Greek weird wave director Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster, The Favourite) hits his stride with his strangest yet most deeply satisfying comedy fable yet, Poor Things. This exhilarating mix of Fanny Hill and Frankenstein is adapted by Tony McNamara from Alasdair Gray’s novel of the same name.
In the London home of surgeon Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe), bifurcation and combination reigns: a chicken with a pig’s head (vice-versa), Godwin with Frankenstein’s ambition and the face of his creation; and Bella Baxter (Emma Stone), with the body of a woman and the brain of a child. She is an experiment: the result of the desperate suicide of pregnant woman. Godwin – who Bella refers to as God throughout – wishes to keep her isolated from the world (an echo of Lanthimos’ breakout hit Dogtooth) under the supervision of the vinegar-faced housekeeper Mrs. Prim (Vicky Pepperdine) and the romantically-inclined medical student Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef).
As McCandles falls in love with the rapidly maturing Bella – she discovers masturbation “making myself happy” and is soon trying to introduce everyone to the idea – Godwin gives his blessing on the understanding the couple stay in the house. It looks like a premature happy ending is about to descend on the film when in strolls attorney and scoundrel Duncan Wedderburn (played with louche insouciance by a suitably dissipated and outrageous Mark Ruffalo), to elope with Bella and take her on a voyage of discover which will include sex, small Portuguese tarts, society, cynicism, socialism, feminism, sex work and science.
Such a bare bones synopsis can do little to reveal the sordid delicious pleasures of Poor Things. The script is unflinchingly outrageous, a bouquet of thorny barbs with some of the best swearing since Succession. Bella’s point of view is expressed through her reinvention of English as her innocence is salted and peppered with experience. Everyone is referred to by their full names and sex becomes “furious jumping”. She isn’t the only one who gets to chew on lines which have more meat on them than a chicken/pig. Dafoe dismisses suffering including his own with a dark Caledonian wit, and this is Ruffalo’s best comic performance by a country mile. It’s the kind of wit that isn’t afraid to punch you in the face or kick the audience in the crotch – if it’s funny.
Shot entirely on sound studios, including what looks like a topsy-turvy cruise ship right out of Fellini’s And the Ship Sails On, the impressive production design by Shona Heath creates a world of steampunk Victoriana, wreathed in regency baroque, while Holly Waddington’s costumes suggest a hysterical ludicrousness and power pop inspiration. Robbie Ryan’s cinematography distorts even as it reveals with its fisheye lenses, and Jerskin Fendrix’s score pokes the puttering contraption in surprising directions as it wobbles on but never topples. It’s what Tim Burton would want to be when he grows up.
In capturing Bella’s innocence and experience, Stone gives a career-best performance – and that’s taking into account a career that has already racked up awards and plaudits. Stone is childlike and raunchy, emotional and smart, amoral and just. Her radical reinvention culminates in a critique of not just Victorian values (an easy target if ever there was one) but the toxic male bullshit that manages to stink up the new millennium as well. It’s also a timely finger-in-the eye to the prudery and sexual negativity that masquerades as post-#MeToo thoughtfulness.
When Bella becomes a sex worker, she might be seen as a fallen woman by society but she admits, “It’s brutal but strangely not unpleasant”. A colleague and lover points out to a man that they are their own means of production. There will be discussions on agency and feminism, given the nudity and the maleness behind the camera, but the condescension of Poor Things’ title is in direct contrast to the brassy belligerence of the film. This is Barbie on absinthe.
The 80th Venice Film Festival takes place from 30 August-9 September.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty