It seems a little low-bar to praise a director for doing what’s already part of the job: helming a terrific female character. But amid a season that includes “Priscilla,” a film that tells you nothing about its eponymous woman, and “Killers of the Flower Moon,” which gives us a frustratingly incomprehensible female lead, we’ve had to modify our expectations.
Barring a few exceptions this year like “Maestro” and “May December,” male filmmakers have seemed to lack any interest in developing a complex woman for the screen. That’s especially true when it comes to a “difficult” woman, one who simply refuses to abide by any standard.
But that’s exactly what Yorgos Lanthimos’ marvelous new film, “Poor Things,” is most curious about — the oft-misinterpreted journey of an unruly woman (a fascinatingly uninhibited Emma Stone), and the needlessly onerous and familiar road many of us must take in order to live our own lives.
“Curious” because so much of the movie refreshingly relies on giving the character space to express exactly who she is as well as a trust that the audience will stay invested as that identity continuously evolves at her own will throughout the film’s nearly two-and-a-half-hour runtime.
And to think, it only took an oddball tale of a Dr. Frankenstein-like character (played by the inimitable Willem Dafoe), a historically possessive character, to launch a distinctly female odyssey. In this case, Dr. Frankenstein hasn’t created a monster. Through problematic means that are properly challenged in the film, he’s unexpectedly liberated a phoenix.
This all probably sounds a little wackadoodle. But if you’re familiar with Lanthimos’ previous work — think 2015’s “The Lobster” or 2018’s “The Favourite,” which Stone also stars in — you should be well primed for the delirium of “Poor Things.”
Adapted from Alasdair Gray’s novel of the same name by screenwriter Tony McNamara (wouldn’t you know, more men!), “Poor Things” opens to a beguiling scene. A calm Dr. Godwin Baxter (Dafoe) is seemingly studying the infant-like behavior of Bella Baxter (Stone), who’s busy throwing her food and dishes on the floor and running all around.
Is she experiencing a mental health crisis? Is she throwing a literal tantrum?
A bevy of questions spring to the surface at the tippy top of the narrative because we’re thrust inside some kind of domestic chaos of no identifiable origin inside what appears to be an upper-class Scottish home. But Stone is so interesting to watch here as she throws her body from one way to the next, a physical performance feat that continues throughout the film.
A few questions are soon answered in “Poor Things.” First off, Dr. Baxter is a scientist who has revived Bella using human parts. (To reveal more would go into spoiler territory.) He’s had her live with him and has been analyzing her progress. Needless to say, it’s been strange.
But it’s also engrossing to watch a woman wake up each day with the sole purpose of figuring herself out, while rejecting all social cues the doctor has been trying to teach her — like, to be nice and courteous and respectful to others, how to use her body and be normal.
What about Bella’s feelings and thoughts, though? That’s what drives the narrative and Bella’s personal adventures and misadventures. We’re watching a live portrait of a woman who makes her own decisions by asking questions of herself rather than being told what to do, think and how to behave.
What does it look like to play? What do all of Dr. Baxter’s many gadgets and tools actually do? How can she experience pleasure on her own?
As Bella’s life continues to rapidly unfold, she becomes more curious about her body, what it can do and what’s next for her. Her sexual curiosity and thirst (beginning with masturbation) mounts to the point where her home and even Dr. Baxter’s well-meaning new apprentice Max McCandles (a thrillingly against type Ramy Youssef) aren’t enough to contain her.
Like many independent women before her and since, she flies the coop. And she, unsurprisingly, is met with resistance each time.
It is frustrating to have to leave what is familiar to you just because the rules and confines no longer apply to who you’ve become or are becoming. It’s a tedious, laborious exercise many women experience several times over throughout the course of their lives on the way to their own satisfaction.
That’s what “Poor Things” closely examines. Lanthimos delivers a gorgeously cinematic excursion of womanhood — albeit a white woman of substantial means and ability — propelled by a hunger for new life experiences, personal failures, tragedies and triumphs. The film refuses any notion that for Bella to want something or feel a certain way is inappropriate.
Told in several parts — stages of Bella’s life that she must digest ― the film then launches into Bella’s sexual sojourns with the bumbling and equally horny Duncan Wedderborn (a hilariously buffoonish Mark Ruffalo).
(Every character’s name makes them sound like an aristocratic cartoon, helping give the film its bizarre and fantastical charm. And it’s easy to adapt to it within this context and almost hallucinogenic landscape).
With this sense of freedom comes more barriers with unsatisfying explanations. Is that real freedom? That’s a question real-life women have been asking since time immemorial and, here, a fictional character somewhat birthed in a lab is wondering the same thing.
Why should Bella have to abandon her new friends (including one played by Jerrod Carmichael) while on a cruise just because Duncan desires her company? Why should she stop reading a book because her new intellect might intimidate men? Later, when she becomes a sex worker, why shouldn’t she be able to refuse a client?
And why can’t she comment on the taste of Duncan’s spunk among strangers or punch a wailing baby at a fancy restaurant? (Okay, those two things might be crossing the line by any standards, but they help amplify an undercurrent of wondrous humor in an already quirky story).
It’s kind of like the moment in a sci-fi offering when aliens come to Earth for the first time, completely aghast at how the hell we live like this. The rules imposed on women in particular by men like Duncan or Dr. Baxter often have no fundamental reason to exist outside the fact that that’s just the way things are and that’s where society is most comfortable.
In her own way, Bella calls bullshit on all of that. And rightly so.
More implicitly observed is who Bella finds love with and how, which reaches far beyond the societally built boundaries too readily accepted. Meanwhile, Lanthimos’ lens and Robbie Ryan’s luscious cinematography capture each vivid trajectory with an inquisitive, nonjudgmental eye. They seem to get as swept up in Bella’s journey as we do.
That allows the character, particularly through Stone’s performance, to dictate who she is on her own terms.
Perhaps the more precise word is abandon, reckless or otherwise, that emboldens Bella to feel all her feelings, embrace the atypical and even make poor decisions simply, as she even puts it, for the experience. Bella questions anything and everything — and doesn’t shut up about it until she gets a sufficient answer. No matter how nervous that makes others.
If Dr. Baxter and Duncan, and to some degree Max, are obstacles on the way to Bella’s true self, the saga at the end of her expedition in the film could only be described as catharsis. Yes, another male figure is involved and, once again, Bella makes an unexpected decision.
“Poor Things” is all about choices a woman makes that may seem peculiar or improper or — shudder! — unladylike to others and the journey one takes to arrive at those points. It asks questions of its protagonist and waits patiently for her answers, accepting her at every turn.
Dr. Baxter himself might even call that a breakthrough.