Producers: Ed Guiney, Andrew Lowe, Yorgos Lanthimos and Emma Stone Director: Yorgos Lanthimos Screenplay: Tony McNamara Cast: Emma Stone, Mark Ruffalo, Willem Dafoe, Ramy Youssef, Christopher Abbott, Suzy Bemba, Jerrod Carmichael, Kathryn Hunter, Vicki Pepperdine, Margaret Qualley and Hanna Schygulla Distributor: Searchlight Pictures
On the basis of past experience one expects something weird from director Yorgos Lanthimos (“The Lobster,” “The Killing of a Sacred Deer,” “The Favourite”), and “Poor Things” continues—indeed, in many ways expands on—his penchant for the bizarre. Adapted by Tony McNamara from Alasdair Gray’s 1992 novel, it’s a gender-switching “Frankenstein” story, blended with a “Candide”-like journey in which the creature discovers the world, all done up in the style of a surrealistic romantic picaresque. The result is not likely to please either the prudish or the squeamish, but those in tune with the director’s peculiar tastes will be intoxicated by its embarrassment of off-kilter riches.
It begins with a gorgeously rendered shot of a woman jumping from a tall bridge, only the first instance of the elegance in the work of cinematographer Robbie Ryan, production designers James Price and Shona Heath and costumer Holly Waddington that pervades the film. Nor should the efforts of the large effects team, which has come up with some remarkable imagery, be ignored; and complementing the visuals are a fascinating score by Jerskin Fendrix, which ranges from jagged dissonance to lushness, and an evocative sound design by Johnnie Burn. All the elements are lovingly integrated by Yorgos Mavropsarides’ stately editing.
The marvelous craftsmanship is in the service of a narrative that’s defiantly imaginative. After that opening at the bridge in a fantastical version of Victorian London, it segues to the operating room of a hospital, where students listen in bewilderment to famed surgeon Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe), a man disfigured, both externally and internally, by having been the subject of experimentation by his scientist father. The arrogant Godwin, who follows in his father’s freedom with the scalpel, undertakes unusual surgical projects of his own, illustrated by the strange animal hybrids populating his estate.
Yet the most egregious example of his Dr. Frankenstein proclivities involves the woman who jumped off the bridge. It’s eventually revealed that Baxter discovered her near death, took her to his laboratory and found that she was pregnant but past saving. So he did what he explains as the “obvious” thing: he removed the brain of the fetus, implanted it in the woman’s body, and then reanimated it.
This explanation is given to Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef), one of his students, whom he hires to live in his house and scrupulously record the progress of the woman, whom he’s christened Bella (Emma Stone). Though a physically mature woman, she’s mentally infantile, and has to grow up intellectually through education and experience. Her childish impetuosity and unpredictable behavior initially jar Max, but gradually he finds her endearing and falls in love with her, asking Godwin—whom she refers to as God—for her hand in marriage. She’s not disinclined to accept his offer.
Into the strange household enters Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo), Godwin’s oily, lascivious lawyer, who’s entranced by Bella and induces her to run off with him despite her betrothal to Max. They embark for Lisbon, where they engage in sex so unrestrained that it exhausts him while exhilarating her, and he has a terrible time trying to enforce rules of social etiquette on a beautiful woman who acts like a personification of the Freudian id. The result is frequently hilarious, not least when he feels compelled to join Bella on the dance floor as she gyrates wildly to the music.
Duncan’s jealousy is set off by Bella’s insatiable curiosity; it convinces him to spirit her away on a Mediterranean cruise, where they meet dowager Martha Von Kurtzroc (Hanna Schygulla) and her young companion Harry Astley (Jerrod Carmichael), a cynic who introduces her to a philosophical vision of a dark, inhumane world. Their companionship leads Duncan to give himself over to gambling and drinking, and when the ship stops in Alexandria, Bella is so overwhelmed by the sight of the poor that she turns over all of his winnings for distribution to them.
Now destitute, the pair wind up in Paris, where Bella naively becomes an employee at a brothel managed by Madame Swiney (Kathryn Hunter), from whom she learns the practicalities of bourgeois capitalism while her friend and co-worker Toinette (Suzy Bemba) suggests an alternative economic system whose idealism Bella finds far more attractive. Duncan, appalled by her willingness to service other men—an amusingly eclectic bunch—rages over her whorish faithlessness.
Meanwhile Godwin is in the throes of terminal illness, and when Bella learns of his condition she rushes home to him. She also agrees to marry Max, though an intervention by the furious Duncan, as well as an even more abusive, domineering fellow named Alfie Blessington (Christopher Abbott), derails the ceremony by revealing Bella’s past. But Bella overcomes this male resistance and becomes the mistress of the Godwin estate, continuing the late doctor’s odd pursuits in even more unconventional ways.
As Bella Stone is the driving force in the film, and she gives a spectacular performance, beautifully conveying the evolution of a totally uninhibited woman-child into a shrewd, calculating female. But she’s matched by Ruffalo, who is similarly stunning in tracing the development of a cunning cad into a maddened, jilted lover, and Dafoe, who adds to his remarkable gallery of arrogant misfits by conveying Godwin’s comfort in his unusual physiognomy; watch for the puffs of whatever that his distorted digestive system causes to come from his mouth when he eats. Youssef is excellent as a deferential man, while Abbott chews the scenery admirably as his pompous opposite, the very image of male toxicity tamed in a fashion that finally epitomizes the Lanthimos touch. Add a calming turn by Carmichael, colorful ones by Schygulla and Hunter as aging grandes dames and sharp smaller bits by the large supporting cast, and you have a surfeit of extraordinary ensemble work to savor.
Like “The Favourite,” “Poor Things” works on a much larger canvas than the director’s earlier films, and in some respects that proves a detriment; the cinematic pointillism of his first two films gets somewhat lost in the welter of the later ones. But there’s still a cornucopia of delights here, even if they come with a distinctly sour aftertaste.