“I am expecting a hug of solace,” Bella Baxter pronounces, deeply into her episodic adventures in the carnal science fiction journey, “Poor Things.” Many men are taken by this nineteenth-century creature (Emma Stone), born from the operating theater, loosed as an experiment on the world by the requisite mad doctor (Willem Dafoe); his chronicling assistant (Ramy Youssef); and a bounder and a cad (Mark Ruffalo) among many supplicants along the way.
Bella careers from a mortuary slab to an English castle as an imprisoned medical experiment, and then on to the inclines and skies of Lisbon, then the high sea on a huge ship, from there onto Alexandria and briefly within a Hector Guimard-style art nouveau-hallucinated Paris of narrow streets and sex work and back to the gardens of Britain. This fury of kinetic fancies is met by the accruing of “contemptuous rage” rather than empathy: she is seeking sexual knowledge and knowledge of human worth, and why the fuck she’s here, and why, indeed, she is here to fuck.
When Bella discovers varieties of congress, her hunger for what she dubs “furious jumping” is boundless. “Why do people not do this all the time!” she exults. That strata of the film comprises an unsentimental education for a woman who grows to fully inhabit each spark and quirk of her physical form.
There are influences galore in the collaboration between Greek auteur of cruelty Yorgos Lanthimos and actor-producer Emma Stone. Surfaces compound, references abound. (Here, have some Brecht.)
On one plane, this is an unsentimental “Amélie” for the twenty-first century, with blurts of the Technicolor brawn of the final film by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, “Querelle.” (Fassbinder muse, eighty-year-old Hanna Schygulla, has a brief, amusing turn.) You could even consider it a refutation of the prototypical Merchant-Ivory film, made with extreme prejudice. The young woman’s year of wandering shall only go astray.
The trappings of the Frankenstein story and that of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are shaken out like a thick rug: Willem Dafoe’s scar-crossed doctor, Godwin Baxter—”God” to you, to Bella—announces it in his first perorations in a Scottish-Dutch honk of some sort. Dafoe, as is his wont, commits to the bit.
“God” found a woman dashed on the sands beneath a bridge, she had been pregnant, and in a crack of inspiration, reanimates mother and child as one. Bella is a grown woman, but with the brain of an infant. “What would a woman be, if she were able to start from scratch?” is how Emma Stone sums it in a sentence.
“Poor Things” is not reckless—it’s calculated as can be—but it ranks in its own way as a teeming, toppling folly to match last year’s “Babylon,” and Ari Aster’s equally episodic “Beau is Afraid” from 2023. Folly, in this instance, is a compliment. These kinds of films are fearsome, fearless accomplishments, tempting the genuine risk of the echo of theater seats at screenings flipping up loudly. one after another.
At a reported cost of $70 million, this brash canvas is decidedly just what the maker of “Dogtooth,” “Alps,” “The Lobster,” “The Favourite” and “Killing of a Sacred Deer” dearly hoped to make. Do you know the films of Peter Greenaway? Lanthimos does: he again appears to find them insufficiently ornate.
The core of the picture, Bella’s bawdy bravura, would withstand simplification. Stone is as much author of “Poor Things” as Lanthimos—starting with “The Favourite,” they’ve collaborated five times, including on three yet-to-be-released projects—as Bella discovers the sensuality of her adult body with haste and velocity, and soon, to be described in ways both blunt and uncommonly loquacious. Do these verbal conceits lie as well in Alasdair Gray’s 1993 novel of the same name? And does Gray also describe Bella as a “grasping succubus of a lover”? (He does not.) Still, sentences like “I found nothing but sugar and violence” and “I must go punch that baby” are after my own heart.
The waft of the page flutters through each precious proposition even as the visual style (shot by the great Robbie Ryan) suggests a pop-up book collected by an enervated God, such as several vistas across an ocean, the quietest of skies festooned with many banks and brinks of clouds as crenelated as folds of damp flesh, the tissue of brain, the complication of labia.
But thinking about the film a few days after, the spray and splay of huge sets and sky-wide vistas, fairy vistas of cities, sea or stars, the water and sky spread out as a vast encircling diorama or a cosmic screensaver, it’s more Bella, and Stone, that rest in mind, especially in the white-and-black passages that dominate. The heart of the film, the center of the story.
There is simplicity in this aspect, a succession of arrows at a gallery of targets: a character, a woman, a performer, that is not swallowed up by froufrou and rococo. Bella’s eyes are wide, perhaps unblinking, at this world of shocking proportion, a fantasticated decorative world. She is framed like a dancer, almost always full-length, often draping herself about the furniture and bedding. Her favored range of costume is satin or silk culottes, followed by legs bare down to bare feet. In the world, Bella is pricked by every thorn in the shrub, but in the boudoir, she is power incarnate whether through stillness or fevered motion.
Yet her power lies not in the recline of Western civilization, but instead in her own fascination with the cruelty of the world, absorbed, accommodated, and retooled to her own ends with absolute aplomb. Bella is learning to be human, but she loves the cruelty as much as kindness. (There are helpful exchanges of dialogue to embroider this theme.) Think of Bella, and “Poor Things” no longer appears merely wantonly weird.
“Polite society will destroy you,” she is told, and she decides that she will destroy polite society. Bella may embody to some “dumb beautiful happiness,” and let us find it.
“Poor Things” opens in theaters January 8.