Emma Stone is a woman who gets to start from scratch in Yorgos Lanthimos’ unbound and astonishing new feature, “Poor Things.” For most of us, life is comprised of knowledge and circumstance that take decades to accumulate until we die. For Stone’s Bella Baxter, that process happens in very fast motion, thanks to a reanimating procedure that finds her, once a dead woman floating in a river, now alive again with her unborn child’s brain inside her head.
Bella, née Victoria, is a living breathing tabula rasa unfettered by societal pressures, propriety, or niceties. And Stone, in her most brazenly weird performance to date, plays her like a toddler taking its first steps and saying its first words — until by the end of “Poor Things” she’s speaking fluent French and studying anatomy, her eyes and ears full of worldliness.
Boldly realized with taffy-colored production design, brain-bending sets stuffed with enough easter egg unrealities to fill the most difficult 5,000-piece jigsaw puzzle, and wildly over-the-top Victorian costumes that look as if made by a schizoid seamstress on too many tabs of acid, “Poor Things” is also hysterically funny and the raunchiest movie you’re likely to see all year.
Lanthimos situates us in what looks like 19th-century Victorian London, but surrealistic subtleties that only increase in their strangeness suggest a cracked-open world out of place and time: horse-drawn carriages are literally half-horse, half-carriage, birds have shark faces, and a half-pig, half-chicken chimera walks the streets without anyone giving a passing thought. Contributing to these experimental medical anomalies is mortician and maddened scientist Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe, grimly soothing).
He’s scarred — literally and psychically — by the torments of his surgeon father, and now with a face that looks like a Picasso painting, as if it’s been cut up, disassembled, rearranged haphazardly, and sewn back together. He is also a eunuch who has to “make my own gastric juices.” One of his operating-theater protégés is rookie village doctor Max McCandles (an adorably inept and perpetually gobsmacked Ramy Youssef), and together they’re bringing Bella Baxter back to life, with Max hoping to eventually marry her.
“What a pretty little retard,” McCandles tells Godwin (whom Bella will come to simply call “God”) of his born-again creation as Bella sets about banging on surfaces, pissing herself, and babbling broken-English nonsense that slowly starts to take more recognizable linguistic shape. Now about that aforementioned raunchiness: Part of Bella’s existential learning curve of course comes with the discovery of masturbation, and then eventually sex, which “Poor Things” is filled with an outrageous amount of. Bella does something with an apple that would make Elio in “Call Me by Your Name” blush, and, still in a puerile, prurient state, calls sex “furious jumping,” suggesting to McCandles that perhaps they “touch each other’s genital pieces.”
“Poor Things” ultimately becomes about Bella’s erotic journey from out of the Freudian mirror stage and into the world as an awakened sexual being. Lanthimos and “The Favourite” screenwriter Tony McNamara, working from a 1992 epistolary novel by Alasdair Gray, are fascinated by the ways in which desire governs all our decision-making. Upon meeting the raffish, decadent lawyer Duncan Wedderburn (a petulant manchild Mark Ruffalo), Bella decides she must “adventure” rather than tie herself down to God and McCandles, to whom she’s engaged.
And such adventuring includes a lot of furious jumping indeed, as on a trip to Lisbon (an eye-popping, trippy creation by production designers Joana Heath and James Price), Duncan and Bella fuck in pretty much every position imaginable. But as Bella grows keener and wiser with each day — and her raven-haired locks continue to grow at a preternatural speed — Wedderburn starts to wonder if she’s really just “the devil wrapped in an alluring body and a brain that picks people apart.”
“Poor Things” is filled with noxious, brash, tart-tongued zingers such as these, as is of course the trade of Tony McNamara, whose viperous lesbian erotic triangle in “The Favourite” spewed up endless quotable maxims sure to make their way into the dialogue pantheon. “Poor Things” is no different. “I look at you and feel nothing but the lingering question of how did I ever want you?,” Bella tells Wedderburn, tired of his jealousies of her becoming her own person.
While on a cruise ship across the Mediterranean, a cynical passenger played by Jerrod Carmichael (whose line readings are just a bit too deadpan) tells Bella that degradation, horror, and sadness are what make us people of substance. As any Lanthimos fan knows, those are touchstones of all his previous films, including the similarly themed “Dogtooth,” which also centered on people’s phenomenological encounters and coming-to-understanding of the world around them. And typically, humankind for Lanthimos exists inside a snow globe that he likes to shake for his own macabre amusement — literally, as DP Robbie Ryan frames the world quite often with a fish-eye lens, a device that occasionally tripped him up on “The Favourite” but here suits the material as seen from the wonder-struck point of view of Bella’s questing self.
But degradation, horror, and sadness rarely come into play in “Poor Things,” a sex comedy bursting with empathy and hopefulness about the possibilities of life lived off a blank slate. Take Bella’s emotional breakdown when she encounters, for the first time, the lower classes while visiting Athens, a Hieronymus Boschian cluster of dissipated bodies at the base of a picturesque cliff. “Who am I to lie in a feather bed while dead babies lie in a ditch?” Bella wants to be a good person as much as “Poor Things” demonstrates Lanthimos’ wanting to extend more than just a shrug toward humanity and its innate cruelties.
Watching this maximalist beauty of a film in a theater, the impulse to pause and spot whatever next crazy thing these filmmakers came up with to populate the backdrops is hard to resist. Beyond the orgiastic visuals, “Poor Things” is also stuffed with fabulous side characters who come and go from the picaresque shape of Bella’s sentimental and erotic education: Kathryn Hunter, in full body tattoos, plays a raspy, earlobe-biting, Parisian bordello madame; there’s Christopher Abbott as a sinister latecomer whose intentions won’t be spoiled here; Hanna Schygulla (yes, R.W. Fassbinder’s Hanna Schygulla!) as a cruise-riding snowbird who “hasn’t been fucked in 20 years”; and Suzy Bemba as a prostitute with whom Bella has a queer sexual encounter and a perhaps more special bond. At their center is a delightfully off-the-rails Emma Stone turn, proof that whatever cracked frequency she and Lanthimos are riding on, their alchemy is the real deal.
“Poor Things” is the best film of Lanthimos’ career and already feels like an instant classic, mordantly funny, whimsical and wacky, unprecious and unpretentious, filled with so much to adore that to try and parse it all here feels like a pitiful response to the film’s ambitions.
“Poor Things” premiered at the 2023 Venice Film Festival. Searchlight Pictures will release it theatrically on Friday, December 8.