Brutality, in all its physical and psychological dimensions, has long been Yorgos Lanthimos’s cruel mistress. In The Killing of a Sacred Deer, the characters look at each other with chilling blankness and paranoid squints, while aerial shots and visions from a distance make it seem the action is being watched by a stalker, a hunter, a vengeful divine force. Lanthimos’s two other English-language films, The Lobster and The Favourite, are darkly comic treatments of people trapped by custom and society first, by fate second. The former is set in a dystopian future where enforced monogamy is new but the unwashed carpets look decades old; the latter is a period drama, shot through with kooky anachronisms and big actorly choices. And Dogtooth, his Greek-language breakthrough feature, might be bleaker still, about a couple who raise their children into adulthood without letting them leave home or experience the outside world. The misery isn’t subtle: Characters scream, bleed, and claw at the walls.
With Poor Things, Lanthimos steps away from suffering’s erosion of the moral and societal fibers and luxuriates, instead, in the productive forces of joy and pleasure. Adapted from the 1992 novel by Alasdair Gray, Poor Things centers on a woman (Emma Stone) who died by suicide while pregnant and has been raised from the dead by Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe), a lonely medical genius with a God complex, daddy issues, and some pretty ugly scars. The woman, christened “Bella,” has her brain replaced with that of her unborn child, given a seemingly permanent reset and, thus, a fresh start. All she has to do is learn how to walk, talk, understand, and express her own emotions, and stop peeing on the floor. The story is about Bella’s journey toward enlightenment, though it is also, to a lesser extent, about the men who love her, who hate her, who want her, who try to trap her, and the blessed few who are happy to sit back and watch her do her thing.
Poor Things is a kind of patchwork creation, a self-conscious homage to—or resurrection of—older cultural objects. (Lanthimos shows his hand at the start, populating Baxter’s estate with oddball creatures that are half-duck and half-dog, another half-chicken and half-pig. They’re mash-ups, get it?) The film is partly a reworking of Frankenstein, partly a riff on the Pygmalion–My Fair Lady conceit, as Godwin and his protégé, Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef), attempt to mold their creation, and partly a feminist take on Voltaire’s philosophical satire Candide. You don’t need to squint to see Lanthimos’s contemporary influences too, from Leos Carax’s stagey vibes in Annette to Tim Burton’s spindly goth aesthetics to Greta Gerwig’s Weird Barbie. Its opening credits are needlepointed into silk to signal the film’s sly, almost twee, relationship to conventional femininity. It’s a reminder that this film is as much craft as art; a copy with a thousand originals; a portrait of a woman ripped apart, then sewn back together by hand.
Here, Lanthimos establishes cruelty as a force best beaten back through the power of creativity. The movie may be the most broadly appealing of his films to date, the most palatable to those viewers who might struggle with Lanthimos’s grim humor and sadistic images. It not only provides a treat for the senses but also offers something new in the director’s oeuvre: a story about how art and community can make a better world. It is a love letter to the creative process though, in many ways, with all the pastiche, Lanthimos’s least creative work.
It’s good to be Bella Baxter. A pretty, white woman who sometimes has money in her pocket, she is welcomed by all and never once chased by villagers wielding pitchforks. Godwin, to whom she refers as “God,” loves her like a daughter; Godwin’s mild-mannered protégé, Max, wants to marry her; Godwin’s lecherous attorney, Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo), seduces her and takes her on a grand European tour.
The film follows Bella’s picaresque adventures, as she leaves home to seek adventure, wisdom, or, ideally, both. Together, she and Duncan travel to Lisbon, where Bella wanders through the streets, blissfully unchaperoned and dressed in a puffy-sleeved top and bloomer shorts. “I found nothing but sugar and violence,” she reports back to Duncan. She can’t know that she is offering a trenchant commentary not only on Lanthimos’s mythical, steam-punk Lisbon but also on ancient Rome, the court of Henry VIII, and wherever you live right now. Duncan, whom Ruffalo plays as the smarmy love child of William Powell and Stan Laurel, is frustrated by her independent streak. Initially attracted to her candor and her carnal appetites (she refers to sex as “furious jumping”), he quickly reveals himself to be conventional, possessive, and bourgeois. Duncan plays the bohemian, but, in fact, he lacks imagination.
