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The University of Pittsburgh's Daily Student Newspaper

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Kamalani Akeo talks with members of the womens volleyball coaching staff in 2021.
Kamalani Akeo: An unsung hero contributing to the success of Pitt volleyball
By Matthew Scabilloni, Senior Staff Writer • 10:10 am

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Kamalani Akeo talks with members of the womens volleyball coaching staff in 2021.
Kamalani Akeo: An unsung hero contributing to the success of Pitt volleyball
By Matthew Scabilloni, Senior Staff Writer • 10:10 am

Review | ‘Poor Things’ is an aptly named visual masterpiece, thematic disaster

Emma+Stone+and+Mark+Ruffalo+in+%E2%80%9CPoor+Things.%E2%80%9D
Atsushi Nishijima/Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures
Emma Stone and Mark Ruffalo in “Poor Things.”

Consider watching “Poor Things” on mute, because while its beautiful set design, visual direction and tour de force performance from Emma Stone captivate audiences visually, its misguided attempt at a coming-of-age story of a young woman’s sexual liberation and self-discovery is the poorest thing of all. 

“Poor Things” is Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’s newest film, featuring a script from Tony McNamara adapted from a 1992 novel of the same name by Alasdair Gray. The audience travels with Bella Baxter, played by Emma Stone, as she discovers herself sexually and emotionally in the sprawling world around her. Despite a seemingly simple coming-of-age story, a Frankensteinian twist shrouds this in — notably shallow — complexity. A pregnant Bella recently jumped off of a bridge only to be discovered and reanimated by mad scientist Dr. Godwin “God” Baxter — yes, they actually call him God — played by Willem Dafoe. In addition to reanimating her, he replaces her adult brain with the brain of her unborn infant. We watch Bella develop into a smart young woman despite her unchanged adult body. The men around her, namely a predatory and childish lawyer played by Mark Ruffalo, try to manipulate, control and cage her as she refuses to adhere to their definitions of living. 

The entire cast offers stellar performances. Due to the challenges of playing a complex yet relatable Frankenstein character, this may be Stone at her very best, completely blowing “La La Land” out of the water. For another actress, a grown woman acting like a toddler may require the audience to suspend much disbelief, but Stone’s performance is as accurate as it is unsettling. Ramy Youssef’s performance as Max, while outshone by his other male counterparts, is outstanding, especially considering how different this role is from his norm. Willem Dafoe, in a six-hour-long makeup look, solidifies his reputation as one of the best actors of his generation. As an emotionally repressed mad scientist, Dafoe further draws the audience in. While all of these performances were incredible, Ruffalo’s stood out to audiences and critics alike. Having been locked up by huge franchises since the early 2010s, it seems the world forgot that the Incredible Hulk is an incredible actor too. 

“Poor Things” was nominated for 11 BAFTAs, including best score, best cinematography, best production design, best costume design, best makeup and hair and best special visual effects. While it’s hard to tell for sure, the film should have a lock on most of these categories. No other film this year has truly integrated its themes into its visual style the way “Poor Things” has. The pure absurdity of the plot is reflected in Robbie Ryan’s cinematography and the special effects by Simon Hughes. The film is set in 19th century Europe, but there are a plethora of influences from a wide variety of eras in the costuming by Holly Waddington. Shona Heath and James Price, the set designers, also drew from a multitude of architectural styles from all of history and all over the world. Both work together to create a visual experience like no other. 

In addition to the visuals, an amazing score composed by Jerskin Fendrix adds another layer of absurdity to the film. However, that is the extent of its auditory accolades. As stated before, the film follows a woman after her brain has been replaced by an infant’s. The film does not shy away from this fact, discussing her cognitive development in the same way that child psychologists do. While this could make for an incredibly interesting setting for analyzing what it means to grow up as a young woman, the noticeably male writer decided to focus on the sexual development of this child. 

The film features a plethora of graphic sex scenes that Stone has recently defended, but it doesn’t remove the sour taste of repeatedly seeing a cognitive pre-teen naked. But sexual discovery is an important portion of development that starts at around 13 years old, so it’s not a completely unwarranted topic of discussion. However, as the film centers on the men in her life who try to control her, the eventual forgiveness afforded to the two of them is beyond bizarre. 

Her father states that he won’t have sex with her because he can’t and his fatherly emotions have outweighed his sexual urges — which is an insane comment to make — but their relationship is on the mend by the end of the film. Her husband Max is betrothed to her just days after she finds out what an orgasm is. Although initially dismissive of his feelings, he later admits to being attracted to the child. After a trip through Europe with Ruffalo’s character Duncan, she begins working at a brothel. Though mentally still a child, the film depicts this as an act of sexual liberation instead of exploitation of a young woman. 

All of these aspects of the film could have worked together to create an interesting analysis of womanhood, but any attempts the film makes to critique the grotesque people around Bella falls completely flat. The closer it gets to making a statement, the louder the score gets, and the costumes become more elaborate. Shrouding a film in surrealism might distract some audiences from the abysmal script, but colorful German expressionism cannot fool me! Some critics say that people are too closely analyzing the “mental age” aspect of the film, but if it falls apart into something abhorrent under a little scrutiny, can we really call this the best film of the year? People label this as an efficient satire of the evil people and systems that Bella encounters, but we can’t label everything that features dark themes and a few jokes as satire. If haphazard critiques and a couple of one-liners merit the label of satire, this isn’t a review, this is a satire. 

I usually stay out of the “should men be writing women’s stories?” debate, but this film made me ponder if men should write anything at all. While yes, I’m being dramatic, as a young woman growing up in this world, it’s very obvious that McNamara’s ideas of feminism came from the back of a book on girlbossing or a series of TikToks.