In the middle of “Poor Things,” the new film from Oscar-nominated quirky auteur Yorgos Lanthimos, our heroine Bella Baxter (Emma Stone) embarks on a solo adventure for the first time. Wandering the streets of pastel storybook Lisbon in silk shorts and a blouse with enormous puff sleeves, Bella, her long raven hair slicked back, heads to a pastry shop where she crams as many cream pies as she can into her mouth. She then vomits them up on a balcony overlooking a picturesque view of the city. Cause meets effect. Bella observes this data and reports it to Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe), her scientist father figure in the crudely scribbled postcard house.
This kind of personal experience forms the backbone of Lanthimos’s strange and fascinating masterpiece, “Poor Things,” about a young woman who receives one of life’s rare gifts: the chance to start from scratch. What will Bella do with her new life contract? He will swallow even the last crumb without even an ounce of shame.
This adaptation of the late Scottish author Alasdair Gray’s 1992 novel (with a screenplay by “The Favourite” writer Tony McNamara) has long been a pet project of Lanthimos’s and fits with themes he’s explored in his other films, esp. “Dogtooth” where adult innocents try to escape from confined spaces. But Bella Baxter may be her boldest and surprisingly self-possessed work yet.
In fact, he is the creation of Godwin, a brutally disfigured surgeon living, teaching and researching in Victorian London, who was subjected to his own father’s medical intervention. Godwin is a compassionate, loving figure; Dr., whose spiritual orphan monster is like his daughter. It is Frankenstein. He waddles around the house, stiff-legged and cranky, as his brain catches up with his body; His every step, bite and word is carefully cataloged by a sweet young medical student named Max (Ramy Youssef).
Despite her desire to keep the conditions of the experiment pure, Bella is a being of free will, and Godwin is just one of many guides in her personal development. He instills in her a love of science, but soon her burgeoning sexual appetite leads her astray, and Bella falls for a dastardly dude named Duncan Wedderburn (a terrific heel turn from Mark Ruffalo), who whisks her off to Lisbon. Thus begins the adventure that makes Bella who she is; He learns the ups and downs of life with the help of various characters who show him what it means to be human: physical pleasures, intellectual dilemmas, emotional ups and downs, and political questions. Humans can be “cruel monsters” too.
On an ocean liner, she gains philosophical and pragmatic knowledge from Martha (Hanna Schygulla) and Harry (Jerrod Carmichael) and learns more about herself and others through sex work and socialism in Paris under the supervision of a lady named Swiney (Kathryn Hunter). and a new companion (Suzy Bemba). The final stop on his experimental journey into the human condition is to return to London, where he must confront himself, or the self that others expect him to be. Will he accept or reject?
An obvious comparison needs to be made here with “Barbie,” another movie about a beautiful naive exploring the sharp corners of the world. But as Barbie cracks under her existential crisis, Bella grows stronger and draws power to herself as she discovers more and more. Stone gives a stunning performance and is perhaps the only actor who can convincingly convey such simultaneous expressions of sincerity, absurdity, intelligence, sensuality, and humor.
Stone’s performance evokes both avant-garde and primitive modern dance and movement. As Lanthimos gradually develops Bella before our eyes, he evolves the film’s style with her, from the film stock and camera movements to Shona Heath and James Price’s beautifully crafted production design and Holly Waddington’s elaborate costumes.
“Poor Things” was shot by Robbie Ryan on various 35mm film stocks; Beginning with Bella’s black and white “babyhood,” it was shot with wide-angle, often fish-eye lenses. British musician Jerskin Hendrix delivers an eerie, sharp musical theme that resonates throughout; Bella embarks on a magical mystery tour of Europe through the child’s eye view with detailed jewelry box sets shot in soft colours. As his steps and words get longer, the texture of the film changes, the color deepens, and the camera follows his maturation fluently. This is both subtle and obvious; It happens so seamlessly that it almost sneaks up on you, changing and growing in sync with its protagonist.
This movie can be fantastical, offbeat, sometimes weird, and sexually explicit. But ultimately, “Poor Things” is the journey of a traditional hero forging his own unique path. Bella’s attainment of a fully embodied sense of personal liberation makes it a truly radical and feminist fairy tale.
“Poor Things” – 4 stars (out of 4)
Running time: 2:21
MPA rating: R (for strong and graphic sexual content, graphic nudity, disturbing material, blood and language)
How to watch: In theaters December 8