

Seriously, though, the deal with YL is this: He’s weird. He makes odd movies that, shall we say, challenge sentimentality.

Mark Ruffalo is less credible as a lothario than as a heartbroken schlub.

Personally, I like sentimentality, so if you’re going to dismantle it, you’d better do a good job. And so it was with the very challenging The Lobster and the somewhat more accessible (Academy Award winning) The Favourite. And while I liked The Lobster (a lot!) it was definitely in the realm of Movies-I-Would-Not-Generally-Recommend. (The Favourite, arguably, hides some of its prickliness and may be more watchable.)

Poor Things is also going to be challenging, no doubt. It is a brilliant concept (enough to where I want to read the ’90s book it was based on). Take the Victorian-era tropes of the young virgin, lured to her ruin by a seductive Lothario, struggling to survive by working in a brothel, only to come back home sadder-but-wiser.

OK, now, for the young virgin, substitute Frankenstein’s monster, and you have Poor Things.

The Monster. (This pose, and several others in the early part of the film evoke Elsa Lanchester in “Bride of Frankenstein”.)

The monster in this case is Emma Stone, and if you wish to see said actress naked, simulating sexual responses, this is undoubtedly the film for you.

But, as always, for Mr. Lanthimos, this is not the point. The story goes like this: A mad scientist (a wonderfully Frakensteined-up Willem Dafoe) brings his young student (Ramy Youssef) to babysit his monster (Emma Stone). Quickly, though, we realize she’s not a monster but a baby in a woman’s body.

The movie is increasingly blunt about it’s non-literal nature. The scenery is largely CGI mattes, there are dirigibles everywhere, strange architecture—I kind of feel like Lanthimos, far from a shock-the-squares kinda guy, is someone who just wants to tell weird stories without people getting crazy about the horror they would depict were they real.

Willem Dafoe had to spend nine hours in the makeup chair to look slightly scarier than usual.

It’s odd to say that a movie that has such intense graphic violence and sex has a “light touch” but there’s a purity of intent here: It’s not trying to gross you out or turn you on, it’s trying to get you to consider why you have certain reactions.

This mostly comes out as funny, if blackly so. The lothario (Mark Ruffalo) ends up the basket case as the monster uses him for sexual pleasure without any sentimental attachment. And then, as she learns of the suffering of others, she ruins him even further to give his money to the suffering and the destitute. She has no moral compunctions about sexuality but far from leading her to endless ecstasy, she ends up frustrated and ultimately numb.

But she never grasps the concept of victimhood either, and she becomes increasingly in control of her circumstances, even as she deals with unscrupulous, exploitative people.

There’s a third act twist which is both dark and funny, as the monster discovers her roots. And the mad scientist, who is constantly talking dispassionately about the tortures his own father inflicted on him (why? for science!) ultimately, much like his monster, discovers the value in genuine human sentiment.

Congrats on the Golden Globe, Emma.

For all the sex, violence and depravity, it’s a pretty upbeat story, actually. But you have to get through all the sex, violence and depravity, which could be either a plus or a minus depending on your own tendencies.

Acting is top notch. The music is brilliant. The CGI is fake-as-hell but deliberately so, that sort of not-trying-to-fool-you-just-trying-to-entertain look. The costumes are fabulous, capturing a Victorian feel mixed with the absurdity of Stone running around in what would’ve been called her underwear back then.

Though the ‘gique’s niece argues that it’s much more accessible than The Lobster. Still, the ‘gique counters, it’s not going to win over her grandmother (my mother) who hates The Lobster and considers it the worst movie ever made.

Overall, it’s of a piece with the rest of the director’s work. It’s much more highly rated (8.5 on IMDB) than his next higher work, The Favourite (7.5), but ultimately it cannot escape its own Yorgosity. Lanthimosity? That is, if you don’t like this guy’s style, this probably isn’t going to win you over.

I would be surprised if it breaks the top five. If the Golden Globes are worth anything (and they shouldn’t be) it might break the $30M (domestic) box office, but I’m guessing it peters out in the mid-20s. It’s gotten nowhere near the top five, and I don’t expect it to.

In the past three weeks, we’ve seen Monster, The Boy and the Heron, upheld the Christmas tradition of seeing Korean movies on the 24th, 12/12 and The Deadly Sea, and in the new year the 3D documentary from Wim Wenders, Anselm, and The Iron Claw. They’re all really good in their respective genres.

12/12 is a political thriller about how fascists took over South Korea in the ’80s (see 1987: When The Day Comes for the end of that story). These sorts of movies are typically super-hard to follow for us, but this one was so well done we were on the edge of our seats the whole time.

The Iron Claw is a moving drama based on a real-life wrestling family which is really terrific but also a tearjerker. Even so, it’s my recommendation of the week for “normie American fare”. It manages to portray values and people foreign to Hollywood in a respectful way. Check it out.

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