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‘Poor Things’ (4K Digital UHD Review)

Disney

Yorgos Lanthimos’ latest has an early scene of Bella (Emma Stone) holding a scalpel at an alarming angle and stabbing a corpse’s eyeballs multiple times while her horrifically disfigured father Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe in heavy makeup) looks up fondly from the patient he himself is cutting– and yet I agree with the assessment that the film is a comedy– possibly Lanthimos’ warmest most cheerful most wholesome work yet.

For those who haven’t heard– this adaptation of the 1992 novel of the same name by Alasdair Gray is a reworking of Mary Shelley’s classic Frankenstein, where the eponymous scientist constructs a body from various corpses and brought the unwieldy thing to life.
Shelley it must be noted is something of a literary vivisectionist herself, having created a shell sewn out of elements of the Gothic and the Romance novel, and grafted into its chest a beating heart assembled from current scientific ideas about biology, evolution, and galvanism, a few key ideas from Pygmalion and Paradise Lost, and her own personal experiences, to create a new genre, Science Fiction.
Haven’t read Gray’s novel but judging from an outline Lanthimos seems to have followed his source relatively closely (Gray’s novel is made of two competing accounts, Bella’s husband and her own, the former insisting she’s a resurrected suicide, the other insisting he’s full of it– you might agree that Lanthimos and his writer Tony MacNamara were right to get rid of the inventive but mostly literary narrative conceit). Gray does set his novel in Glasgow and parts criticize cultural issues involving that city, while Lanthimos decided to set his film in a fabulist steampunk world crisscrossed by airships and Titanic-style ocean cruisers, with architecture that’s a riotous mix of Victorian London, Antonio Gaudi (that half-melted organic feel), and either Tim Burton or Terry Gilliam depending on the phase of their career.
I wasn’t on board with Lanthimos’ design decisions at first– surely a premise as fantastic as this needed a realist background to help sell the idea– but the steampunk Gaudi look creates a fairy tale feel that actually helps. All sorts of bad things can happen to Bella and you flinch every time you think they’re about to– all the adaptations and variations of Frankenstein leading you to expect the worse every time– but again and again Gray (and Lanthimos and MacNamara interpreting Gray) surprise you; that delicately balancing act of staying this side of comedy, with the occasional sway into horror, wouldn’t be sustainable in anything less stylized.
Helps that the world Lanthimos realizes onscreen is so breathlessly gorgeous– beyond Miyazaki’s latest feature and a brief passage in Ari Aster’s Beau is Afraid, can’t think of a more handsome-looking film from last year (think it significant that the only films that can come close to what Lanthimos is doing are both animated).
Critics praised Emma Stone for her fearless performance as Bella– not just stabbing that corpse but the various instances of ‘furious jumping’ in her birthday suit with various men, and the range of emotions involved from adult-sized toddler to poised woman of the world– but I’d also cite Willem Dafoe’s Godwin Baxter, as far away from mad scientist as you can imagine despite the fact that he looks like a victim of Dr. Frankenstein’s inexpert stitching.
At first glance you may want to look away but with time the crevasses and chasms transecting his face come to lend it a sculptured dignity. His love for Bella isn’t demonstrative but time and again he allows her the freedom to make choices and you eventually realize their relationship forms the film’s carefully transplanted heart.
That I suppose is the film’s true power, and far as I can see a marked advance in Lanthimos’ work– not that he’s able to achieve a distinctive visual style, or create grotesque provocative moments– he’s done that in films as diverse as Dogtooth and The Lobster and Killing of a Sacred Deer, and even in the relatively realist The Favourite— but that he’s able to generate sympathy, and moments of genuine tenderness (you do feel sympathy in The Favourite, but only you suspect thanks to Olivia Colman; you do feel some poignancy in The Lobster— but not anything as fully developed, as fully lived, as here).
Maybe my one major reservation with this film is its ultimate treatment of the creation myth. Gray as interpreted by Lanthimos and MacNamara feels like a sunny optimist– albeit one grounded in an awareness of the world– compared to Mary Shelley who was taught a different lesson by life: her mother died a few days after her birth and she lost a son not long before she started writing her most famous novel, all this still in her teens.
Shelley’s first full-length narrative was born out of blood and guilt and shame, and you feel this in both the eponymous creator and above all in his nameless creation– they aspire to love and life but are soon reduced to accepting the peace of death, and the monumental sense of the tragedy is part of the book’s enduring power; Gray, Lanthimos, MacNamara have blunted that power considerably, perhaps necessarily when you think about it– after all, there can only be one Frankenstein.
Extras include Making of featurette and several deleted scenes.
If there’s one filmmaker who ever came close to tapping that power I’d say it was James Whale, who put it all onscreen while wrapping the guilt and shame in a velvet cloak of comedy. Takes skill to tell a tale realizing a considerable share of its original weight and impact; takes more than skill to do it with apparent ease it takes wizardry, and Whale is a master of the art.
Otherwise– bravo Lanthimos, well done, perhaps one of the better films of the year.
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