You may have already heard about Emma Stone in Yorgos Lanthimos’s “Poor Things.” It won a lot of awards in Venice.
“Poor Things” is absolutely pornographic, in the best way. It’s got a lot of nudity, full frontal for both sexes. There’s a lot of graphic sex. And there’s also a ton of humor, and the best production — cinematography, costumes, makeup, sets — maybe of the year.
“Poor Things” a film for adults, but it’s not adult film.
It’s also a horror film, as brains are cut out of heads, and that sort of thing. Think of it as a cool Frankenstein movie shot through a fish eye lens (oh yes, that’s one of the strangely beautiful things going on).
Willem Dafoe — whose face is marked by 90 degree scars — is Dr. Frankenstein, or in this case called Dr. Godwin Baxter. His creation is Bella, who comes to him pregnant and without any memory. He removes the brain of her unborn child and puts it in Bella’s head. When she becomes functional, she calls him “God.”
Dr. Baxter runs a very Frankensteinish lab in his medieval Scottish castle, and has an assistant named Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef) who, of course, falls in love with Bella. But he’s a nice guy, so you know she’s going to reject him. Youssef is that kind of inspired casting since he’s really known for comedy. But he’s got the same sad eyes as Stone, and they marvelous chemistry.
As Bella learns to speak, she also wants sex. She gets it from an idiot playboy named Duncan Wedderburn, played with delicious measure by Mark Ruffalo in a nice comeback for him after so many Avengers movies. Sinister, self-aggrandizing Duncan whisks her away to Paris promising the moon. But when the couple runs out of money, Bella takes matters into her own hands, so to speak, and turns to sex work. This scenario introduces the transcendent Kathryn Hunter (all the witches in Joel Coen’s “The Tragedy of Macbeth”) as Swiney, the madame of Bella’s brothel. There have to be special awards for Hunter at this point. She is luminous.
There are many charmingly weird things going on here. The sets, costumes, and speech patterns would tell you this movie is happening in 1892 Glasgow. But there’s futuristic architecture mixed in with the antiques, and cars flying over heard. Dr. Baxter often coughs up magic, golden blobs that just float out of his mouth into the air. Bella has magical abilities, as well, that come and go. That’s because the film is based on the popular 1992 novel of the same name by Scottish visual artist and post-modern science fiction writer Alasdair Gray. “Poor Things” most closely recalls the wacky world of Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil” crossed with the bawdiest Ken Russell films.
Many will see Poor Things as a tale of female empowerment, which is fine. Bella’s journey is Barbie’s in an X rated world, only Barbie would be scandalized into a stroke by what we see with Bella along the way. Still, they arrive at the same place of enlightenment.
Emma Stone could not have picked a movie less like “La La Land.” Her commitment to the role, especially the insane amount of nudity, simulation, and foul language is quite impressive. The fact that Stone’s incredibly empathetic performance makes Bella real, and lovable, is a tribute to her craft. Dafoe and Ruffalo have rarely been better, Youssef is terrific, and kudos to Robbie Ryan, who’s made this movie a stunning treat.
What a strange and wonderful gift “Poor Things” will be for audiences. If this doesn’t bring people to theaters, nothing will.