It is sickly hilarious to make a movie in which so much consensual sex is had, often so gleefully, that is not the least bit sexy. Though Bella Baxter’s insatiable libido might be her guiding light at first in “Poor Things,” sexual liberation (or “furious jumping,” as she calls it) is only part of this fantastical, anarchic journey to consciousness.
Filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos and his star, Emma Stone, have a good and strange thing going whether she’s playing a striving scullery maid who works her way into the favor of Queen Anne, or a re-animated Victorian woman finding independence. Stone helps make his black humor more accessible, and he creates unorthodox opportunities for her to play and stretch. We, the audience, are the benefactors.
“Poor Things” was not a whole cloth invention. It is an adaptation of Alasdair Gray’s 1992 novel, done by “The Favourite” screenwriter Tony McNamara whose edges and wit haven’t dulled and in fact flourishes outside the cruelty of the previous film. Don't worry, the humor is plenty dark here, but self-actualization looks good on them.
In this depraved and not so subtle fairy tale, men see Bella as a thing to possess and control. Her creator, Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe), a mad scientist with violent scars all over his face from a childhood as test subject for his own father, wants to hide her away from the corrupting influences of the world. His horrified student Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef), enlisted to study Bella, wants her to be his wife. And the dandy attorney Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo) sees a sex doll, someone with the potential to be as wild and adventuresome as him and eschew the conventional stuffiness of their time. Everyone assumes that Bella will not be too much of a problem. And everyone is wrong.
It wouldn’t be a Lanthimos movie without some immense, irreconcilable discomfort, like using a highly sexualized woman with the mind of a toddler for comedic purposes. But this is hardly the first fairy tale to exploit its heroine for her innocence or naivete. Does it make it better if that’s the point? Is it making light of second-degree rape? Is it the film’s responsibility to answer to? Or is this the prickly post-film debate that everyone is supposed to be having? That is something only the individual can answer.
Stone moves like a doll who hasn’t quite figured out she has joints yet and talks in incomplete, childish sentences. She is not actually mimicking a toddler, it’s something weirder and more fantastical than that. In “La La Land” she moved as though walking on air. In “Poor Things,” there is a marionette quality.
And Bella evolves quickly. She learns to walk and speak and think and masturbate and dance and read and philosophize about inequalities. It does not ever occur to her to not do, or say, exactly what she pleases in this opera of appetites. And her evolution is appropriately messy, taking her to Portugal, Alexandria and Paris, as she figures out her likes and dislikes. You almost want to see her go up against the mean teens in Barbie. Social mores really are the dullest things.
This story exists in a Victorian dream/nightmare, a vision so stuffed with fantasy it reminded me of “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.” But it is undoubtedly among the year’s most sumptuous visual delights with production design by James Price and Shona Heath, and costumes by Holly Waddington. Lanthimos and cinematographer Robbie Ryan again employ the fisheye lens that they used in “The Favourite.” It’s extra, but at least it makes more sense in this purposely disorienting world.
While it is Stone’s movie, all the supporting men are exemplary and unexpected, especially Ruffalo who is so deliriously fun and funny that it’s almost criminal that he hasn’t been unleashed like this before.
“Poor Things,” a Searchlight Pictures release in select theaters Friday and everywhere on Dec. 22, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association for “gore, disturbing material, graphic nudity, language and strong sexual content.” Running time: 141 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.
Lindsey Bahr, The Associated Press