It takes an ocean cruise—a kidnapping that Duncan disguises as a romantic gesture—for Bella to tire fully of her companion. She confesses to her stylish, worldly vacation friend, Harry (Jerrod Carmichael), that Duncan brings out a kind of cruelty in her, so Harry teaches her about cruelty on a larger scale. “Do you want to see what the world is really like? I’ll show you,” he vows, pointing her toward a poverty-stricken community, a peek off the boat’s deck into a scene of suffering so grave that the other guests choose to ignore it. “We are all cruel beasts: born that way, die that way,” Harry proclaims, unkindly.
Bella is devastated but undefeated: “I always think it will be better,” she decides. And she mostly achieves this, settling in Paris and discovering freedom in sex work and socialism. She institutes a winning routine with her johns, asking them for a childhood memory and telling them a joke before they get down to business, and from the montage that follows, we see how all benefit from this humanizing ritual. When she suggests to her madam, however, that the girls should choose their clients and not the other way around, she is greeted with violent opposition.
“Some men enjoy that you do not like it,” the madam informs the younger woman, before continuing: “We must experience everything, Bella.… This makes us whole.” Is this trickery on the madam’s part, an attempt to disabuse Bella of the belief that she is her own means of production? Or is it the challenge of the artist to, in fact, feel everything, to access the range of human emotion, as Lanthimos here stretches himself to tell the “happy tale” of Bella’s bildungsroman?
All adventures must end, in that all adventurers must eventually return home. When Godwin’s health begins to fail him, Bella comes back, and Godwin has the brief, significant opportunity to offer deathbed advice. “It’s all very interesting, what’s happening,” he muses on his own demise. Mostly, however, he wants her to “always carve with compassion.” Godwin got this advice from his father, a character never pictured but only described in increasingly horrific stories. It’s clear this man never followed his own advice, conducting numerous, invasive medical experiments on his son and leaving him disfigured, impotent, and prone to burping giant, loud, colorful bubbles after meals. (Fine, the last one is pretty cool.) With his clinical detachment and wanton cruelty, the senior Doctor Baxter turned his son into a science project, but in the spirit of generational progress, a damaged but unbroken Godwin turned his science project into a much-beloved daughter. Parenting, it turns out, is not just arts and crafts but being creative about how and when you draw on the work of others.
All the performances in the film are big and fun, but there is no question about who is the film’s Polaris. To call Emma Stone “brave” for this performance is cliché, so I’ll say that, just as Bella trusts her own powers of observation and her creative instincts, Stone’s performance is trusting. She trusts the script, trusts her fellow actors, trusts the writer and the director that her bold, unselfconscious performance will land. With this role and her concurrent performance in Showtime’s The Curse, Stone is instituting herself as Hollywood’s weirdest millennial-next-door, with all the variety and range of Amy Adams but put through a funhouse mirror.
Stone is the heart, soul, voice, and bladder of Poor Things, but Lanthimos has built a gorgeous, immersive world around her, with deep night skies, delicately rendered black-and-white sequences, and an appropriately offbeat soundtrack. The imitative narrative is a choice, not an accident, as the film juggles a well-trodden constellation of dilemmas and aesthetics, mixing and matching these elements along the lines of the heroine’s quirky travel ensemble.
It is highly appropriate that Poor Things should come out in our year of Barbenheimer. It too reads as an actorly showcase and a vehicle for a singular star; it too grapples with translating philosophical questions for a mainstream audience. Truly, dye Margot Robbie’s hair black, swap out Dua Lipa for the electro-pop stylings of Jerskin Fendrix, and Barbie becomes Bella, zero heavy lifting required.
For that reason and many others, this film might not be, strictly speaking, Lanthimos’s most original intervention. This is not necessarily a bad thing. It has many things working in its favor: It is striking, charming, and high-spirited. A familiar but still satisfying mixture of the Brothers Grimm’s gory cruelty and Walt Disney’s stern reminder to “wish upon a star” (or else), Poor Things is a timely fairy tale that gets by with a little help from a lot of literary friends.