The swashbuckling score for Poor Things sets the tone for an eccentric heroine’s journey

The swashbuckling score for Poor Things sets the tone for an eccentric heroine’s journey

Note: this article contains spoilers.

For as long as laureates and lyricists have probed the human condition, they’ve eulogised the hero’s journey. Typically undertaken by a trail-blazing “übermensch” or barrel-chested Captain Fantastic, this stalwart champion is destined to elevate the life odyssey from the shallow and self-serving to the sovereign and the sacred.

Unlikely protagonist Bella Baxter (Emma Stone) undertakes this high-stakes fate in the bonkers, beautiful steampunk saga, Poor Things. She sidesteps the suffocating litany of leading lady expectations while twirling in satiric glee, affirming that chaos is an essential ingredient in birthing “a dancing star”.

The latest screen oddity from auteur director Yorgos Lanthimos draws zany inspiration from Scottish author Alasdair Gray. It nods to nostalgic monster movies and reimagines fire-and-brimstone scenarios inspired by fantastical figures such as Frankenstein and Phileas Fogg.

Appearing on The Dolby Institute Podcast, composer Jerskin Fendrix drolly summarised the film’s absurdist plot, which tells the tale of a “dead pregnant lady” who “gets cut open and becomes her own daughter and then goes on a sex tour of Europe”.

His first-time film score is a hoot. It brazenly blows raspberries, dips an oboe part to ludicrous lows and hoicks up choristers’ vocals so that they straddle a line between seraph and shriek.

The Poor Things trailer.

Music works in an audiovisual alliance with fish eye lens cinematography, colour-reversal techniques and sound (curated by visionary audio engineer, Johnnie Burn). In tandem, these elements reveal how Bella’s bewildering, bubble-blowing heroism stems from her relentless curiosity – and the rapidly expanding consciousness of her “questing self”.

The score noisily amplifies Bella’s burgeoning identity of “sugar and violence” with insane instrumentation: Irish bagpipes, arrhythmic chimes and a fictional foghorn harp made out of bicycle parts.

Eclectic orchestration facilitates the riotous range of her emergent personhood and throws itself after her into the abyss. It never demands faultless logic or linearity from Bella. Instead, it enables her to remain both relatable and enigmatic – and, above all, exceptionally entertaining.

During initial scenes, the score belches out squeaky nursery-rhyme sounds and a strange requiem with unpredictable pitch bends – crude, imperfect musical notes finding their way in a confusing world. These stutter along as Bella forges out with a flat-footed stride, trussed up in mutton sleeves and frills like a macaron from Mars: cute and incorrigible.

Emma Stone in Poor Things.
Main character energy: Bella boldly embarks on a cross-continental expedition.
Atsushi Nishijima/Searchlight Pictures

Revelling in polite society’s forbidden realms

In a series of messy escapades, Bella is shown mashing a defenceless frog and scarfing down a forbidden feast of custard tarts, before retching them back up on a scenic Lisbon balcony. She spins in spontaneous dance steps, exclaims a gormless “wheee!” and leaves a defiant little puddle on the floor.

In spite of her antics, the soundtrack remains patient, steering clear of patronising gimmicks like stabs, stingers, drones and womps. It never baulks at Bella’s necessary flubs, nor at her many shame-free sexual trysts, variously involving “tongue play” and “furious jumping”.

Likewise the score doesn’t preach or finger-point as Bella endures a “dark period before light and wisdom come”. Instead, its variable volume and extreme registers exalt the impressive breadth of her blazing libido and life-force energy.

Her experiments with a motley clientele in a Paris brothel showcase some eye-popping instances of taboo eroticism. But it’s not all BDSM and ball gags. A pivotal same-sex love scene between Bella and a fellow courtesan – a like-minded equal rather than a customer or custodian – showcases the film’s most fully-formed and flowing musical theme.

The tender string section sounds out in support of their conscious, connected, pleasurable sexuality. Its almost harmonious strains suggest that, by achieving genuine intimacy with another person, Bella has begun to outgrow her transactional, ego-driven desires.

Sturm und drang on the dancefloor.
Sturm und drang on the dancefloor.
Searchlight Pictures

Scoring a ‘real human being and a real hero’

The score continues to adapt as Bella evolves, dabbling with a multiplicity of moods and timbres to showcase the rambunctious spectrum of her experiences. It endorses her weird journey from womb to tomb – and vice versa – allowing her to shape shift and recalibrate in real time.

It permits her to fearlessly dip her brush in an expansive palette of personae, both cruel and comical, transgressive and virtuous – Lilith as well as Eve.

In this way Bella transcends Hollywood’s trite comic book heroes and often-fumbled female stock figures – Pollyannas, cool girls and wonder women in bodacious getups. Instead of staying on script, mimicking masculine behavioural codes or adhering to implausible feminine standards, Bella is actually allowed to be human.

As it turns out, we didn’t need another hero. We needed a Bella – a character convincingly complex and nutty enough to contain multitudes – narratively, musically and visually. Even when the closing credits have scrolled by, we can continue to envisage a colourful afterlife for her, in a dance of astral chaos that’s only just getting started.

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