Peel back the layers of creature feature make-up and look beyond the gaudy, Gaudí-in-a-fishbowl sets, try to dim the swirling burlesque of guts and gore and pleasures of the flesh and you’ll find a rather classic – and classically appealing – Victorian coming-of-age tale at the center of Yorgos Lanthimos’ “Poor Things.”
That the film remains witty and wise throughout its most lurid stretches makes the Venice Golden Lion contender one of the year’s most unexpected heart-warmers. That the filmmakers lavish commensurate attention on all those bawdy embellishments also guarantees you a bloody good time along the way.
Reteaming with the director who pushed her to new highs in 2018’s “The Favorite,” Emma Stone outdoes herself with a role that deploys her (already considerable) comedic talent to superlative effect. As if born out of a mad-science experiment fusing “Frankenstein” with “Pygmalion,” her turn as Bella Baxter – a peculiar creation with the mind of an infant, the body of a lady-in-waiting, and a narrative path towards enlightenment – offers the cinematic cannon an indelible new heroine. As luck would have it, Bella was indeed born of a mad-scientist – of the facially scarred, physically lumbering professor Godwin Baxter (a perfectly cast Willem Dafoe), though she just calls him God.
Together, Bella and God have carved out a pretty good life for themselves in the Baxter family home. They cut up corpses, read from voluminous tomes, and every now and then create new affronts to nature’s designs (a pig’s head fused to the body of a chicken is one of their more successful iterations), all while captured by the most extreme fish-angle lenses and cast in pools of black-and-white. And though Godwin is a most-protective paternal figure – barely letting the girl out of his sight, let alone into the world – he’s not the quite the monster his often hilariously grotesque physical countenance would let on.
Because Bella’s mind is growing, lurching forward with baby steps from toddlerhood to adolescent self-discovery, soon the family unit must grow in kind. And though Bella seems perfectly amenable to Godwin’s hand-selected suitor, her latent sexuality presents a far more pressing concern. In other words, if the meek medical student Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef) may be Mr. Right, Bella yearns for Mr. Right Now and he goes by the name of Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo).
Fitted with a neat mustache, described by those closest to him as “white teeth and a hard cock,” and performed by Mark Ruffalo with levels of oleaginous himbo gusto unseen on the big-screen since Kevin Kline’s turn in “A Fish Called Wanda,” the rakish playboy Wedderburn soon whisks the damsel away as the black and white palette gives way to pastel color. Wedderburn introduces Bella to oysters, egg tarts and the Fado sounds of Lisbon, but for the most part, they devote the majority of their time to marathon bouts of “furious jumping.”
That’s what Bella calls it, anyway, and she does have a way with words, particularly when it comes to describing her own growing lust. “Bella discover happy when she want,” she announces after discovering self-pleasure. “Why do people not do this all time?” she asks after her first night with a partner. The character’s sense of childlike wonder married to her growing physical freedom comes into full relief under Lanthimos’ absurdist lens.
The director reframes social interactions with an alien’s bemusement, drawing surreal and absurdist humor by casting the familiar into a strange and unfamiliar light. In Bella, he has found an ideal heroine – an erotic savant and social disruptor upending social mores with gleeful innocence and a carnal spark.
Moving across steampunk visions of Lisbon, Alexandria and Paris – all imagined with asymmetrical glee by production designers James Price and Shona Heath, and bathed in unnatural glows by cinematographer Robbie Ryan – Bella’s world and mind expand, much to the growing ire of her possessive lover. Encounters with new sparring partners, played by the likes of Jerrod Carmichael and Hanna Schygulla introduce her to self-improvement philosophy and to morose fatalism, while a friendship struck up in a Parisian brothel brings politics into her life.
Indeed, after washing up flat broke in Paris, Bella falls into the world’s oldest profession and that enrages the macho Duncan. But for the newly insatiable Bella, what could be better than a revolving door of new teachers? Bella is insatiable all right, but not just for sex – after oysters, and liquor, and too much good times she wants to taste and learn every squalid flavor this world has to offer.
She is a glutton for experience, a hedonist for all forms of interaction. Mining her gifts for physical performance, Emma Stone embodies her character’s ongoing enlightenment with her every gesture, mirroring Bella’s intellectual evolution with a parallel rise in grace. Bella’s mind and body respond to, and soon reflect the, wider world around her.
This being a Yorgos Lanthimos film, that wider world has its fair share of grotesqueries and jagged edges, and the filmmaker does not shy from all manners of perversions and body horrors. At the same time, “Poor Things” marks a change in tone from Lanthimos’ previously bleak outlook, building to a place of empowerment and liberation instead of resigned despair. Like a Victorian mad-scientist, the director takes the spirit of Mary Wollstonecraft into the build of Mary Shelley.
“Poor Things” hits theaters December 8.
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