December 2023 – January 2024

Arts & Letters

Modern Prometheans: ‘Poor Things’ and ‘All of Us Strangers’

By Shane Danielsen

Emma Stone in ‘Poor Things’

Emma Stone seeks a moral conscience in Yorgos Lanthimos’s upended Frankenstein grotesque, while Andrew Haigh delivers a metaphysical coming-out story

Adapted from a novel by the Glaswegian writer Alasdair Gray, Poor Things marks the second collaboration between Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos and Australian screenwriter Tony McNamara, who inaugurated their partnership with 2018’s The Favourite. Good as that film was, this one is better; in fact, it might be Lanthimos’s finest work to date (and I’ve been an admirer since Dogtooth, back in 2009). It doesn’t abandon the severe, almost autistic detachment of his early films so much as focus that sensibility through the lens of a single character, as they navigate a world that seems designed to silence, stifle and exclude them.

Like many coming-of-age stories, it opens with a death. Rather more unusually, it’s that of the tale’s protagonist. In the late Victorian period, a young woman (Emma Stone, extraordinary here) throws herself one night from a bridge above the Thames. She’s rescued, post mortem, by a Scottish physician, Dr Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe), and through his machinations brought back to life – though with a caveat that I won’t reveal here. Baxter’s face is a patchwork of deep scars, the legacy of his deranged father’s experiments upon him as a child, and his appearance represents a neat reversal of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: in this telling, the creator – “God”, as the revivified woman calls him – is visibly the monster.

Visibly, but not temperamentally. Despite his towering ego, Baxter is at heart a reformer, bent on improving mankind, and his scientific curiosity is soon tempered by affection for his creation. Little more, mentally, than a child as the story begins, possessed of rudimentary verbal and motor skills, “Bella” soon enters adolescence, and quickly discovers the joy of “self-pleasure” – whereupon Baxter matchmakes her with his lovestruck assistant Max (Ramy Youssef) and encourages them to be wed. Even when she’s seduced by an obvious cad – debauched lawyer Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo) – and expresses a desire to run off with him and see the world, Baxter does nothing to prevent it.

On the one hand, this makes sense: good or bad, Bella’s experiences will expand the dataset of his experiment. But he’s also moved by her courage, the ferocious hunger for experience that he, rendered self-conscious by his “monstrous” appearance, admits to lacking.

Lanthimos, meanwhile, is conducting a few experiments of his own. Firstly, and most obviously, he’s testing the limits of his aesthetic, to see whether it might prove compatible with more commercially inclined filmmaking. In films such as The Killing of a Sacred Deer and The Lobster, his approach was so singular as to salt the earth behind it: to work in anything approaching a similar register (the extreme wide-angle lenses, those flattened, slightly rushed line-deliveries) was inevitably to be accused of imitation. For better or worse (and Lanthimos has had no shortage of detractors, particularly among American critics), he managed something few directors achieve: he patented his own, instantly identifiable style.

But that success came with limits. For all their critical acclaim, and despite their A-list casts – and an Oscar nomination – neither film moved much beyond the arthouse circuit. Enter McNamara, whose instincts are more bankable and whose touch a little lighter. I enjoyed the first few episodes of The Great, his series for Hulu, but found that it quickly ran out of road, with rather too many scenes depending on someone shouting “Fuck!” or “Fuck off!” instead of anything actually interesting – the pressures of episodic television, perhaps. This script, more carefully crafted, satisfies on both a verbal and a visual level, the writer’s elegant, fizzy dialogue sparking off the director’s visual invention. (I particularly liked Baxter’s menagerie of stitched-together pets, like animated versions of Exquisite Corpse.)

But Lanthimos is also exploring one of his perennial themes: the double standards attached to female sexuality. Early word-of-mouth from Venice, where the film premiered – and wound up winning the Golden Lion, to the surprise of precisely no one – focused mostly on its sexual content. Which is fair: there’s an awful lot of fucking here. (Or as Bella terms it, “furious jumping”.) Delighted by pleasure, unburdened by shame, she takes both male and female lovers, becomes an in-demand courtesan, and generally lives unapologetically and well. And in portraying her journey, Stone is frequently naked, a basic part of an actor’s repertoire that for some reason inevitably evokes undue surprise or condemnation. (“It’s weird, isn’t it?” the director remarked at his Venice press conference. “Why is there no sex in movies anymore?”)

I’m not on Twitter (or “X”, if you must), because I value my soul as well as my time, but I’m told there’s a small but vocal coterie of film fans there who reject any onscreen depiction of sex whatsoever, new puritans whose squeamishness may or may not be a symptom of our atomised, extinction-facing culture. Of course, they might also just be bloody idiots. The world may indeed be lost, but to deny oneself pleasure in these final days, even of a remote, voyeuristic kind, seems to me a rather curious hill to die on.

