Ever since breaking through internationally with Dogtooth in 2009, Yorgos Lanthimos has been making uniquely strange films. But there’s strange, and then there’s the nonstop bonkers brilliance of Poor Things, an audaciously extravagant adaptation of revered Scottish writer Alasdair Gray’s novel, spun out by the Greek director and his screenwriter, Tony McNamara, into a picaresque feminist Candide. Stuffed with rude delights, spry wit, radical fantasy and breathtaking design elements, the movie is a feast. And Emma Stone gorges on it in a fearless performance that traces an expansive arc most actors could only dream about.
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An Alice in Wonderland reanimated on the operating table of eccentric scientist Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe) in a highly theatricalized version of Victorian London, Bella evolves in this subversive twist on Mary Shelley from a Frankenstein experiment with — literally — the mind of an infant into an inquisitive girl with a hunger for sex and adventure, then finally, a fiercely spirited, independent woman. She throws off the constraints of “polite” society to take charge of her desires, her body and her identity as a fully formed free thinker who refuses to be any man’s territory to be conquered.
Along with Stone’s performance and those of an ensemble who lustily embrace both the inspired madness and the philosophical curiosity of the material, the other major wow factor of this lavishly appointed production is the eye-popping design work and dazzling craft contributions. There’s a kinship here with the films of Terry Gilliam, though the fantastical flourishes are tethered to a modern woman’s coming-of-age story, grounded in its own brand of realism.
James Price and Shona Heath’s sets are marvels of invention that treat the idea of period as a sandbox in which to run riot with a full range of architectural and decorative styles. That includes the Expressionistic sci-fi of Godwin’s lab; a luxury passenger ship that’s like an antique toy bursting with sumptuous interiors; and an other-worldly Alexandria hotel, a castle ascending all the way from the shoreline into the clouds on sandstone steps.
Robbie Ryan’s cinematography captures all this with an attention to color and light that’s magical, along with Lanthimos’ customary penchant for the intermittent skewed view of a fish-eye lens.
Holly Waddington’s costumes are another knockout, most of all Bella’s gowns, with sculptural sleeves and skirts that can evoke geometrical constructions or organic forms like flowers or coral. Perhaps no look in the film is more indelible than the invaluable Kathryn Hunter’s as a Parisian brothel-keeper with a maternal but pragmatic bent, at one point wearing a satiny basque over her neck-to-toe tattoos.
Then there’s the remarkable score by English musician Jerskin Fendrix, a kind of punk-classical panoply of sounds, often dissonant, jarring, agitated or lugubrious, elsewhere mischievous and capering. Nothing in Poor Things could be described as ordinary.
One talking point is sure to be the hybrid animal forms stitched together by Godwin that wander the grounds like barnyard creatures out of Hieronymus Bosch. The “chog,” part chicken part bulldog, is hilarious, but no less so the duck-goat or the pig-dog. While the use to which the brain of a goat is put toward the end is best kept as a surprise, it’s one of the movie’s most amusing examples of a woman pushing back against male domination.
The opening shot has Stone’s character, seen from behind in a stunning electric blue dress, taking a suicidal leap off a bridge. Only gradually does the backstory that brought her there come together, adding fresh layers of meaning to Bella’s instinctual rejection of the efforts of men to own and imprison her and impose their rigid morality.
The early sections in Godwin’s sprawling residence and workplace are shot in black and white, a closed world that’s fine for Bella while she’s still taking everything in with childlike fascination. In her rudimentary first attempts at speech, Godwin is shortened to God, and he is her benevolent God in every sense, as much as his affection for her disagrees with his belief in scientific detachment.
Godwin is a physically grotesque man, a patchwork of scars and deformities, the result of inhuman experiments conducted by his fellow scientist father. Having no preconceived idea of beauty, Bella is the only person who never looked at him with horror or pity, making for poignant moments toward the end. It’s a great role for Dafoe.
Wanting to keep a careful record of Bella’s progress, Godwin hires Max McCandless (Ramy Youssef, terrific), a keen student from the college where he lectures. Max observes as Bella’s awkward shuffle turns into a more confident gait, tracks her acquisition of a larger vocabulary each day and tries to keep her wilder impulses in check, first with violent tantrums or bouts of destruction and later with her discovery of sexual pleasure via a bowl of fruit. The Call Me by Your Name peach scene is tame by comparison.
Stone’s gift for physical comedy has never been tapped to this extent, whether Bella is rushing at something faster than her uncertain limbs can carry her, gleefully smashing plates, getting to grips with a kipper, bopping Max on the nose by way of an introduction or even just spreading herself on the ground to feel the new sensation of a carpet of leaves.
Where Stone really goes for it though is in Bella’s sexual awakening, a thrill she’s eager to share with everyone. “Let us touch each other’s genital pieces!” she tells Max, after mutual romantic feelings have been revealed. She describes masturbation as “working on myself to get happiness,” while fornication is “furious jumping” until she learns more specific terminology. “Why do people not just do this all the time?” she asks, mystified, in one of many moments where McNamara’s script shows a joyful embrace of sex-positivity.
While Bella is sharp enough to know kind, gentle Max is a solid prospect for marriage, she sees no conflict in skipping off on an adventure with Godwin’s rakish lawyer, Duncan Wedderburn, played by Mark Ruffalo as a very funny, deliciously over the top caricature of a louche English cad.
They travel to Lisbon, another design treat with its throbbing colors, cable cars like airborne carriages and a picture-book sky dotted with hot air balloons. The scenes in Portugal are among the movie’s drollest moments, notably when Duncan attempts damage control with the unfiltered Bella over a dinner, insisting that she confine her conversation to three phrases: “How marvelous,” “Delighted” and “How do they make the pastry so crisp?” Another comic highlight is Bella’s spontaneous dance to the hotel band, with Duncan joining her in a futile attempt to curb her crazy moves.
Bella has sufficiently matured by that point to begin using logic and reason, though her way of dealing with annoyance remains oblivious to standard restraint. “I must go punch that baby,” she says, referring to a wailing infant in the dining room.
The more she thinks for herself, the more Duncan starts getting prickly, which escalates when he whisks her away on a cruise and she strikes up a friendship with a bohemian grande dame, Martha (Hanna Schygulla in regal form), and her traveling companion Harry (Jerrod Carmichael), an erudite nihilist who opens Bella’s eyes to cruelty and suffering. She also starts reading voraciously, which Duncan discourages. The poverty and death that she witnesses way down below the swanky Alexandria hotel stir Bella’s compassion and her urge to make the world better.
Her emancipation steps up another notch when she and Duncan land in Paris penniless; she becomes a favorite for the customers of Hunter’s Madame Swiney and befriends a Socialist fellow sex worker, Toinette (Suzy Bemba). All this contributes to Bella’s education, while sending the outraged Duncan over the edge.
A note from Max about Godwin’s declining health takes Bella back to London, where Duncan’s vindictiveness and a clue about her previous identity cause trouble, prompting her to draw on newfound resourcefulness. Christopher Abbott brings another incisively screwy characterization to the story, with a glorious payoff.
Divided into chapters marked by gorgeous interstitials that feature Bella in imaginative surrealist vignettes, Poor Things is an insanely enjoyable fairy tale that creates not just one, but multiple distinctive worlds — each of them a beguiling artwork — peopled by memorable characters fleshed out by a first-rate cast. Wildly flamboyant yet directed with unerring control, it’s also a story rich in contemporary currency, about a woman rebuilding herself from scratch, strictly according to her own rules, which provides Stone with the role of a lifetime. Or two, in Bella’s case.
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