A young woman, fraught with despair, leaps off a bridge. A scientist finds her body and opts to revive her, giving her a clean slate. Yet instead of following his thoughts and others’ whims and desires, she charts her own course.
Poor Things, the latest film from provocative director Yorgos Lanthimos (The Favourite), is full of plenty of idiosyncrasies—par for the course from the Oscar nominee who crafted a romance (The Lobster) in a society where single people become animals should they fail to find a mate. Here, the scientist belches bubbles that float above the dining table, his house rife with animals spliced from different species, such as a duck with dog’s feet. The shots vary in composition and style, moving from scenes in black and white to those with a fish-eye lens and in hyper-saturated colors.
There’s also explicit sex, yet the core of this gonzo coming-of-age tale is pure. Based on Alasdair Gray’s 1992 novel that satirized Victorian attitudes, Poor Things is full of wry humor and critiques about misogyny and hypocrisy. I enjoyed it immensely.
In an interview, Lanthimos said he told screenwriter Tony McNamara (The Great) to draw on 1967’s Belle de Jour, 1974’s Young Frankenstein, and 1983’s The Ship Sails On as influences. Poor Things has a Frankenstein-like twist, but it’s no horror story, save for some men who encounter the inquisitive, forthright, and independent Bella Baxter (Emma Stone, Cruella). They think she’s the monster.
We first see Bella glimpsed from behind, her dark hair upswept, draped in a jewel-blue coat against a painted blue sky, right before she falls to her death. But we don’t fully meet her until the next scenes in the Victorian-era London house of surgeon Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe, The Boy and the Heron), whom Bella calls “God.”
At first, Bella stumbles around like a foal or a toddler getting used to her legs. She bangs on piano keys with her hands and feet, spits out food she doesn’t like, and can barely speak. The film reveals the reasons for this in the first act after Godwin takes on an assistant, Max (Ramy Youssef, TV’s Ramy), to document Bella’s growing intelligence and development.
It turns out that someone recovered the suicidal woman’s body from the river and brought her to Godwin, an unorthodox surgeon. The woman was pregnant, her baby still alive after her death. Godwin thought he couldn’t return her to a life that clearly tormented her, so he did what he thought was the “obvious answer” and implanted the baby’s brain in her body.
Some viewers might check out after that (or duck at other bits of surgical gore), but Bella’s fantastical rebirth uncorks a wild and entertaining journey. Poor Things has the aura of a fable or allegory, from its animated title cards of stops along the way to its lush production design by Shona Heath and James Price. The meticulous art direction, costumes by Holly Waddington, makeup (especially the patchwork of scars and features of Godwin’s face), and even the music, with the dissonant bleats of a tuba one moment and violins the next, all convey an off-kilter world.
And yet, Poor Things is not an unrelatable fantasy, with the men in Bella’s life wanting some control over her—at one point, literally putting her in a box. Godwin understandably locks her in the house for her safety at the outset, but she soon climbs on the roof to see the world. Stone, also a producer here, imbues her with a rampant curiosity that segues into a lack of artifice and a barbed wit. Her physical performance is wonderful too, from Bella’s early spastic body language to a freewheeling dance where she stomps and writhes unselfconsciously, wriggling free of her embarrassed partner.
Once Bella discovers masturbation—something she comically tries to show Godwin’s housekeeper—Godwin suggests Max marry her. He hires a lawyer, Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo, All the Light We Cannot See), to write a contract of stipulations. Intrigued, Duncan finds a way to meet her, sizes her up with a lecherous wink, and says she should run off with him instead.
What ensues is what Bella calls her “grand adventure,” starting with “furious jumping” between her and Duncan, then other partners. Bella wants to experience all life can offer, from a woman singing fado in Lisbon to pastries and philosophy. Her liberated attitude extends to sex, which clashes with Duncan’s proprietary notions. Glad to be her guide or keep her as a toy, he doesn’t want her comparing him to others. Or reading.
Bella’s travels eventually land her work in a Paris brothel, where she balances the sex she wants with earning money for her own pursuits. Filmed matter-of-factly by Lanthimos and cinematographer Robbie Ryan, the encounters are amusing, steamy, and discomforting (one man brings his sons to watch), but not violent. Like Bella, the film treats these moments scientifically, not erotic as much as exploration.
Running two hours and twenty-one minutes, Poor Things largely sticks to Bella’s viewpoint, although it checks in on Godwin and Max in her absence. Bella meets various people who shape her worldview, from the Paris madam (Kathryn Hunter, The Tragedy of Macbeth) to a spirited society woman (German cinema icon Hanna Schygulla) and her companion (Jerrod Carmichael, On the Count of Three). At one point, he shows Bella a slum with dead children to burst her naivete. This devastates her, but she doesn’t think he’s cruel. “Just a broken little boy who cannot bear the pain of the world,” she says.
Surprising all the way through, Poor Things has some bizarre moments, but it’s never unkind to its unconventional protagonist. She came alive in a lab, but she’s no one’s creation, determined to make her life her own.