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Poor Things Review: Emma Stone Leads a Frankenstein Fable for the Ages

Bella Baxter certainly is that. The film begins with the woman she used to be (a person we never get to know) throwing herself in despair from a bridge in 19th century Glasgow. We are keyed into the location later when we meet Bella’s maker, a man she is taught to affectionately refer to as “God.” He is really Dr. Godwin Baxter—Willem Dafoe with a thick Scottish brogue and a Grand Guignol monster makeup of his own. God found Bella’s pregnant body in the river, and it was God, as a proper Victorian man of science, who did the only rational thing: He removed her brain and replaced it with the unmarred mind of the unborn fetus in her womb. Ergo, Godwin’s Bella is a full-grown woman who is experiencing life for the very first time.

Many of the men she meets dismiss Bella as simple, but it doesn’t stop them from falling in love with her, be it God’s own right hand, the meek but vaguely kind Dr. McCandles (Ramy Youssef), who proposes marriage to Bella, or God’s lawyer, the worldly libertine Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo), who steals Bella away to see the continent and to practice what Bella calls “furious jumping” in the bedroom. Yet behind their preconceived notions is an intensely alive and observant woman who is learning quickly the social mores, etiquettes, and expectations around her. She is also untethered enough to figure out how to break each and every one of them as she indulges in a little madness of her own.

Based on a 1992 novel of the same name by the late author Alasdair Gray, Poor Things is brought to gleeful anachronistic life by screenwriter Tony McNamara. The same playwright and author who ironed out The Favourite’s barbed creases for Lanthimos, McNamara and the director have refined their penchant for blending the cultured with the crude. Like that previous period piece, Poor Things’ dialogue is eagerly loquacious, but that blunt chattiness can careen from Bella drolly assessing the human condition to simply assessing the type of humans she meets in a Parisian brothel based on their thrust count. When she hears an infant crying at a restaurant, she calmly asserts, “I must go punch that baby” and rises from her seat to do exactly that.

It’s a bawdy decadence that, somehow, never loses its sweet fragility. Easily the most good-natured film in Lanthimos’ filmography—an oeuvre that also contains the bitter satire of The Lobster and the literal Greek tragedy of The Killing of a Sacred DeerPoor Things reveals an unexpected optimism that plays as simultaneously jejune and profound. It’s like discovering that inside of Castle Dracula resides a big softie who wants to read you nursery rhymes.

This is partially achieved due to a dazzling fairytale affectation that draws on Poor Things’ obvious Gothic heritage and weds it to a steampunk aesthetic and set designs which are closer to Never Never Land. Holly Waddington’s costumes are characters unto themselves, tracking each of Bella’s moods as she traverses a world built by production designers Shona Heath and James Price. The great cities of Europe and the Mediterranean Bella visits are unmistakably artificial, but like a theme park designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, the viewer cannot help but get lost in the daydream. For instance, the film’s Alexandria is a vertical tower where the wealthy stare down into a dark pit at the center. It is literally the poverty beneath their feet, and to navigate the port city, Bella and her paramours must scale stone staircases that look as if they were carved from stalactites in the style of M.C. Escher.

As a narrative, it is as eccentric as some of Dr. Baxter’s earlier experiments, which include a chicken with a dog’s head that Bella dotes on in the garden, but the macabre and the sublime prove surprisingly comfy bedfellows. The same might be said of the cast. While this is indisputably Stone’s showcase, Lanthimos invites many of her co-stars, especially a preening Ruffalo and a deadpan Dafoe, to also attempt to chew the scenery. One particular standout sequence even tops the anachronistic voguing in The Favourite when Ruffalo’s befuddled bon vivant proves incapable of keeping up with Stone as she skips and twirls across a dance floor that’s photographed in outlandish splendor by returning cinematographer Robbie Ryan and his fisheye lenses.

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