And apart from anything else, they’re missing the point. Sex is fab, of course, but it can also stand for something more, in fiction and in real life. An assertion of selfhood against oppression, or a way into the discovery of one’s truest self. (It’s telling, here, that Bella’s discovery of masturbation also accelerates her linguistic development.)

No mere erotic bildungsroman, therefore, the film is actually about the quest for experience sufficient to define a moral conscience. A witness to man’s depravity, and an occasional participant in her own degradation, Bella develops an entirely understandable sympathy for socialism – not because it’s more equitable, but because it’s more honest. She’s seen through the various disguises and rituals that constitute social etiquette, and realised that we are, at heart, all essentially the same. Consumed by the same appetites and liberated by the same ecstasies. So why pretend otherwise?

None of this would work as well as it does without the efforts of its cast. Stone is currently being tipped for the best actress Oscar, and it’s easy to see why. Her performance is both physically remarkable and verbally deft; her comic timing is a joy throughout. But the rest of the cast also excel – in particular Mark Ruffalo, who delivers his dialogue in a manner that suggests Terry Thomas with a mouthful of marbles. (That his English accent is wobbly only makes it all the funnier.) Kathryn Hunter, meanwhile, shows up in the film’s second half as tattooed Parisian brothel-keeper Madame Swiney, and in her usual fashion almost strolls off with the entire movie.

Technically, as well, it’s a marvel, from Holly Waddington’s extravagant, period-agnostic costumes (complete with subtle nods to female genitalia) to Shona Heath and James Price’s steampunk production design, fantastic in the literal sense of the word. The cityscapes look like they were assembled using artificial intelligence: each has the indiscriminate accumulation, the jumbled-together not-quite-rightness of current AI-led design. One street in Paris, where Bella and Duncan argue, seems to fuse the Rue du Jour, the Rue de Rivoli around Saint Paul, and Boulevard Saint-Germain; the effect is at once familiar and weirdly disorientating.

No less remarkable is Robbie Ryan’s cinematography, which moves between silvery, high-contrast black and white, and scenes of vivid, almost jewel-like colour. (Two early shots, portraits of Stone’s and Ruffalo’s faces, have the dreamy Technicolor intensity of Black Narcissus.)

By the end, lessons have been learnt, evil vanquished, and Bella and her friends have devised what Foucault would call a heterotopia of deviation: an enclosed, privileged space that both mirrors and subverts the dominant social paradigm. Not just a happy ending, it’s almost an idyllic one – yet somehow it feels fully earnt, by characters and filmmaker alike. Grotesque yet beautiful, playful but never frivolous, this is the best and most entertaining film I’ve seen this year.

Bros notwithstanding, the past year has given us a number of really exceptional gay-themed films, in a variety of styles and registers: the transgressive (Sam H. Freeman and Ng Choon Ping’s Femme), the commemorative (Georden West’s Playland), and the corrosive (Ira Sachs’ Passages). And not before time. I’ve been impatient with a good deal of gay cinema in recent years, which seemed to have abandoned most of the aesthetic daring and political urgency of work from the ’80s and ’90s. Compared to the furious provocations of that era – Fassbinder’s In a Year with 13 Moons, Almodóvar’s Law of Desire, Todd Haynes’s Genet-inspired Poison, or just about anything by Derek Jarman – too much of the new stuff felt stale, self-satisfied and complacent. (Did I mention Bros?)

And what could be duller, in 2023, than yet another coming-out story? But Andrew Haigh’s All of Us Strangers is precisely that – albeit one that explodes the conventions of the form. It also happens to be another of the very best films of the year. Which is to be expected, since Haigh is probably the finest working filmmaker in Britain today. Both a refined stylist and a consummate director of actors, he’s now written and directed five features, including 2011’s Weekend, an instant classic, and the elegant, inexplicably overlooked 2017 drama Lean on Pete. His work for television, meanwhile, includes The North Water, the greatest limited series you’ve never watched. (Seriously, you need to get onto that.)

This one opens quietly but intriguingly: Adam (Andrew Scott) is a screenwriter living alone in a tower block on the edge of London. (And I mean really alone: there seems to be almost no one else in the entire building, a fact that unnerves him rather less than it should.) His only apparent neighbour is a younger guy on a different floor, Harry (Paul Mescal), who drunkenly hits on him in the elevator one night.

Though tempted, a wary Adam knocks him back. But the invitation proves too tantalising to resist, and before long a tender, slightly ambiguous relationship has sprung up between the two. It’s more than just a casual hook-up – though the sex is hot and urgent – but also less than an actual romance. Something feels ever-so-slightly off between them, a disconnect that Adam can’t quite put his finger on.

