It’s a failing of our society that we’ve allowed “interesting” to become a euphemism, a blandly veiled insult, something to say when no other praise comes to mind. Little in life is more important than interest: having it, attracting it, identifying it in any crevice of the everyday, making it strange and fresh in the process. Across his career, Yorgos Lanthimos has befuddled many a viewer into calling his work “interesting” as a placeholder for their confusion and excitement, and it’s hard to imagine that he’d ever take offense. He’s a filmmaker who revels in interest, in curiosity at the price of comfort, and in his lavish, violently ravishing new film “Poor Things,” he zeroes in on a heroine with the same craving. To Bella Baxter, a literal child in a woman’s body, everything is new and everything is interesting — words, bodies, maps, music, sugar, sex — and Lanthimos matches her fascination with rampant glee.
Alasdair Gray’s 1992 comic novel “Poor Things” is a work of peculiar, obsessive genius, a book-within-a-book-within-a-book that satirizes Victorian Britain’s seemingly conflicting preoccupations with decorum and grotesquerie, all while teasing the modern reader’s own tabloid-trained taste for the lurid. In an adaptation at once liberal and faithful to the novel’s fastidious construction, unhinged humor and revolting body horror, Lanthimos and screenwriter Tony McNamara (whose lascivious wit was so integral to the success of their previous collaboration “The Favourite”) have shed its ornate literary affectations — and, in a move that may infuriate some Gray loyalists, its specific Scottish burr — without simplifying the plunging philosophical questions contained within its jokery. What makes a life, or indeed a human? Who gets to give life and take it away? Is adult behavior just learned repression? And how do they make the pastry so crisp?
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At its heart, this is a Frankenstein tale, with the spindly, beautiful Bella (Emma Stone) its unlikely monster. Her doctor/creator is Godwin (Willem Dafoe), a gnarled, facially scarred recluse and surgical genius whom she aptly and affectionately calls God. How Bella came to be is a secret best discovered in the course of the film’s snaking, globe-circling narrative, though a vertical scar at the base of her neck, hidden beneath a waist-length sheet of sable hair, offers a clue. To begin with, only three people know she exists at all: Godwin, his housekeeper Mrs Prim (Vicki Pepperdine) and Max McCandless (Ramy Youssef), the inquisitive young med student whom Godwin takes on as a research assistant.
Max is immediately transfixed by Bella, a fully grown woman who speaks, moves and reasons like a toddler, hammering away at the drawing-room piano and throwing her breakfast in his face, cackling all the while. He assumes she has a rare mental disability, but Godwin insists she’s merely growing. Sure enough, she is, even as her physical person remains unchanged — save for her increasingly deranged dress sense. Her vocabulary expands by 15 words a day. Her thinking clarifies and sharpens. One crucial day she discovers what’s between her legs, and how good it feels when she touches it. When she’s told she can’t discuss, much less perform, such things in public, she’s baffled anyone would pretend such readily available pleasure doesn’t exist.
For the meekly besotted Max, it is unfortunate that Bella then encounters Duncan Wedderburn (a riotous Mark Ruffalo, niftily mustachioed), a rakish, hedonistic lawyer who tells her that “polite society destroys the soul,” before promising to sweep her away, take her traveling and give her all the sex she wants. Given that she’s hitherto been strictly confined to Godwin’s rambling, curio-filled London townhouse, cultivating a keen interest in the outside world via atlases and her guardians’ unreliable tutelage, it’s an irresistible offer. Wedderburn’s puffed-up charms may pall within days, but the sights and sounds of Lisbon, the first stop on their tour, do not. Cue a strange, sad, twisty, horny, often uproariously funny coming-of-age arc, through which a rapidly more worldly Bella learns how much there is to being a woman, how little there is to certain men, and eventually gets a complicated answer to the question she asks after she and Wedderburn first rattle the bedposts: “Why don’t people do this all the time?”
It’s a vast absurdist odyssey, positively compact at a galloping 141 minutes, that takes in a groaning buffet of settings and ripe secondary characters — all played with relish by a dream ensemble that runs the gamut from Jerrod Carmichael to Kathryn Hunter to Hanna Schygulla — but rests on a single astonishing performance by Stone. Having ceded the plum part to Olivia Colman in “The Favourite” while perfecting her cut-glass English accent, she’s rewarded here for her patience with what most actors would have to honestly call a never-in-a-lifetime role. Molding Bella before our eyes from infancy to adolescence to adulthood — her speech, bearing and body language all intricately evolving from one scene to the next — she tackles grand-scale physical comedy (including a hall-of-fame-level dance sequence between her and Ruffalo) with gusto, all while marking the character’s growing, sinking sense of reality with a steadily hardening gaze.
Any less brave or brazen a performance would likely sink amid the veritable firework display of formal technique and trickery with which Lanthimos illustrates his heroine’s dizzily expanding, distorted acquaintance with the world — a busy, swirling mise-en-scène that fuses chintzy matte-painting artifice with eye-popping digital effects to conjure the disorienting awe of childish discovery from a cosmopolitan adult vantage point. Flushing from harsh monochrome to hyper-saturated Kodak color once Bella leaves home — entering not Oz, but a seductive realm of marshmallow skies, gleaming vinyl oceans and pasteis de nata — ace DP Robbie Ryan frequently returns to the queasy wide-angle lenses that were such a feature of “The Favourite,” all the better to connote a perspective still overwhelmed by the choice of where to look.
The film’s playfully elastic sense of period — a marked change from the novel, with its neurotically recorded dates and particulars — is amplified by the startling work of production designers Shona Heath and James Price, whose visual reference points flit from Arts and Crafts to Art Deco, Victorian steampunk to Belle Epoque luxury, all strewn across sets that delight in the overt fakery and garbled exotica of golden-age Hollywood world-building. Cities like Lisbon, Paris and Alexandria become top-heavy soundstage parodies of themselves, as a child might dream them after leafing through a picture book. Holly Waddington’s exquisite costumes are likewise untethered to reality: Heavy on sky-high shoulder pads and outsize whipped-cream collars in aggressively clashing hues, her creations for Bella mark both her otherness from everyone else and her developing self-awareness.
Against this spirit of sensual and sensory richness, experimental pop artist Jerskin Fendrix’s gnawing, atonal score — mirroring Bella’s switching fixations by doggedly stressing one instrument at a time — stands out for its severity. Consider it an aural reminder that Lanthimos, even when granted both the finances and freedom to realize such an extravagant adult fantasy, remains something of a brutalist, a surgeon who will rudely cut to the heart of the human condition, spilling insides that not everyone will want to see. Oddly moving in its fervor and abundance, “Poor Things” may appear a far cry from the harsh, stripped ascetism of an early work like “Dogtooth.” But they’re actually similar animals, fixated on taking people apart to find what makes them tick, what makes them swoon, what makes them interesting.
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