“Chaperone” & “Poor Things”
I love films about unlikeable people going through identity crises; “Young Adult” and “Sideways” come to mind. I appreciate many of these films because they often pose tough questions about societal structures and what it means to be successful, doing so without over-moralizing and often with a sense of humor. “Chaperone,” the new film by filmmaker Zoe Eisenberg, is one I'd love to include in that canon."
The film centers around a 29-year old woman named Misha, struggling with her family and friends judging her for her lack of ambition. She's stagnating in a life and is scared to accept good things that come to her. For instance, her boss tries to plead with her to take a promotion at the movie theatre she's worked at for years only to turn it down. Misha eventually meets an 18-year-old high school track athlete who mistakes her for a fellow student. He falls for her, she goes along with it although she doesn’t reveal her age, she clearly knows that there isn't a future and keeps him at arm's length.
The film begins with a structure and momentum reminiscent of the hangout films of mid-aughts mumblecore. However, it quickly shifts gears, picking up a devastating narrative momentum that propels us forward to witness the cringe-inducing predicaments Misha puts herself in. The film is often deeply uncomfortable in the best way, it feels honest and grounded in realism and it’s anchored by a beautiful performance from Mitzi Akaha as Misha.
This film just played at Slamdance, and is making its way to other film festivals.
Like Godwin Baxter, the character deftly portrayed by Willem Dafoe in a Frankenstein-like role, director Yorgos Lanthimos skillfully weaves together a tapestry of genres and profound concepts, resulting in the original dark comedy, "Poor Things." The film is produced by Emma Stone, who takes on the role of protagonist Bella Baxter, a creation brought to life by Godwin in his questionable scientific pursuits. It unfolds as Bella ventures beyond her home in Victorian London to experience the world before settling into marriage with Max McCandless, a mild-mannered doctor played by Ramy Youssef.
The film, based on Alasdair Gray’s 1992 novel of the same name, is an exploration of what it means to be human, and, more specifically, a woman in a patriarchal world. Stone’s performance here is the foundation of the film. As a result of Bella’s body being reanimated using a baby’s brain, we see a grown actress believably progress from toddler, to adolescent, to world-weary adult within the span of a little over two hours and without the need for age makeup or prosthetics. I was in awe of Stone and her understanding of this world and the character she shaped. You root for Bella, you learn with her, and you care for her.
The men around Bella — her fiance, her guardian, her lovers — are constantly trying to control and possess her, which sparks her resilient spirit. We start to realize these men and other authority figures who seem so worldly may actually be the more fragile beings, grasping at social acceptance and trying to be seen as more than they are, as serious people. This is evident in Godwin Baxter, whom Bella refers to as “God” throughout the film.This version of God is a scientist with a complete disregard for ethics. He’s deeply flawed emotionally and physically, but he also has a kind heart. The most obvious manifestation of the film’s infantile masculinity is in Duncan Wedderburn, the philandering lawyer with whom Bella travels, played with unexpected humor and absurdity by Mark Ruffalo.
Beyond the story, “Poor Things” is a technical marvel; the retro-futurist production design is stunning. Think Tim Burton’s whimsy mixed with the David Lynch’s darkness. Yet it’s not derivative. “Poor Things” feels like its own world, fully realized. The cinematography is gorgeous and the sound design is impeccable, but these technical aspects never distract from the story.
"Poor Things" is a film that I immediately wanted to rewatch once it was over. It reminds me of the promise of independent cinema and the power of telling unique and difficult stories — stories that feel dangerous but with a strong sense of justice at their center.