Director Yorgos Lanthimos is back with his weirdest film yet – a Victorian mad-scientist story with endless sex scenes and garish design. It’s outrageous and hilarious, writes Nicholas Barber.
Yorgos Lanthimos is the director of Dogtooth, The Lobster, The Killing of a Sacred Deer and The Favourite, so it’s fair to say that he has made some weird films in his time. It’s also fair to say that he has out-weirded himself with Poor Things, an extravagantly bizarre curio that sews together a Victorian mad-scientist chiller and a bawdy comic romp, with some slices of fairy tale around the edges.
Adapted from Alasdair Gray’s award-winning Scottish novel, the film tells the story of Bella Baxter (Emma Stone), a young woman who kills herself by jumping off Tower Bridge in London, only to have her body revived by a surgeon, Godwin (Willem Dafoe), who puts a baby’s brain in her skull. Her mental development fast-forwards at a prodigious rate, but she still has toddler-like tantrums, and she totters around Godwin’s mansion like a stiff-limbed clockwork toy: the wide-eyed Stone is perfectly cast.
Godwin himself was operated on in similar ways by his own father, and now has the crazy-paving face of Frankenstein’s monster – although Dafoe manages to be touchingly expressive, anyway. Godwin sees Bella half as a fascinating experiment, half as a cherished daughter. Meanwhile, his naive assistant, Max (Ramy Youssef), falls in love with the innocent, unfiltered Bella. But when a debauched, moustache-twirling lawyer, Duncan (Mark Ruffalo), promises to introduce her to all of life’s sensual pleasures, she travels with him to Lisbon and beyond. Unfortunately for Duncan, Bella hasn’t learnt any of the rules of conventional society, so her free-spirited adventures may prove too much even for him. Priding yourself on being a scoundrel is one thing, but having a girlfriend who declares, “I must go and punch that baby,” is another.
Much of the story comes straight from Gray’s novel, but Lanthimos and his screenwriter, Tony McNamara, have done some radical surgery of their own. As well as shifting Godwin’s house from Glasgow to London, they have grafted on various ingenious early scenes that make the characters more sympathetic. They have added lots of swearing (it doesn’t matter who the character is, they all love the F-word), and they have focused on Bella’s sex life, which means that Stone is half-naked for half the running time. This being a Yorgos Lanthimos film, they’ve also put in a magnificently silly dance routine.
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Cast: Emma Stone, Willem Dafoe, Ramy Youssef, Mark Ruffalo
Run time: 2hrs 21 m
A more significant change is that the tone is far more fantastical than it is in the novel. Gray balanced the strangeness of his gothic yarn with deeply researched descriptions of the injustices of 19th-Century society, and that’s what gave the book much of its ironic humour and satirical power. Lanthimos, on the other hand, has transplanted Poor Things to a steam-punk wonderland of garish colours, masked-ball costumes, squawking music, and obviously artificial, picture-book backgrounds: imagine a Terry Gilliam film multiplied by a Wes Anderson film and you’ll have some idea of the lavish freakishness in store. In the process, the narrative loses some of its emotion and a lot of its politics. Traces of Gray’s views on feminism and socialism are still visible, but it can be hard to spot them amid the endless sex scenes and the retina-scorching production design.
If you’re not a fan of the novel, Lanthimos’s wildly idiosyncratic approach won’t bother you, but you may still find Poor Things off-puttingly over-the-top and self-indulgent. Cut off from reality and rambling in structure, the 141 minutes don’t exactly race by. Speaking of self-indulgence, Ruffalo’s attempt at a Terry-Thomas-style English accent is so catastrophic as to be almost unbearable. Overall, though, it’s easy to forgive any film which is as gleefully excessive as this one. Lanthimos may get carried away, but the results are daringly outrageous and often hilarious. He goes too far in his experiments, just as Godwin does. But, as several of the characters argue, if you want to see the best and worst of life, too far is where you have to go.
If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called The Essential List. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Worklife and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.