One of the great dance movies of 2023 isn’t selling itself as a dance movie at all.
In Yorgos Lanthimos’ twisted gothic fairytale Poor Things—playing in competition at the Venice Film Festival—Emma Stone is Bella Baxter, an ungainly, childlike woman under the care of a mad surgeon, Willem Dafoe’s Dr. Godwin Baxter. Dr. Baxter—whom Bella calls God, because to her, he is one—keeps her sheltered in his rambling Victorian house on the outskirts of London. The mad doctor has, quite literally, made Bella what she is, a Frankengirl with the brain of a just-learning-to-speak toddler. Her motor skills are still developing, too, which means her gait—her slim legs straight and stiff, her windmilling arms like angled doll parts—has the ungainly beauty of a Pina Bausch routine. Stone is so good at these arty-kooky terpsichorean moves that you watch in awe, and though Bella is a little out there—when she’s allowed to play in her father’s surgery, she stabs at a cadaver’s eye sockets with a scalpel, cackling with unhinged delight—Stone is so captivating that you heedlessly put your faith in her. When we first meet Bella, she’s just a bouquet of unmitigated impulses, but Stone signals that this freakish science experiment of a girl is going to become so much more—and damned if she doesn’t.
Lanthimos used to specialize in dour, deadpan little tales (The Killing of a Sacred Deer, The Lobster) designed to drive home how cruel human beings can be, as if we needed reminding. But his 2017 film The Favourite, less aggressively sadistic and more wickedly cheerful and bawdy, suggested a possible swerve into a new era. And Poor Things, adapted from Alasdair Gray’s 1992 novel, is something else again: opulent and optimistic, Poor Things suggests, in its own perverse way, that most human beings have the capacity to change for the better, and that a world of kindness would be achievable if every individual pitched in to the best of their ability. Poor Things might have benefited from some trimming—it takes a little too long to get cooking—but it’s Lanthimos’ finest movie so far, a strange, gorgeous-looking picture that extends generosity both to its characters and the audience. And Stone—so dazzling in The Favourite—provides its thrumming pulse.
In the movie’s first section, Bella is an oddity who spends her days banging atonally, with feet and hands, on a piano, living for the moment her God comes through the door, and falling apart when he takes his leave. The doctor’s house is a lair of wonders. (Parts of the movie are shot in black-and-white, through a googly fish-eye lens; the vibe is pleasingly, if a little aggressively, disorienting.) Bella’s weird pets, the products of the doctor’s experiments, include dogs with duck’s bodies and vice-versa; they wander happily around the house and garden, but they’re Bella’s only playmates. Baxter feels compelled to protect this naif, who began as a purely scientific experiment but who has become a surrogate child. He selects one of his students, mild-mannered smartie Max McCandles (Ramy Yousssef), to help observe and record Bella’s development. She’s learning more words by the day; she’s figuring out how her limbs work. And in her amphibian strangeness, she’s very beautiful. McCandles might be falling in love with her, and she, too, is discovering feelings she’s never had before. One afternoon, she grabs an apple from the table and impetuously begins pleasuring herself. “Bella discover happy when she want!” she exclaims in her characteristic broken syntax. Eureka! This is great for her, but in the Victorian sense, her blossoming sexual desire really does signal the creation of a monster.
This is barely the beginning of Poor Things: Baxter thinks he’d better marry Bella off quickly, to McCandles, an intelligent, gentle soul who genuinely cares for her. But before that can happen, she’s whisked off on an erotic Lisbon adventure by Baxter’s caddish lawyer, Mark Ruffalo’s Duncan Wedderburn. (Ruffalo playing a sleazy, sex-crazed lout is surely one of the seven signs of the apocalypse, but I’ll take it.) Wedderburn introduces Bella to all sorts of carnal pleasures she couldn’t previously have imagined. And he believes he can control her, but the joke is on him. At this point, she’s all impetuous libido, but she’ll soon learn to read, which will make her even more threatening to the fragile male ego. The more independent she becomes, the more desperately Wedderburn wants her; repulsed by his stupid neediness, she breaks free. Her odyssey includes a stint in a Parisian brothel—its madam is Kathryn Hunter, who played all three witches in Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth—where she learns how to make her own money and further secure her autonomy.
Along the way, Bella learns that not everyone is as happy and free as she is; she witnesses human misery, and it distresses her. She feels it’s her duty to make the world better, not revel in the worst of it. And she decides she wants to be a doctor, like her surrogate father—but there are still a few detours on her wayward pilgrimage, including an encounter that reveals the truth of her past.
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If your head isn’t spinning yet, it will be by the time you get to the end of Poor Things. The material is quite obviously riffing Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, but its restless spirit of inquiry, as well as its insistence on the social value of women’s sexual freedom, evokes Thomas Hardy and D.H. Lawrence, too. In its grand and dreamy psychedelic Beaux Arts look, Poor Things borrows a page or two from early Tim Burton. (It was shot by Robbie Ryan, the cinematographer behind The Favourite, and the loopy-elegant production design is by Shona Heath and James Price.) Stone’s costumes, by Holly Waddington, are extraordinary, a kind of space-age Victoriana. One ensemble combines semi-traditional-looking leg o’ mutton sleeves, voluminous as nautilus shells, with silky tap pants; a dress the color of a vivid egg yolk conjures Frederic Leighton’s Flaming June, a reminder of the Victorians’ dreamier, more sensuous side. There’s so much to look at in Poor Things that it leaves you feeling slightly drunk, but with no incipient hangover.
Stone’s Bella is our guide through all of it, peering at this new-to-her world through cautious, inquisitive eyes, but also taking pleasure in it—intellectual and sexual—whenever she can. “I’m a flawed, experimenting person,” she says at one point, and it’s almost a credo for getting through life in a perpetually uncertain world. Stone’s performance is wonderful—vital, exploratory, almost lunar in its perfect oddness. But perhaps what’s most surprising about Poor Things is the off-kilter tenderness of its ending. Who has body-snatched the old Lanthimos and replaced him with this one? Suddenly, he’s the hero of his own fairytale, the one who looks into the reflecting pool and sees the beauty in the beast.