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‘Poor Things’: What If Emma Stone Was Frankenstein But Feminist and Horny?

The actor outdoes herself in Yorgos Lanthimos’ brilliant take on the Prometheus myth brimming with satire, female empowerment, and sex — lots of sex

Poor Things

Searchlight Pictures

“I ought to be thy Adam,” says the Creature in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. “But I am rather a fallen angel.” It’s the basis for every mad scientist story: You try to create man and end up with a monster. Fuck around with playing God and see what happens. Poor Things wants to add a few what-ifs into the Prometheus-myth mix. What if the Creature wasn’t a hideous Adam, but a gorgeous Eve that enticed every man who came into contact with her? And, like Shelley’s existentially miserable reanimation, began to see society for the patchwork of hypocrites and contradictory rules that it is? Or, to put it a different way: Imagine My Fair Lady’s Eliza Doolittle if she ditched Professor Henry Higgins and went on a multi-continent sexual rampage?

Based on Alasdair Gray’s award-winning 1992 novel, this serrated satire from Yorgos Lanthimos (The Favourite) drops you into Victorian-era London, at the very moment that a young woman steps off the city’s titular bridge. She is Bella Baxter (Emma Stone), and her contemporaries might call her “simple.” Or perhaps “beastly.” She communicates by grunting, smashing plates, and high-decibel screaming. When she’s not gleefully terrorizing the servants, she hobbles unsteadily throughout the house of her guardian, Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe) — God, for short. A surgeon by trade (and judging from the jigsaw scars on his face, intimately familiar with the scalpel), he spends his off hours exploring the boundaries of bleeding-edge 19th century science.

That includes fusing household pets together — behold, a barking goose-dog! — and the ongoing experiment that is Bella, which, as God explains to his assistant Dr. McCandles (Ramy Youssef), started as a trial run for perfecting the art of transference and resurrection. It seems that our heroine had taken her own life just as the good doctor was searching for a corpse. She was also pregnant, so he transferred the still-living newborn’s brain into the mother’s cranium, hit some switches in his home laboratory, et voila! Bella is back from the dead, albeit with a baby’s blank view of the world. With McCandles’ help, God will shield her from outside influences and educate his beautiful blank canvas. Slowly, she grasps the rudiments of a civilized life. Until Bella discovers free will. And masturbation. Then all bets are off.

A coming-of-age story that stitches together spare parts from Universal Horror (notably the early black-and-white scenes of bubbling beakers and crackling voltage), Gothic romances, picaresque novels and the sort of ye olde bawdy literature once banned by the fainting-couch set, Poor Things revels in the notion that experience and enlightenment are conjoined twins. But it also suggests that sexuality, that untamed urge, still gives nature the liberating edge over nurture. Lanthimos has splashed in these waters before, notably in his breakthrough movie Dogtooth (2009), in which Greek parents attempt to raise their grown daughters in a self-made bubble. Deadpan humor and dread remain his weapons of choice. Reteaming with his Favourite screenwriter Tony McNamara, however, he’s threaded them into a throwback comedy of manners that revolves around a particularly repressive era’s attitudes toward women. The fairer sex may be married, imprisoned, fetishized, objectified, forced into motherhood, and treated like property. But they mustn’t feel physical pleasure. That way lies madness… for men.

It’s a showcase for Stone, who rapidly goes from preverbal toddling to childlike wonder to restless adolescence, all while remaining a grown woman unaware of the chain reactions around her. Her performance displays the balance and dexterity of a chainsaw juggler. When Bella’s sudden self-discovery via self-pleasure and the interests of a first-class cad named Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo, embracing his inner petulant asshole) sets her on a course with the outside world, she becomes both a libertine and finally, fully liberated. Bella’s also libidinously advanced in a way that her intellect and her emotions haven’t caught up with, and Poor Things charts the journey of this Candide of carnal knowledge via a series of athletic sex scenes that would put the Kama Sutra to shame. None of them are gratuitous — thanks to Stone, you feel like you’re watching someone evolve in real time every time she takes a partner. You may feel, however, like the movie is singlehandedly trying to make up for a decade of cinematic prudence in a scant two-and-a-half hours. One character is listed in the credits simply as “Leg-Humping Man.” That generic name is nonetheless well-earned.

The getting of such hard-won wisdom, first courtesy of Ruffalo’s foppish cocksman and then via an educational stint in the world’s oldest profession, doesn’t harden Bella — it merely opens her eyes and steels her will. She travels through a sooty London, a steampunk Lisbon and a slightly curdled Paris, leaving a trail of befuddled mucky-mucks and brokeback suitors in her wake. She learns to supplement her sentimental education with reading, courtesy of legendary German actress Hanna Schygulla. A lesson in compassion is accompanied by con artistry. Nothing is what it seems: A man who looks like a monster can be oddly paternal, and high society gents are the handsomest of ogres. Hence, Bella’s tendency to blurt out any and all thoughts, her blunt honesty still that of a child’s, isn’t a bug so much as a feature in the filmmakers’ eyes. The woman is calling the bluff on a man’s, man’s, man’s, man’s world. “I have adventured it,” she says in her backward English, “and found nothing but sugar and violence.”

Poor Things never gets dogmatically bogged down — it prefers a swifter, Swiftian attack on bygone mores regarding sex that still don’t feel bygone enough — but whether you dig the manner in which this pilgrim’s progress is presented may be a matter of taste. Lanthimos has perfected a certain combination of style and misanthropy (he’s never met a warped wide-lensed shot he didn’t love; ditto a surreal intertitle) that you’ll feel either complement or distract the points he and McNamara are trying to make. For every moviegoer who believes these two are on the side of Bella Baxter, pushing her toward a state of realization one schtup at a time, there will inevitably be those who think the duo are closer to God, just scientists poking and prodding an “experiment” like a human lab rat. Cruelty is the sole currency of the colorful side characters who Bella crosses paths with. Accusations that a certain coldness can occasionally be found on both sides of the camera, however, are understandable.

It isn’t until we get a late-act glimpse into what drove Bella to that bridge in the first place that Poor Things reveals it’s not just a resuscitation of vintage literary satires but also a revenger’s tale. And this is when we see that the creators have indeed picked a side. It’s not a coincidence that we leave our righteous Eve in a reclaimed Garden of Eden, one filled with apple trees ready to be chomped. Knowledge is power. And thanks to Stone, we watch as the fallen angel stands up, dusts herself off, and spreads her wings wide on her own sexed-up, pro-science terms. We’re all the richer for it.

From Rolling Stone US