Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos is famous for making strange and chilly movies: 2016’s eerie dramedy The Lobster; 2018’s The Favourite, a cynical comedy; movies about power games and humans hurting each other and brutal, unforgiving worlds, shot through with jarring visual non sequiturs (the lobster race in the royal bedchambers in The Favourite haunts me).
Poor Things, Lanthimos’s latest film, is a different story. It’s less vicious than his other work, more tender and approachable. It has plenty of the bizarre visual flair Lanthimos cut his teeth on, from his signature extreme wide angles up to and including a bulldog with the head of a duck frolicking through a grand living room. Yet Poor Things, based on a 1992 novel by Alasdair Gray, is joyous in its weirdness, joyous in its exploration and celebration of its strange, strange world. This movie is incredibly fun to watch.
Mostly that’s because of Emma Stone, reuniting here with Lanthimos after she was Oscar-nominated for her work in The Favourite. In Poor Things, Stone is doing some of the best work of her career as Bella Baxter, a grown woman with the brain (literally) of an infant.
This is a very physical, very grounded performance. Stone has a terrific walk: just a touch of Frankenstein jerkiness showing as Bella tries to control limbs she isn’t used to, head always on a swivel as she tries to take in more and more of the ever-fascinating brand new world. Faced with something she doesn’t care for, she glares her giant eyes up from under dyed-black beetled brows and then, usually, punches it. “Bluh,” she says gleefully, if the thing in question bleeds.
Bella lives with her guardian, Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe, gently avuncular). She calls him God. Godwin is an experimental surgeon working at the very limits of steampunk 19th-century science, and he himself is the product of endless sadistic science experiments at his father’s hands. Bella likes him to crawl into her bed at night, but he assures his worried assistant that there’s nothing untoward going on there. For one thing, he’s impotent after his father’s experiments. For another thing, he considers Bella to be his daughter.
Godwin celebrates Bella’s natural curiosity, but only up to a point. He’s delighted to help her refine her speech and her movements, and he lets her experiment with him in his laboratory, as long as she is only cutting up corpses rather than living bodies. He even brings her a suitor, sweet Max (Ramy Youssef, in puppy dog mode).
Godwin will not, however, let Bella leave his home, a fantastical menagerie populated with his various experiments, which Lanthimos shoots in moody black and white. When Bella inevitably rebels enough to leave God behind and see the world, the screen blooms into hyper-saturated color, all the blues removed, so that Bella becomes Dorothy walking into a gilded Oz.
Bella runs away to see the world with the help of the rakish Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo, enjoying himself), a lawyer with a well-oiled mustache and a permanent sneer. Duncan finds Bella’s naivete and hunger for the world intoxicating, while she is won over by his willingness to help her discover sex. (Max chastely declines when Bella proposes they rub their genitals together.) “Why do people not do this all the time?” she demands of Duncan, post-coital and mystified.
Once on the continent, however, Bella does what girls do in Europe and discovers philosophy. Her mind thus expanded, she looks askance on her lover’s myopia. “My heart has become dim towards your swearing, weepy person,” she informs Duncan. Surviving Europe without Duncan will require Bella to dabble in both socialism and sex work, which she does with a good will.
The allegory here is straightforward: Bella is infantilized Victorian femininity, a grown woman pushed by controlling men into living her life like a child. She finds redemption by taking control of her fate, body, and mind for herself.
The reason the allegory works, though, is how vividly we see Bella’s radiant newborn mind embrace all that life has to offer her: sex, food, music, travel. She seems to watch her own life with the fierce scientific detachment she must have learned from her God. Faced with a choice, it’s generally clear to Bella what the wise thing to do is. That’s the option she usually ignores. She goes for the interesting pathway instead.
Bella’s impulse to do the interesting thing leads her, in the final act of Poor Things, to investigate the life her body led before her child mind was implanted inside of it. This act is the weakest of the film by far, the point where the allegory becomes clunky rather than clever, the action takes a turn for the dull, and Bella more or less stops developing. It’s hard to avoid the sense that the movie could have ended twenty minutes earlier and be all the better for it.
Still, it is always joyful to watch Bella navigate her world: gorging on sugar pastries, swishing her hips in an avant-garde ballet of sorts, discussing the intricacies of consent with her johns. (Holly Waddington’s witty costumes are an especial pleasure, with their enormous ruffled collars framing Bella’s neck like a glam version of Frankenstein’s bolts.) Bella is an enormously lovable character, a fitting heart for this lovable movie from one of our prickliest directors.
Poor Things is playing in theaters now.