Venice 2023 review: Poor Things (Yorgos Lanthimos)

“This is Bella Baxter’s world, and men just live in it.

What if you could start your life over without the social constraints that society imposes on you, especially if you are a woman? The freedom of women, both intellectually and sexually, is the major thematic strain running through Yorgos Lanthimos’ inverted Frankenstein tale Poor Things, an oftentimes hilarious exploration of sexuality and feminism at its most pure, featuring a fearless, balls-to-the-walls performance by Emma Stone (given that she has the men in the film by the balls). Highly quotable and wildly imaginative, Poor Things threatens to collapse under its own weight, but just in time Lanthimos and Stone pull it together for a surprisingly touching ending to a film that is not devoid of humanity (far from it!), but doesn’t wear it on its beautifully designed sleeves.

Bella Baxter (Stone) is not your ordinary girl. See, she was technically dead and now has the brain of her unborn child, courtesy of the surgery of one Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe). Godwin, who Bella refers to as ‘God’ is a mad scientist who has no ethical qualms when it comes to anything he does in the name of science. With a face that seems to be put together of separate slabs of flesh and makes him look like the true Frankenstein monster of the film, Godwin enlists one of his students, Max McCandless (Ramy Youssef), to study Bella and report any developmental progress she makes. When Max meets Bella she clumsily moves around like a toddler who has barely learnt how to walk, with a vocabulary to match. But progress is quick, and it doesn’t take long for the girl to reach puberty and discover the joys of masturbation, leaving those around her aghast. Max falls in love with Bella, and Godwin nudges him towards marrying his creation; but before the ink of the marriage contract is dry Bella is whisked away by Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo), an unscrupulous and lascivious lawyer who aims to possess Bella for a while before discarding her. As they travel through continental Europe, Wedderburn falls under the spell of the unfiltered and deeply curious young woman who simply will not conform to any sort of societal standards that she is expected to as a woman. Bella will not be caged and wantonly explores the world and her own sexuality.

Emma Stone as Bella Baxter is the heart and soul of Poor Things, no matter how well she is supported by the male actors around her. Bella is an incredibly demanding role, starting with a good amount of physical slapstick as the character goes through her 3-going-on-30 phase. The role becomes physical in a different way once Bella discovers sex, and her insatiable lust requires Stone to literally and figuratively bare it all. The actress throws herself into it with fearless abandon, trusting Lanthimos and the screenplay’s approach to sexual liberation as one of its core themes. All the while Stone’s dialogue goes from the gibberish of children to eloquent and philosophical lines over the course of the film. The deliberately archaic and distinctively odd complexity of the dialogue alone (the next time you have sex, you will definitely remember the term ‘furiously jumping’) turns Stone’s work into one of those tour-de-force performances that define an actor’s career.

The supporting cast play along but can barely keep up. Ruffalo as the slick and sexist Wedderburn is hilarious, his character’s outbursts over Bella’s unwillingness to fulfil his wants and needs going wildly over-the-top. Ruffalo gleefully chews the gorgeous scenery, which makes Bella oddly enough the straight ‘man’ opposite Ruffalo’s brink-of-madness Wedderburn. Youssef is touching as the film’s actual straight man, and Dafoe is perfectly cut out (even literally?) for the role of mad scientist. Christopher Abbott and Margaret Qualley (in a near-wordless role) clearly have a lot of fun delving into the wilder things Tony McNamara’s screenplay has them do in smaller parts.

The world created for Poor Things has a Python-esque quality to it that reminds one of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, of course made by a member of that legendary comedy troupe. Baxter’s stately house and lab alone, with its wondrous and wonderfully rendered animal hybrids and its mixture of Gothic and Victorian elements, is a treasure trove of production design detail, and that is just the tip of the iceberg of James Price and Shona Heath’s monumental work. They have a field day with such varied locations as Lisbon, Paris, and an Agatha Christie-era Mediterranean cruise ship. Holly Waddington’s costumes, continuously hiding Stone’s frail shoulders under extremely puffed fabrics vaguely reminiscent of the era the film is set in, just dialed up to 10, are a shoe-in for a costume design nomination at next year’s Oscars (as is Price and Heath’s work, by the way). Jerskin Fendrix’s unsettling and dissonant score furthers Poor Things‘ otherworldliness.

Yet underneath the visual splendour Poor Things is a film that brims with ideas and messages. The emperor is wearing clothes this time, although Bella often is not as she explores her sexuality. Equality of the sexes is not a thought that actively crosses her mind; it’s something she cannot fathom to be nonexistent. There is a purity and childlike naivete in the character, which makes the satire on the male gaze and the way men desire control over women all the more biting. Wedderburn’s patriarchal thoughts are consistently shot down by Bella’s autonomy, both over her body and her womanhood, and he can’t deal with it. Max’s genuine feelings for her on the other hand are met with an almost patronizing “You’re adorable.” This is Bella Baxter’s world, and men just live in it. Her zest for life is at times challenged by societal wrongs like poverty and worker exploitation, and in Paris she dabbles with socialism (while being a prostitute; “Women are their own means of production” she tells a baffled Wedderburn when he ridicules her), but these themes are not thoroughly explored, as if to make the film not too heavy-handed and allow for the light-hearted silliness surrounding Bella’s relationships with men, albeit with a serious undertone of its own. The film’s episodic nature more or less follows the stages of Bella’s development yet can at times feel repetitive, but when dramatic developments force Bella to return to London the film rediscovers its emotional core and provides Stone with her single dramatic moment, wonderfully underplayed so as to contrast with the whimsy and fierceness of the rest of her performance. It ends Poor Things on a warm and almost melancholic tone, a strangely uplifting conclusion to a hilarious romp through female sexuality and male stupidity.