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  1. Culture
  2. Film
8 January 2024

Poor Things is Yorgos Lanthimos’s best film yet

In a brilliant comic fable, Emma Stone is a rude, punky and modern Frankenstein’s monster that puts Barbie to shame.

By David Sexton

Yorgos Lanthimos has bestial tendencies. In his wonderfully brutal first English-language feature, The Lobster, a group of losers who failed to couple up within 45 days were turned into the animal of their choice. In The Favourite, Queen Anne had rabbits for children.

Poor Things, Lanthimos’s best work yet, is an extravaganza of horror, sex and fantasy, superbly well performed by Emma Stone, Willem Dafoe, Mark Ruffalo and Ramy Youssef, with great supplementary turns too by Hanna Schygulla and Kathryn Hunter, all in amazing costumes by Holly Waddington, amid spectacular production design by James Price and Shona Heath, inventively filmed by Robbie Ryan, and driven along by pumping breathy music by Jerskin Fendrix. In short, a troupe, in a terrific ensemble piece.

Scriptwriter Tony McNamara (The Favourite) has incisively converted Alasdair Gray’s complicated 1992 novel into drama. None of the recessive framing (lost books discovered, introduced and annotated) survives. The final section, in which the heroine gives her own version of her story, has been left out. Gray’s compatriots will be choked to learn the Glaswegian setting has been replaced, in favour of a steampunk take on Victorian London cooked up in Budapest.

These amputations have freed up the story admirably, while retaining its mash-up vigour. It not only fully owns its debts to Edgar Allan Poe and James Hogg, to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde, to Through the Looking-Glass, Candide and Pygmalion, among other classics – it can hold its place in their company.

Bella Baxter (Stone) is a freak. She has been put together using the body of a beautiful woman who has drowned herself and the brain of the baby she was carrying. This mutant has been brought to life by the brilliant surgeon Godwin Baxter (Dafoe), who is himself mutilated and disfigured, a bit of a Francis Bacon lookalike, having been experimented upon by his own surgeon father. God (as Bella calls him) is keeping his creation for company in his weird London house, populated by a menagerie of other chimeras, including a chicken with the head of pug.

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Bella, when we meet her, looks grown-up but behaves like a toddler, teetering rather than walking, wetting herself, given to tantrums. It’s a bravura piece of physical theatre by Stone, totally committed, without a trace of vanity, progressing a little every time we see her, until finally she is fully self-possessed, lithe and articulate.

Bella learns fast, so Godwin recruits a pliable young doctor, Max McCandles (Youssef), to record her progress. “What a very pretty retard!” he comments at first, but soon falls in love and wants to marry her. Godwin disastrously invites a roué lawyer, Duncan Wedderburn (Ruffalo, a preposterous, horny fop, reminiscent of the 13th Duke of Wybourne in The Fast Show), to the house to draw up a contract by which the couple continue to live with him. Instead, Wedderburn seduces Bella and runs off with her for a grand tour of Europe. Bella has just discovered the pleasures of sex all by herself, with an apple at the breakfast table – a classic scene, like the corker from When Harry Met Sally…, if not the clip they’ll choose for the Oscars, I suspect.

Until this point, the film is shot in melodramatic monochrome, through distorted angles and fish-eye lenses. As Bella makes it to the outside world, all turns to luridly colourful spectacle. She proves insatiable, not only for oysters, champagne, pastéis de nata and life in general, but specifically for “furious jumping”, as she calls it, graphically depicted. “Why do people not just do this all the time?” she wants to know. “At the risk of being immodest, you’ve just been thrice f***ed by the very best,” Wedderburn protests, but can’t keep it up. In no time he’s knackered and broke and she’s disappointed. “What of the tongue play you were about to perform?” she demands. “Is that happening?”

Her naivety is exhilarating and undiminished as her powers of expression grow. She’s rude, punky and modern in a Victorian world: she puts Barbie to shame. A feminist heroine, then? Stone hopes so, saying she found the part “immediately inspiring as a woman: to imagine a world where your mind isn’t conditioned by growing up and being taught to be a certain way”. And some earnest reviewers in the US have acclaimed Bella as a positive role model. They’ve been duped. Lanthimos simply loves to expose the beast in us all – and he has few scruples about how grotesquely he generates these brilliant comedies.

“Poor Things” is in cinemas from Friday 12 January

[See also: Wolfgang Tillmans: “Art doesn’t have a purpose”]

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This article appears in the 10 Jan 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Year of Voting Dangerously

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