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‘Poor Things’ Cancels Itself Out

And no matter how good Emma Stone is, she can’t totally save the movie’s at-odds imperatives of alienation and ingratiation

Searchlight Pictures/Ringer illustration

There’s an important scene in Yorgos Lanthimos’s 2009 breakthrough, Dogtooth, in which a pair of adolescent sisters experiment with some borrowed chloroform: “The one who wakes up first will be the winner.” Taken literally, the scene is deeply bizarre; as a metaphor for the anesthetizing, incestuous atmosphere of the girls’ household, lorded over by an authoritarian patriarch, it’s cruelly lucid and on point.

The director’s latest feature, Poor Things, opens with another kept woman being drugged to keep her from the world beyond her door. Having gotten a glimpse of reality, she’s unwilling to close her eyes on her own.

A razor’s-edge conceptualist whose films typically involve sadomasochistic power games, Lanthimos likes to warp reality around his characters, and one way to look at the strange, ornate Poor Things—which recently won the Golden Lion at Venice en route to a pole position in this year’s Oscar race—is as an edgy yet politically correct fable of a Sleeping Beauty who gets woke. On those terms, the film is both a success and a failure—a notably ambitious, memorably stylized compendium of self-consciously outrageous images and one-liners that ultimately flatters its audience’s prejudices when it should be testing them. Back in the days of Dogtooth, Lanthimos was a vital, vicious newcomer, placing the isolationist politics of his homeland, Greece, under a microscope. Even when he started working with movie stars for the absurdist rom-com The Lobster, he retained a certain snarling ferocity. But as he’s drifted further into the rarefied air occupied by well-funded international auteurs, his bleakness has become precious and bespoke—and, perhaps most important, marketable.

One possible model for Lanthimos’s career is the Danish master Lars von Trier, whose work is directly evoked in Poor Things via the tableau-like transitions between chapters—nods to the visual language of Breaking the Waves and Melancholia. The difference may be that where von Trier is a true misanthrope whose films end up acclaimed in spite of themselves, Lanthimos seems increasingly to desire awards and adulation, with Poor Things representing a new high (or low) for this tendency. Having broken through on the strength of his sadism, he’s now trying to interlace alienation with ingratiation, to the point that his talent—which is real—all but cancels itself out.

Poor Things finds the director working with promising material: Tony McNamara’s screenplay is based on a 1992 novel by the Scottish fantasy writer Alasdair Gray, whose work has often been compared to Franz Kafka’s. The narrative is one of metamorphosis, centered on the highly malleable Bella Baxter (Emma Stone), introduced as the adopted-daughter-slash-patient of the mysterious Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe). The latter is a grotesquely disfigured shut-in whose facial scars testify to his past as a subject in a series of sadistic scientific experiments administered by his father. Pay it forward, as the saying goes, and while Bella is not visibly marked (save for a scar at the base of her neck), she’s also a guinea pig of sorts, albeit one whose origin story is rooted in nobler intentions. Some years ago, Godwin discovered Bella’s lifeless, pregnant body floating in the Thames, delivered her unborn child, and, in a stroke of Frankensteinian inspiration, implanted the infant’s brain in her skull, effectively swapping one life and consciousness for the other.

The result of this dubiously ethical gambit is a hybrid creation whose body is fully developed and whose mind is maturing at an exponential rate—though not enough to keep Bella ahead of her own steep biological curve. Lanky and loose-limbed, with a knack for lapsing into volcanic tantrums at the slightest provocation, she starts out as a sort of toddler, which is how Godwin—whose surname sets a baseline for the kind of metaphorical subtlety we’re dealing with here—likes her: temperamental, but also deferential and dependent. But instead of delving into truly murky waters of paternalism or pedophilia, Poor Things angles itself more triumphally as a story of sexual awakening, with Bella as a naive libertine rubbing her pleasure in the prudish faces of her countrymen.

Despite Godwin’s best efforts, suitors begin to arrive at his door. The first is a sweet medical student, Max (Ramy Youssef), who takes pains to stifle his desires even as he’s obviously falling in love: A decent chap, he’s willing to wait until Bella grows into her body, proffering his services as a live-in assistant to Dr. Godwin and becoming part of a sweetly dysfunctional family. His chivalrous offer is quickly trumped, however, by a wolfish, deep-pocketed lawyer named Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo), who has zero compunction in lusting after somebody with the mental capabilities of a child and who serves as Poor Things foppish, mustache-twirling foil—a predator with enough money to double as a sugar daddy. “Polite society destroys the soul,” he tells Bella, a come-on that hits the sweet spot between her curiosity and her defiance as surely as the pair’s subsequent copulation in a series of first-class accommodations across Europe satisfies her burgeoning libido—at least until it suddenly doesn’t and she goes looking for other kinds of stimulation.

