There is a lot of “furious jumping” going on in Yorgos Lanthimos’s Poor Things, which has just premiered at the Venice Film Festival. This is the phrase its heroine Bella Baxter (Emma Stone) uses to describe sex. Once she’s first stuffed a cucumber inside what she calls her “hairy business”, a new world of adventure and tragedy opens up for her.
Lanthimos’s screenwriter Tony McNamara adapted the film from the novel by cult Scottish author Alasdair Gray, but the universe conjured here is very similar to that found in the Greek director’s earlier works: deadpan comedies such as 2015’s The Lobster and 2018’s The Favourite. Here he uses surrealism and extreme stylisation to make his points, resulting in a film that is brilliant and often deeply unsettling. Whimsical humour and misogynistic violence sit side by side. Bella is the holy innocent discovering men’s depravity and viciousness. Stone gives surely the boldest performance of her career so far, in a role that puts upon her heavy physical and psychological demands.
In its early scenes, cast in black and white and set in what appears to be 19th-century London, the film has the feel of an old Universal horror movie. It even pays explicit homage to the scenes in Bride of Frankenstein (1935) in which the shock-haired Elsa Lanchester is brought to life. Here, though, it is Bella who is revived after she commits suicide – by formidable scientist Dr Godwin Baxter (a horribly scarred Willem Dafoe, speaking in a gentle Scottish burr and made up to look as if he is Boris Karloff). Bella was pregnant at the time of her death. The doctor, or “God” as she calls him, has implanted her unborn baby’s brain in her head. She is therefore an adult-bodied woman who has the emotions of a young infant. She is seen early on playing the piano with her feet, spitting out food and giggling wildly as she urinates on the floor. One character describes her as “a very pretty r*****”. The doctor regards her as “an experiment”. Her brain and body aren’t yet fully in sync.
Bella helps the doctor in the lab but he declines to let her loose on living organisms. She takes wild pleasure in sticking scalpels and knives into gooey flesh and eyeballs. The doctor’s home is beautifully furnished, but full of strange animals and dogs with chicken heads.
Ramy Youssef plays Max McCandless, an earnest young medical assistant who soon falls in love with Bella in spite of her anarchic behaviour. Bella elopes with someone else, however: a seductive cad played by Mark Ruffalo, in fine comic form. Their travels take them to Lisbon, Alexandria and Paris, Bella using the journey to embark on a search for sex and adventure. Each new city is created in fantastical style, with Lanthimos rekindling memories of the work of Wes Anderson, or old Georges Melies silent films at their most artificial.
Throughout, Bella refuses to be victimised and never defers to the many men who try to take advantage of her. She is hungry for experience and often comically oblivious to social niceties. Like Voltaire’s Candide or Jane Fonda in Barbarella, she is an ingenuous figure whose unaffected behaviour continually shows up the corruption and hypocrisy of those around her.
Parts of the film are uncomfortably voyeuristic. For example, Lanthimos takes a fetishistic pleasure in showing Bella servicing her various elderly, hirsute and foul-smelling clients after she starts working at a brothel in Paris. For all the ironic humour with which these scenes are handled, she is still the object of the often very lecherous male gaze.
Despite such occasional unease, though, Poor Things ultimately packs an emotional kick. As time passes and she soaks up more and more knowledge, Bella begins to understand the behaviour and motivations of others. She reads Emerson and other philosophers and learns from them even when she is startled by their chauvinism. She embraces socialism. She has pity for everybody, whether the impoverished outcasts she spots in Alexandria or the Frankenstein-like doctor who created her. You can’t help but root for her.
It will be intriguing to see whether Poor Things becomes an Oscar contender. It may prove too subversive and oddball for more mainstream tastes, but it’s an exquisitely made film. As for Stone? She gives a wildly inventive star turn.
Dir: Yorgos Lanthimos. Starring: Emma Stone, Mark Ruffalo, Willem Dafoe, Ramy Youssef. 141 minutes
‘Poor Things’ is in cinemas from 12 January