A whimsical adventure with a fabulously filthy side, Poor Things blossoms in its own sweet time, unfolding its secrets and mysteries stingily at first, in sharp, expressive monochrome.
Then, like its preternaturally horny Victorian-era heroine Bella Baxter, the film crosses some threshold of discovery, and bursts open into vivid color, following Bella’s strange, erotic journey from London to Paris, Lisbon, and beyond.
Originated in the 1992 novel by Alasdair Gray, the story of Bella Baxter has met a most apt interpreter in director Lorgos Yanthimos, whose films, like The Lobster and The Favourite, revel in kink and quirkiness.
Yanthimos and screenwriter Tony McNamara (both Oscar-nominated for The Favourite) keep up the kink here, and also locate the wit and joy in a tale that’s given largely to horror and discomfort.
Emma Stone, another decorated Favourite alum, is brilliant as Bella, whose very existence is a horror. Bella was dead once upon a time, until maverick scientist Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe) revived her, or remade her.
The doctor’s precise methods for issuing life unto Bella are among those secrets he keeps to himself. But, clearly, his experiments are unorthodox, if not also illegal and immoral, as evidenced by the bizarre menagerie of hybrid creatures waddling around the garden of his estate.
Childlike naif Bella enjoys feeding the dog-duck, chick-pig, and duck-goat — all very persuasively rendered via CGI — but she longs to experience the world beyond the walls of Baxter’s estate. Thirsting for knowledge, she chafes at the doctor’s restrictions, yet he only tightens the reins.
He hires an assistant — sweet, unassuming Max McCandless (Ramy Youssef) — whose sole purpose is to observe and record Bella’s progress into womanhood.
Among other things, Max observes Bella’s prodigious interest in masturbation, labeling her a “pretty retard.” The film suggests her sexual awakening might set her free, sending her on a path towards the knowledge she seeks, and the freedom she covets. But then, it seems, the joke might be on Bella, and on the audience, as, maddeningly, her eager sexuality is merely objectified, becoming just another reason to keep her cloistered.
We already know that too many men would love to have a woman like Bella, with the body of a tart and the emotional maturity of a baby. It would be a cruel joke indeed for this fable about a man-made woman defying a society that monitors and controls women to conclude that Bella’s powerful sexuality only means the men in her life will try that much harder to control her.
Actually, the film does reach that conclusion, but it doesn’t end there. Bella struggles to wrest control of her body and sexual agency. She discovers new worlds of carnal pleasure with louche lawyer Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo), who whisks her away from Dr. Baxter, and there’s no turning back.
Along with Bella, the movie lifts off with Duncan, a colorfully lewd, spoiled, dandyish horndog who Ruffalo turns into the flat-out funniest character he’s ever played. Duncan is a complete idiot who can’t resist Bella, and Ruffalo is so invigoratingly alive in the part, that, despite Duncan’s daftness, he’s pretty irresistible, too.
Also, Duncan takes Bella to the most glamorous places, introducing her to a life of ocean cruises, oysters, and champagne. The film’s lush production design captures the beauty in every detail, from a zeppelin floating lazily through the clouds, to Lisbon’s storybook fantasia of pink skies and serenading ladies.
Robbie Ryan’s striking cinematography, often at boldly askew angles, underscores the humor and fantasy, while Holly Waddington’s billowy, velvety costumes, gorgeous though exaggerated, accentuate the fairy-tale romance.
Of course, in true fairy-tale style, several wolves cross Bella’s path. Christopher Abbott is appropriately dastardly as Alfie, a wealthy admirer who’d seek to keep Bella under his thumb, and Kathryn Hunter delivers a frighteningly double-edged turn as Shiney, a Machiavellian madame who takes Bella under wing during an unexpected stint in a Parisian bordello.
A wealth of frightening and titillating experiences awaits Bella once she finally ventures outside her maker’s house. But more than gaining experience, she claims her power, creating for herself, and others, a better life by the dint of her wits and character, and the sheer force of her will to overcome.
Poor Things (★★★★☆) is rated R, and playing in theaters nationwide. Visit www.fandango.com.
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