Allegorically speaking—and Lanthimos, who adapted an ancient Greek myth in The Killing of a Sacred Deer, certainly loves his allegories—Bella’s adventures are legible as a satire of Victorian-era eroticism and hypocrisy and the ways that they go hand in velvet glove. His protagonist’s entirely unnatural, literally baby-brained unworldliness brazenly spoofs the era’s pieties about feminine virtue, while her concurrent discovery of literature, politics, and dialectical debate (“Ideas are banging around in Bella’s head and heart like lights in a storm,” Bella sighs to herself) marks her as a proto-feminist who’d rather lift herself up than be placed on a pedestal. Of course, such intellectual pursuits merely scandalize the feckless likes of Duncan, who prefers his companion to be an uncomprehending receptacle and doesn’t mind saying so. “You’re always reading now, Bella,” he admonishes her. “You’re losing some of your adorable way of speaking.” Her response to such rhetoric is to slap him in the face, over and over—a cue that plays as a slapstick crowd-pleaser.

It’s obvious that Stone isn’t playing a character so much as a conceit: a woman being radicalized on an accelerated timeline. For such a performance to work, she has to not only inhabit Bella’s contradictions, but exult in them—to take the role as far over the top as it can go and land safely on the other side. Happily, she’s up to the task and then some. Between her brilliantly uninhibited acting here and on The Curse—playing a very different avatar of progressive values—Stone is, as they say, on one; a generational talent approaching its peak. Tasked with a physically demanding role where body language communicates at least as much as dialogue, she turns Poor Things into an acting decathlon and keeps coming up with gold. Among other things, she’s a one-woman Ministry of Silly Walks, from the loping, apelike gait of the opening scenes to a dance floor solo worthy of Elaine Benes to the kamikaze choreography of the sex scenes, which multiply (and intensify) once Bella decides to ditch Duncan and monetize her desire as a working girl after hooking up with a wizened brothel owner (Kathryn Hunter) in Paris. “A woman plotting her course to freedom,” deadpans the madam, nudging us to recognize the situation’s subtext. “How delightful.”

Stone’s brilliance is an example of an actress in full control of her instrument, but as a piece of filmmaking, Poor Things is somewhat less harmonious—the atonal score by Jerskin Fendrix, while effective on its own terms, gradually becomes an emblem of Lanthimos’s jarring, ever more laborious sense of provocation. “What a pretty little retard,” remarks a character early on after meeting Bella, a verbal grenade that lands in edgelord territory. Puerility may be a precondition of great satire, but posturing is not, and there’s a difference between seeing what you can get away with and actually smuggling something subversive into a prestige production. The title of Poor Things betrays the fundamental smugness of artists working from a vantage of cozy superiority who believe simple, lazy role reversal—that is, men reduced to sweaty, pearl-clutching hysterics—is tantamount to genuine gender parody (or parity). Everything goes down easily: Even in her primitive early state, Bella grunts a certain truth to power, and in case we’re not sure about her blossoming social and political radicalism, she’s aligned with a pair of acerbic, perceptic Black characters (Jerrod Carmichael and Suzy Bemba) whose sole function is to reinforce and cheerlead her evolution.

It’s a trope that’s no less tired for being used so shamelessly, and the same goes for Lanthimos’s carefully tasteful (as opposed to thoughtful) deployment of nudity to implicate the viewer (but never himself) in what is essentially a voyeuristic, fetishistic scenario. Because Stone is so good—and so obviously a collaborator—Poor Things deftly sidesteps any charges of exploitation, but the flip side is that its depravity feels rote. We’re never mortified, just amused. Leaving aside the spontaneity of some of Stone’s gestures and line readings—“I must go and punch that baby,” insists an aggravated Bella over the sounds of a mewling infant—there are no actual surprises in the performances. Ruffalo’s bloviating horndog act is funny for about 10 minutes. As for the story itself, it’s relatively absorbing and funny up until Bella returns home to London to make peace with Dr. Godwin, at which point things get downright turgid, thanks to an extended cameo from Christopher Abbott as an even more malevolent symbol of toxic masculinity—one who threatens to pull Bella out of circulation once and for all.

It’s here, back in the sort of menacing, hermetic arena that Lanthimos mastered in Dogtooth, that we expect him to finally bring his A game—to shift things into a different, more devastating register and to complicate his heroine’s journey. He can’t, because ultimately it’s not the characters who are backed into a corner, but the filmmaker himself: Having spent the better part of two and a half hours humping a single, whimsical note, he isn’t in a position to deepen it. Ideally, a movie as allegedly confrontational as Poor Things would find a way, at the moment of truth, to either confound our expectations or else genuinely go for the jugular, which is why it’s so disappointing that Lanthimos opts for plan C: a wishy-washy anticlimax followed by a quasi-surrealist coda, topped off by a sight gag with all the toothless whimsy of a shitpost—the cinematic equivalent of clout chasing. There are worse things for a filmmaker to want than to be liked, but that doesn’t mean they can’t do better, either.

Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.