I went in hoping, and fully expecting, to love Poor Things, but it never really clicked for me. So it’s a good thing I’ve got a series called “One Thing I Like,” because there’s an awful lot to like about this movie.
The art direction is outstanding, delivering on the promise of the trailer and then some. It’s full of fantasy versions of cities (and a ship) that are beautiful and familiar, but just surreal enough to suggest that you’re seeing them for the very first time, and just sinister enough to suggest that there’s always danger lurking just outside of your field of view. The beginning calls back to The Bride of Frankenstein and Metropolis, just directly enough to make sure that we make the connection, but not so directly that it feels just like a reference.
And Emma Stone, obviously, gives herself so completely into this character that any trace that it’s a performance disappears within a few minutes. There’s no way the movie would’ve worked without her commitment. Mark Ruffalo is also excellent, acting as if he were a character borrowed from an entirely different movie, which is exactly what’s needed for the character. Willem Dafoe is at the stage in his career where yet another exceptional performance from him isn’t all that exceptional. And I think Ramy Youssef deserves credit for playing the straight man against so many showy performances; he has to function as the audience’s guide into a Victorian horror story, but one in which the story abandons its narrator a third of the way through.
Also, there are brief black-and-white interstitials when the story moves to a new location, each seeming like we’re getting a peek into Bella’s bizarre and beautiful dreams. But none lasts long enough to make any sense of them. Like a real dream, they seem to leave an after-image on the mind, even if we can’t reliably recall details.
But I kept watching with fascination — and revulsion, at all the scenes that were carefully and deliberately constructed to make me feel disgusted or uncomfortable — hoping that it would all come together for me, or that there’d be one moment or one revelation that would push me over into loving it. That never happened.
I found it simultaneously too arch and too on-the-nose. Many of its affectations felt distracting without really adding much of anything. For instance, the shifts between black and white and color could be interpreted not just as a call back to the cinematography of The Bride of Frankenstein, but also a Pleasantville-like signifier of a narrow world view expanding. There are also frequent shots that look as if they were filmed through the wrong end of a telescope; I can guess that they’re intended to slam the audience back into a state of voyeurism instead of being “inside” the scene, but I felt like they were more distracting than impactful.
Every time I felt like I was picking up an idea that was being suggested by the story, there would almost immediately be a scene or a character that made the idea explicit. It was such a weird violation of “show don’t tell,” having a movie show me such wonderful and horrible things, and telling me what they meant. It was often both surprising and innovative, while at the same time feeling like Feminist Frankenstein combined with Thirteen Going on Thirty.
But there was one brief moment that I really appreciated: it’s a very brief scene while Bella is exploring Lisbon and getting exposed to its “sugar and violence.” She’s standing next to a large fish tank, looking fascinated, and I felt it. I briefly stopped trying to process the movie, and felt a sudden surge of anxiety, that something awful was going to happen. The movie had done such a good job of breaking barriers, showing me everything — one-liners, gruesome surgical procedures, pratfalls, fantastic vistas, tantrums, horrible steampunk-organic carriages, sudden violence, entrails, onanism at the breakfast table, animal/human hybrids, corpse reanimation — that it had established Bella as the center of potential chaos, and I felt it to my core.
It actually reminded me a little bit of Pan’s Labyrinth, which showed enough horror and real-world violence that I was fully in the mindset of the little girl at the story’s center, feeling it down to my bones that she was walking or crawling into imminent danger.
There’s a scene in Poor Things that makes the idea more explicit: one where Bella is in the ball room of a fancy hotel and suddenly feels compelled to dance, wild, improvised, and chaotically. Duncan, being a dimwit, tries to join in, steering the dance back to a more societally-approved version, failing of course as she spins him around and grabs him by the throat. He announces afterwards that she’s a free spirit, but of course there’s supposed to be more to it than that: it’s genuine hedonism, where any trace of society, ritual, or even intellectual appreciation is stripped away. She’s experiencing the music in the only way she can, by moving to it.
But I feel like I get the scene but was frustratingly unable to feel it. Raised by a mad scientist, Bella said that everything she had learned was something that had been explained to her; to understand it, she needed to experience it herself.
By making me close my eyes during shots of slicing up brains or dissecting a cadaver, or making me squirm uncomfortably in my seat during graphic sex scenes — although the image of Mark Ruffalo completely nude except for a corset was brilliant — the movie set expectations that there were few limits to what it was willing to do. So although there weren’t as many as I would’ve liked, there were a couple of brief scenes where I genuinely felt on a visceral level that there were wonderful and horrible things that could happen at any moment.