Venice Film Festival Review: Yorgos Lanthimos’ ‘Poor Things’

Poor Things Review - 2023 Yorgos Lanthimos Movie Film

Vague Visages’ Poor Things review contains minor spoilers. Yorgos Lanthimos’ 2023 movie features Emma Stone, Willem Dafoe and Vicki Pepperdine. Check out the VV home page for more film reviews, along with cast/character summaries, streaming guides and complete soundtrack song listings.


Poor Things, Yorgos Lanthimos’ surrealist sci-fi black comedy, arrived at the Venice Film Festival with the kind of buzz that attends a future classic. The genre-defying fantasy has shades of Jim Henson, Luis Buñuel and Pier Paolo Pasolini, but the brutally sexy and violently funny film offers perhaps the most profound installment of this year’s competition. Adapting Alasdair Gray’s famously impenetrable novel is a staggeringly ambitious task, and yet Lanthimos not only nails it but also makes it look simple with his mastery of tone. 

Set in an parallel vision of Victorian London, Poor Things chronicles the lifelong struggle for meaning by Bella Baxter (Emma Stone in a towering, “born-for-this-role” type of performance), the Frankenstein-like creation of Dr. Godwin (Willem Dafoe). The protagonist sets out on an epic journey that sees her come to grasp the meaning of love, life and pastries.

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Poor Things Review - 2023 Yorgos Lanthimos Movie Film

Gray’s seminal 1992 novel, adapted for Poor Things by longtime Lanthimos collaborator Tony McNamara, brings in shades of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), The Elephant Man (1977) and Voltaire. Bella falls for the charming protege of Dr. Godwin (or “God,” as she affectionately calls him), Max McCandless (an effortlessly charming Ramy Youssef), but runs off with the caddish Duncan Wedderbrun (Mark Ruffalo) instead, for a series of gothic and grand encounters across the continent. In this strange new world, Bella must forge her sense of self, and she discovers that, as a woman in Victorian society, this can arrive at the highest price. One of the many, many surprises of the gloriously demented Poor Things screenplay turns out to be that the most foul-mouthed film of the year is also its most soulful. 

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Through Bella’s sexual odyssey, she comes to know the dynamics of gender and power, just as The Favourite (2018) takes a stick of dynamite to the sexual repression of royal poltitics. Even for a filmmaker as agile as Lanthimos, Poor Things is a major gear change. It is for contemporary cinema too. For a major studio (Searchlight Pictures) to roll the dice on this dizzying vision of Scottish steampunk is one thing, but to render the most ambitiously sexy film of the 21st century is another. The witty Poor Things screenplay contains the most delicate balance between Lanthimos’ slapstick and sadism yet. And the story’s screwy loops and madly rococo flair are artfully controlled by McNamara’s screenplay. At 141 minutes in duration, and with a huge ensemble cast, Poor Things skips along, showing Lanthimos’ native understanding of the material. 

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Poor Things Review - 2023 Yorgos Lanthimos Movie Film

Lanthimos maps a world of human emotion on Stone’s generous performance as Bella. The actress scans from the blank slate of a three-year-old’s mind to the foot-stomping naivety of an adolescent. If Lanthimos’ previous studies have been forensic in their approach, Poor Things transcends his usual realm and starts to explore something more profound. The film, like its leading lady, starts to sing and soar once Bella discovers the meaning of her soul.

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There is the usual Lanthimosian (or Yorgosian?) flair in Poor Things, with its fisheye lens and axis-titled scenes, but the comic timing is so precise that it’s like watching Buster Keaton as directed by David Lynch, or a Monty Python production through the mind of David Cronenberg. In other words, Poor Things is indeed a classic Lanthimos film, and it might just be his masterwork.

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Poor Things Review - 2023 Yorgos Lanthimos Movie Film

From fear (Dogtooth, 2009) to grief (Alps, 2011) to love (The Lobster, 2015), Lanthimos examines human emotion as a sort of mask that we wear, stripping his characters of time and place to observe the raw human animal. Poor Things might be the purest distillation of this yet. We are poor things, but Bella’s lesson is that there are things in this brutish world that we ought to be grateful for. Filmmaking of this caliber is one of them.

Jonny Mahon-Heap is a culture and lifestyle reporter. His work has appeared in The Guardian, Little White Lies, Man About Town and Metro.

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