“What was I made for?”
Though that’s a lyric crooned by Billie Eilish during the climax of “Barbie,” it could just as easily be a question asked by Bella Baxter, the protagonist of “Poor Things.” Played by Emma Stone in this new movie from the director Yorgos Lanthimos (“The Favourite”), Bella’s back story is a doozy: She’s a Frankenstein’s monster of sorts, saved after suicide when she’s discovered by a demented doctor (Willem Dafoe) who replaces her brain with the one of the unborn child growing inside her.
And you thought Barbie’s creation myth was head-spinning!
“Poor Things,” which premiered at the Venice Film Festival on Friday, often plays like a wild, art-house remix of Greta Gerwig’s blockbuster doll opus. It, too, is about a sheltered, childlike woman whose quest for knowledge forces her to venture out into the real world, where the complicated politics of gender both appall and fascinate her.
But this is no family film: As baby-brained Bella starts to come of age, her lack of inhibitions steers her toward sexual situations that had the Venice moviegoer next to me squirming in his seat.
Based on the book by Alasdair Gray and adapted by Tony McNamara (who co-wrote “The Favourite” for Lanthimos and Stone), “Poor Things” introduces Bella shortly after her brain-swap surgery, when she’s still under close observation by Dafoe’s Dr. Godwin Baxter, who has given her his last name, and his mild-mannered assistant McCandles (Ramy Youssef). Quite literally a child in a woman’s body, Bella can barely string words together and is given to shocking outbursts. Even gaining control of her limbs is a challenge: Bella lurches through Baxter’s mansion like a zombie dressed in drag, which I suppose she kind of is.
Still, the two men are each beguiled by her, even though the lovestruck McCandles is intimidated by Bella’s dawning self-awareness and erotic curiosity. That presents an opening for the caddish lawyer Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo), who promises to spring her from Baxter’s custody and smuggle her into the real world for a sexual education. But as Bella grows more independent and capable of sophisticated thoughts, all the men who initially spark to her free spirit become increasingly pathetic in their attempts to trap and keep her.
Some Venice viewers have crowed that Stone’s go-for-broke character arc all but guarantees her a second Oscar, though I’d apply a lot of caveats to that prediction: This is a wild, eccentric movie full of explicit sex and violence, and older academy voters might bounce off “Poor Things” during the first 20 minutes.
Still, the technical aspects of the film are absolutely worth rewarding. Like “Barbie,” it’s a marvel to look at, though the aesthetic is less “dream house” and more “naughty pop-up book.” Filmed with more fish-eye lenses than a Missy Elliott music video, it’s creatively costumed, too: Bella’s signature look — ruffed collar and Elizabethan sleeves on top, inappropriate bloomers on the bottom — is what you might get if you set a time-traveling Lena Dunham loose in the Renaissance.
And for moviegoers who found the feminism of “Barbie” to be too introductory, “Poor Things” takes those themes to their R-rated extreme, interrogating gender dynamics and sexuality from nearly every angle (and since this is a Yorgos Lanthimos movie, you know those angles are canted). Bella’s quest for enlightenment will push her from plush suites to whorehouses, but the more hard-earned wisdom she accrues, the more the guys in her orbit will be found lacking. Why shouldn’t she try to remake society in her own image? After all, she’s Bella Baxter. They’re just Men.