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‘Poor Things’ Is a Gloriously Anarchic Celebration of Life Without Limits

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A pale white woman with long black hair and exaggerated Victorian clothing stands in side profile, wind blowing through her hair, a deep blue sky behind her.
Emma Stone as Bella Baxter in ‘Poor Things.’ (Searchlight Films)

If you happen across a film critic this week who insists that Poor Things is a bad movie, please make a mental note that a) they are lying, and b) they’re probably being a contrarian because they know every other critic on Earth is going to fall over themselves with glee to sing this movie’s praises.

Make no mistake, Poor Things is a masterpiece — a visual one, a philosophical one and a feminist one. It will make you laugh, it will make you ruminate and it will fill you with defiant, rebellious thoughts that persist long after the movie is over. Once you’re tangled up in its surreal, sensuous, open-wide world, it’s quite impossible to not be thoroughly taken with Poor Things. As taken, in fact, as all of the male suitors in the movie are with its unconventional heroine, Bella Baxter. (Played with magnificent abandon by Emma Stone.)

Bella is the creation of Dr. Godwin “God” Baxter (Willem Dafoe), a man who bears the physical and mental scars of his father’s own medical experiments. (I’ll save you the details of exactly how he came up with Bella — it’s far more fun to find out by watching the movie.) Most people, including most of the medical students he teaches, laugh in God’s face. But not Bella. Bella loves God. God keeps Bella safe. God nourishes Bella.

At a certain point in her development however, Bella — imbued with a curiosity that has never been trounced by social conditioning or convention — insists she must see the world beyond the limited scope granted to her within God’s house. (No, the analogies are not that subtle.) Along comes a womanizing cad named Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo in deliciously pompous form) who whisks Bella away from London and off to Portugal, Egypt and then finally to France.

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Bella’s journey is an odyssey in which she painstakingly immerses herself in parsing the meaning of life. At first, she can’t imagine why it’s not only about sexual indulgence — her insatiable, un-self-conscious appetites prompt her first desires to leave God’s house. And though her journey beyond begins thoroughly immersed in pure, unfettered pleasure, along the way she comes to understand inequality and cruelty, humanity’s basest survival instincts and man’s desire to cage or destroy all that is free and beautiful. (Including herself.)

Unimpeded by fear or social mores, Bella experiences each stage of her travels viscerally, unpretentiously and at face value. She lives in a manner that is gloriously unfiltered and untethered, leading to many laugh-out-loud moments. (“I must go punch that baby,” she casually announces in a ballroom after an infant starts crying. What follows is the most hilarious scene in the movie.)

Bella enthusiastically devours experiences and individuals that others might consider negative or grotesque in order to get to the lessons within. It helps that she is entirely incapable of taking anything happening around her personally, a skill that grants her exceptional problem-solving abilities — and provides not a few zingers. (At one point, she shuts down a passionate lover’s tiff by saying simply, “I feel this conversation has grown circular.” When called a “whore” in the street, she responds “We are our own means of production,” and keeps walking.)

At its core, Poor Things is not terribly different from Henry David Thoreau’s famous quote about “sucking the marrow out of life.” Like Thoreau, Bella wishes “to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” Where Poor Things excels far beyond that concept is in its stunning execution. The script is a marvel. The costumes are breathtakingly imaginative — an awards sweep waiting to happen. The sets are imbued with art itself, calling to mind the colorscape of Klimt, the twisted wit of Salvador Dali and the sensitivity of Frida Kahlo. Ultimately, the movie’s vision also reflects how Bella sees the world at any given moment. (At God’s house, everything is black and white and fisheye lenses. Outside, her adventures are in hypercolor.)

At the beginning of Poor Things, Bella appears an aberration, much like the strange animal hybrids that also roam freely in God’s house. Ultimately, though, by moving through life unencumbered by human ego, Bella Baxter offers not only a rewarding two and a half hours of entertainment, but lessons to enthusiastically live by.

‘Poor Things’ opens in San Francisco at the Alamo Drafthouse and AMC Metreon on Dec. 5 and hits theaters nationwide on Dec. 8.

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