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Review The Otherworldly Beauty of Poor Things

This week's Mor Media Blog delves into Oscar-winning films and offers reviews from The New Wave Jury at Cornwall Film Festival 2023, including "Poor Things" by Rebecca Jackson.

An eerie blue sky frames the face of an unknown woman. She wears a Victorian dress which strangles her throat, and her jet-black hair is gathered into a meticulous updo. Her large, glassy eyes are heavy and world-weary. Below her, the Thames seethes and boils. The image is hauntingly beautiful, but there is a strange, uncanny quality to it. The sky is too blue. And that water...

Enter Bella Baxter, played by Emma Stone. She has the face of that melancholic woman we met on Tower Bridge, but her formerly neat hair now cascades down her back, and her once-tired eyes are bright with curiosity. What has caused this transformation? ‘It is a happy tale’ proclaims the scientist Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe), before he joyfully recounts reanimating the corpse of the mysterious unknown woman, and replacing her brain with that of her unborn child. Thus begins possibly the most outrageous, brilliant film of 2023.

Emma Stone actress Bella Swan in Poor Things

We watch on as Bella, with her infantile mind and unsteady gait, embarks on a journey to discover all that the world can offer her. This includes, but is by no means limited to, masturbation, custard tarts and sex. She is aided in this endeavour by Duncan Weddenburn, a lothario played by Mark Ruffalo with all the pompous lechery you could wish for from a true Victorian rake.

Their travels take them across an imagined Europe of dazzling sci-fi invention. From exquisite miniatures to vast constructed soundstages, the ambition of 'Poor Things' production design harks to an era of sumptuous technicolour and unbridled creativity. Taking inspiration from the likes of Powell and Pressburger, designers James Price and Shona Heath combined traditional filmmaking techniques with modern technology such as giant LED screens to create an immersive and fantastical world that is breathtaking in its detail. Alternative imaginings of European cities appear on the screen as it coloured with the vomit of a child who has eaten a packet of skittles. Rooms that at first glance would look at home in any period drama, reveal hidden details upon further inspection. From ceilings plastered with giant ears to phallus-shaped windows, every inch of the screen is imbued with a wonderfully perverse humour.

However, despite its brazen surreality, the film remains rooted in its late Victorian setting through art nouveau design elements. The decision to use the architectural style of the 1890s, rather than the early 1800s when the novel is set, is a stroke of genius. Unlike the stark geometric forms of the neoclassical style, art nouveau lines are sinuous and sensual, taking inspiration from the natural world. Notably revived in the 1960s, the style is already associated in the public imagination with the strange and psychedelic, lending it perfectly to the dreamlike, bodily-inspired details of this strange universe.

Colour plays an integral role in the film's storytelling. In a nod to The Wizard of Oz, Godwin's home, where Bella spends her early life, is entirely black and white. It’s only when she escapes that she experiences the world in its true kaleidoscopic brilliance. Perhaps most vivid of all is the blood red of the home of her monstrous first husband, a man for whom violence is a way of life. In the expressionistic style of Dario Argento, this terrifying hue seeps into every corner of the screen. Rather than distract from the substance of the film, its design serves to enhance and enrich its bold themes. Much like a macabre fairytale can be repacked as child-friendly by being set far, far away and populated with unearthly characters, the stylized setting of Poor Things allows its darker themes to be more palatable.

Bella Swan in Poor Things pink skies over Paris

Lanthimos has taken the familiar aesthetics of an era heavily associated with oppression and transformed it into something salacious and outlandish. This juxtaposition that perfectly compliments the story's anarchical messaging. This is, at its heart, a film of dichotomies. Nature, desire and freedom come at odds with civilization, repression and entrapment.

Emma Stone plays the woman liberated, unencumbered societal rules and expectations. We watch on gleefully as this puts her at odds with the men around her. Though at first enchanted by her lack of inhibition, Duncan Wedderburn is subsequently embarrassed, then horrified, and ultimately ruined by her as he scrambles desperately to uphold the societal conventions that he initially professed to disdain. All the while Bella Baxter continues to dance through this dizzying world, ever growing and changing and learning.

Much like the human bodies that are dissected and pieced back together over the course of the film, at times the story feels messy; the messaging overwrought. But I hesitate to criticise it for this. If anything, it made me wish I could stay longer with this complex, hilarious and completely original creation.

Poor Things Played in Preview at #CornwallFilmFestival23

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