His writing, meanwhile, has stalled. He’s been attempting to excavate something from his own past: the premature death of his parents, killed in a car accident when he was 12. Raised in Dublin by his maternal grandmother, he has long believed himself exiled forever from his childhood. But then one evening, quite by chance, he glimpses his father (Jamie Bell) in a shop, somehow looking no older than the day he died. Without so much as a flicker of surprise, he invites his now adult son to follow him home – to the suburban bungalow he grew up in, just outside of Croydon, where Adam finds to his amazement that his mother (Claire Foy) is also living.

She, too, is no older. And the house itself is exactly the same: the furniture, the kitchen, all intact and familiar. His bedroom is just as he left it. No explanation is offered for this; it’s simply presented as a fact. And Adam, conscious of the moment’s fragility, does nothing to question or undermine it. He slips back into his old role, delighted by the chance to be a son again, albeit to two people now younger than himself.

Despite the British setting, the story’s ache for the long departed, its feel for domestic unease and urban isolation, all felt extremely Japanese – though less indebted to Murakami (the obvious point of reference) than to modern fabulists such as Hiroko Oyamada and Yōko Ogawa and, perhaps most of all, Yūko Tsushima. (“Living right in the heart of Tokyo itself,” she wrote in Territory of Light, “is quite like living in the mountains – in the midst of so many people, one hardly sees anyone.”) So I was not entirely surprised to discover, in the closing credits, that it had in fact been based on Taichi Yamada’s 1987 novel Strangers.

In adapting it, however, Haigh has downplayed the supernatural elements, and in so doing, moved it away from being a simple ghost story and into the realms of the metaphysical and auto-confessional. And if these two modes sound irreconcilable, that merely speaks to the scale of his achievement. Somehow, the film is both esoteric and intensely personal, abstract and concrete. The bifurcated narrative helps, of course, though the structure is deceptively practical: each half rhymes neatly with the other. But there’s a perceptible element of self-reckoning here (Haigh even used his own childhood home as the location for Adam’s), as well as an almost Proustian desire to catalogue and thereby memorialise the details of gay life in London in the 1980s.

I’m still not entirely convinced by Paul Mescal – though to be fair, he’s excellent in this – but I am an unqualified admirer of his co-star and fellow Irishman Andrew Scott, who, following some acclaimed theatre work, came to the public’s attention as The Hot Priest on season two of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag. That role caused a sensation, and it wasn’t hard to work out why. He’s a phenomenal actor – a superb listener, always absolutely present in a scene, and an instinctive under-player, with a deliberately casual, this-just-occurred-to-me way of delivering his lines that suggests the moment-to-moment operation of a fierce intelligence. You’re impatient to hear what he might say next.

Apart from that, he’s about the sexiest bastard onscreen right now. Part of it is his smile – rueful and quick to fade, as if forever doubting his own capacity for happiness. But I suspect it’s also because his handsomeness contains something slightly saturnine: the barest hint of menace, perhaps even cruelty.

When my father died, I understood that I was fortunate in at least one sense: we’d both said everything we wanted to say to each other. It’s the only consolation – though the hurt remains – and one, I realise, that many people lack. Haigh creates a situation that’s simultaneously irrational and reassuring, then uses the opportunity it affords to pose a question: how would the child explain their whole life – the complexity and contradictions of their adult self – to their parents? For Adam, it boils down to the One Big Thing he never got to tell them, and which, for their part, they never even thought to imagine: his homosexuality.

In Hiroko Oyamada’s novel The Hole, she writes: “… families are strange things, aren’t they? You have this couple: one man, one woman. A male and a female, if you will. They mate, and why? To leave children behind. And what are the children supposed to do? Turn around and do the whole thing over again? Well, what do you do when what you’ve got isn’t worth carrying on?” With this film, Haigh both ponders that question and resolves it. Having cauterised his emotions to cope with his early loss, Adam’s life is hollow and unsatisfying – as empty as a deserted building. But he’s ultimately redeemed, pulled back into the land of the living by a brush with the dead, and by that most stereotypical signifier of gay male culture: casual sex with a stranger.

Watching, I was reminded of Céline Sciamma’s Petite Maman, my favourite movie of 2021. And like that film, this is a work of absolute sincerity. Its final scene veers dangerously close to sentimentality, only to transcend it by sheer force of conviction, to become a vision of cosmic connection, and a testament, however fitful or imperfect, to the ineluctable power of love.

Shane Danielsen

Shane Danielsen is a screenwriter and former artistic director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

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