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Unhinged yet uplifting, 'Poor Things' is an un-family-friendly 'Barbie'

In<em> Poor Things</em>, Emma Stone stars as Bella Baxter, a woman created as part of a back-from-the-dead mad science experiment.
Atsushi Nishijima
Searchlight Pictures
In Poor Things, Emma Stone stars as Bella Baxter, a woman created as part of a back-from-the-dead mad science experiment.

Poor Things is a little Alice in Wonderland, a little Wizard of Oz, a little Marquis de Sade and a whole lot of Frankenstein. It also has a lot in common with some of Yorgos Lanthimos' earlier films, like The Favourite and Dogtooth: transgressive sex, sadistic power games and grisly violence.

But if the movie is brutal, it's also extravagantly beautiful, extremely funny and, by the end, strangely touching, even uplifting. This may be Lanthimos' most unhinged movie, but it also has a joyous exuberance that I haven't felt in much of his earlier work.

The story, loosely adapted from a 1992 novel by the Scottish writer Alasdair Gray, follows a most unusual character named Bella Baxter, played by a mesmerizing Emma Stone. When we first meet Bella in 19th-century London, she looks like an adult woman but has the awkward gait, unformed speech and anarchic spirit of a very young child.

As we learn early on, she's the product of a back-from-the-dead mad science experiment, in which she was implanted with the brain of the child she was carrying at the time of her death. Bella, in other words, is both her mother and her daughter — and, in a weird way, neither.

Under the watchful eye of her creator — that's Willem Dafoe as the sweetly deranged scientist Dr. Godwin Baxter — Bella develops rapidly. Before long, she's walking and talking more or less like a grown-up, though her inventively tortured speech patterns remain one of the best running gags in Tony McNamara's script.

Inevitably, Bella discovers sex, first exploring her own adult body with childlike curiosity, and then having a passionate fling with a rogue named Duncan Wedderburn — a hilariously over-the-top Mark Ruffalo. When they have sex for the first time, the movie, which until now has mostly been filmed in black-and-white, explodes into wild, rapturous color.

Like an especially bawdy riff on Voltaire's Candide, Poor Things becomes the story of Bella's sexual odyssey. Ever since the movie's Venice Film Festival premiere, much of the reaction has focused on its many frenzied sex scenes, in which the bodies of Stone and Ruffalo, among others, are on abundant display. But the movie is after something more than mere titillation; much of the time, it emphasizes the absurdity rather than the ecstasy of sex.

Before long, Bella grows bored — and disillusioned. She learns that men are mostly horrible, and that the world is full of suffering and poverty. Soon, she begins making new friends, reading Emerson and nourishing her mind. At one point, while they're on a European boat cruise, Duncan becomes jealous, accusing Bella of spending too much time with two other travelers, who are having an engrossing intellectual debate. Bella responds, as she often does, by referring to herself in the third person: "These two are fighting and ideas are banging around in Bella's head and heart like lights in a storm."

If Bella's baroque dialogue makes Poor Things a lot of fun to listen to, the film is also gorgeous to look at. Lanthimos has never been afraid of anachronism, and here he embraces it head-on. His production designers, Shona Heath and James Price, have dreamed up a futuristic, candy-colored vision of the 19th century, where people movers soar over city streets and chimneys belch green smoke into a dark purple sky.

This almost Steampunk fantasy version of Victoriana, often shot with fish-eye lenses by the gifted cinematographer Robbie Ryan, suggests just how radically strange the world must look to Bella's eyes. And Jerskin Fendrix's dissonant, unruly score feels like something piped in directly from Bella's subconscious.

Some admirers of Poor Things have argued that it's a feminist work, in which Bella's erotic awakening becomes the key to her liberation. The movie's detractors have dismissed it as just a superficially empowering girlboss narrative. I'm hardly the only one to have noticed that it's basically the un-family-friendly version of Barbie, in which a woman's childlike naiveté becomes a surprisingly effective weapon against the patriarchy. I guess that makes Ruffalo's greasy-haired Duncan a Ken, though you might say the same for the men played by Ramy Youssef, Jerrod Carmichaeland Christopher Abbott, all of whom try, in their own ways, to manipulate Bella's destiny.

But Bella won't be controlled, and she's much too brilliant a character to be reduced to a symbol or archetype. Stone gives a great, audacious performance; her Bella can be ignorant, selfish, impulsive and cruel, but also fiercely intelligent, witty, thoughtful and kind. Lanthimos has seldom expressed much affection for his characters, but he clearly loves this one to pieces. He's made a movie that, even at its most outlandish, has its heart in the right place, even if its brains are not.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.