Alright, so let me start by saying that this movie is strange and arty and will be taught in film school going forward. I am certain it's going to end up on lists like this.
I have tried to watch many of these highbrow classic art films and am only a little ashamed to admit I typically fall asleep. It's generally because the world they build doesn't interest me or the pacing is too slow, it's ART for art's sake instead of being relevant and real, there's not enough surprise or humor, or the grand points they're trying to make are either lost on me or are ultimately men's meditations on their own dicks, and I just don't care.
This film, however, kept me captivated the whole time. It's like watching a Dalí painting in action, and it's FUNNY. Around the two hour mark, I had to pee so badly, I literally sprinted to the bathroom and back like a weirdo. I did consider using my empty enormo soda cup, but wasn't confident in my aim in the dark.
So, while I don't want to give away too much of the intrigue, I'll give you my general impressions. The monsters are not the ones you suspect. The world director Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster, The Favourite, The Killing of a Sacred Deer) and writers Tony McNamara (Cruella, also The Favourite, The Great) and Alasdair Grey built is THOROUGH and fascinating. Much of it is filmed in black and white and with a fisheye kind of lens. It's intentionally vague about timeline, feeling both like remote past and distant future.
There's a Dr. Frankenstein-type surgeon named Godwin, who everyone calls "God," played tenderly by Willem Dafoe. God is, himself, both Frankenstein and doctor, with a whole history of trauma-in-the-name-of-science he doesn't recognize. He's in turn, created his own monsters and there's much questionable ethics afoot, but he treats them with respect and in some cases, love. He makes some wildly disturbed choices, but there's a thread of care throughout and although he dabbles in imprisonment, he does choose liberation in the end. I saw it more as a parent/child situation than Sally being locked in the tower by Dr. Finkelstein. God's most intriguing creation is a woman with the brain of a toddler, when we meet her. I won't get into why, you'll have to watch to find out (pee first). Her body is mid-30s but her baby brain and hair are growing at shocking rates, so by the end of the several months we spend with the characters, her brain has caught up with her body's age and her black hair is down to the floor.
Emma Stone plays this child-woman pitch perfectly. I sat amazed by how grounded she was in this physically and emotionally wildly challenging part. She's so fucking funny but never in a mocking or knowing way. You don't get the impression she's "playing a child," she's so fully encompassed. For the character Bella, everything is new and she is curious, and frank. She has no social conditioning or preconceived notions. When she learns to masturbate, it's a revelation that she can make her body happy and she's confused and irritated when people tell her it's not something that is done or discussed in polite society. Still, she takes the information in conforms, mostly. When she is introduced to sex, she embraces it expansively and without any reservations or ideology that might interfere with her pleasure. And even as she does start to understand the "rules" of life, she's rather nonplussed by them and continues to fully embody her sexuality and hunger for learning. Food, dance, travel, dissecting bodies in God's laboratory, it's all stimulating and fascinating to her. When she encounters pain and poverty, her heart breaks viscerally and she throws herself in that direction. It's like watching a child and a teenager and an adult all meet to discuss how to person. She's doing all that simultaneously and I hope she gets all the Oscars for it.
Mark Ruffalo plays a whiny paramour and I've never liked him more in a part. He's used to being the wealthy and in control one, but since the normal rules of engagement don't apply to Bella, he falls apart around her, to hysterical effect.
The messages I took from it are: the real monsters aren't the ones hiding in the dark, they're often sitting at heads of tables being served. Woman's power is larger than we can imagine, if we don't tell her from birth how small she is. Girls are treated like they're wearing women's bodies (like Bella) even when they're still very young, and they're blamed for it. The rules of civility often lead to brutality.
The film left me feeling like it's OK that I don't always know wtf I'm doing as a human. I, too, am a stumbling kid trying to understand. And the things that don't make sense- it may not be because I don't get them, it may just be because they don't make sense. Question it all, stay curious, loving, and don't shut in on yourself because it feels safer in there, stay open.