On the face of it, I wouldn’t have bet that I would take to Yorgos Lanthimos’s latest film, but I am crazy about Poor Things. This high-flying feminist variation on the Frankenstein tale is as wacky and unpredictable as a Tex Avery cartoon. No other film in recent memory can match it for sheer ingenuity, both in terms of storytelling and visual execution. Lanthimos has gotten the best out of his many collaborators on both sides of the camera.
Emma Stone delivers a fearless performance, much of it unclothed, and her bravado is matched by costars Mark Ruffalo, Willem Dafoe, and a straight-faced Ramy Youssef. As the story hops around the globe we encounter other well-cast actors, many in tiny roles, whose unique faces recall Fellini in his heyday. It’s fun to see Hanna Schygulla, the onetime femme fatale of German cinema, in a small part as a cruise ship passenger.
The story is set in Victorian England and Europe. Dafoe plays a bona fide mad scientist who saves a pregnant woman from suicide, only to place the newborn baby’s brain into her mother’s body. As the brain rapidly matures, the childlike woman discovers the wonders of life and develops a voracious appetite to experience everything she can, with no filter to stop her from saying what she feels and doing what she wants. Like the character in Candide, she is easily assimilated. She doesn’t know what sex is at first but quickly takes a liking to it, to the ultimate dismay of her suitor, played with audacious bluster by Ruffalo.
A novel by Scottish author Alasdair Gray was the basis for Tony McNamara’s sprawling screenplay (following his pairing with Lanthimos on The Favourite). The production design by Shona Heath and James Rice is a hodgepodge of Victorian splendor, Steampunk chic and overall excess. Robbie Ryan’s cinematography captures all of this; his work is augmented by CGI that makes Bella Baxter’s odyssey truly mind-blowing. Every scene at Dafoe’s stately home is populated with absurd animal mutations.
Mark Coulier’s prosthetics deserve special praise. The design of Dafoe’s face is a marvel all by itself, resembling a cracked piece of concrete poorly reassembled.
Poor Things should be off-limits for prudes, if there are any left in today’s society. (I count myself as a recovering prude.) For moviegoers who are tired of formulaic filmmaking, sequels, and remakes, this movie is a feast.