A strange young woman finds her way through a nightmarish version of 19th century Europe Poor Things, a weird, wild, and quite wonderful new feature from director Yorgos Lanthimos that opens in Prague cinemas this weekend. The recipient of 11 just-announced Academy Award nominations including Best Picture, this one lives up to the director’s penchant for the bizarre but has undeniably been crafted with impeccable cinematic care.
Poor Things stars Emma Stone as Bella Baxter, a… strange creation residing in the London home of a an even stranger master, Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe). Godwin is a amalgamation of both Dr. Frankenstein and his monster, the patchwork result of inhumane experiments by his father who has nevertheless continued in his footsteps. The result is a estate filled with bizarre creatures including a goat with a duck’s head, a goose with a dog’s head, and, well, Bella herself.
“What a beautiful retard!” assistant Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef) gleefully exclaims upon meeting Bella for the first time. To reveal exactly how Bella came into the world would take away from one of the Poor Thing‘s most outrageous reveals; suffice it to say she has the form of Emma Stone but the brain of a child, albeit one that is rapidly advancing, something that Max has been hired to monitor.
Because Bella has the body of a beautiful woman and a (literally) childlike mind, she’s the object of sexual affection for all the male characters in the film. Her father, Godwin, resists temptation for biological reasons (his fathers experiments have turned him into a eunuch), but Max proposes marriage, and Godwin’s cad of a lawyer Duncan (Mark Ruffalo, in a deliciously scene-stealing performance) whisks her away to Lisbon.
Bella’s escapades with Duncan are only the springboard for the strangest coming-of-age story you’ll ever see. Poor Things explores themes of religious and sexual awakening as Bella comes to terms with both how she was born and who she is in this world, and the film turns into something along the lines of Barbie meets The Last Temptation of Christ.
Poor Things makes an especially trenchant comparison to Greta Gerwig‘s 2023 film, which starred Margot Robbie as a similarly wide-eyed babe-in-the-woods who becomes an object of sexual affection in a strange new world (she’s just not so, you know, literally childlike). These two movies have a lot more in common than one might think, but speak to different audiences; while Gerwig tends to advocate progressive ideas, Lanthimos turns stomachs and forces his viewers to confront uncomfortable truths.
Stone’s electrifying performance dominates the entirety of Poor Things. A walking contradiction who must even learn how to properly walk, Bella initially feels like an impossible role; that we come to deeply care for this impossible creature, and maybe even see our own journey reflected through her eyes, is a testament to its star’s captivating central turn.
Next to its star, Poor Things‘ greatest strength is its production design, which reimagines Victorian-era Europe as sci-fi Hellscape. Director Lanthimos typically shoots on location and had considered filming on the streets of Prague or Budapest before the deciding the fantastic sets would need to be recreated in studio (at Budapest’s Origo Studios). The result is something that Georges Méliès or Karel Zeman might have dreamed up with access to modern CGI.
Following Bella from London to Lisbon to Athens to Paris, and back to London again, Poor Things feels episodic at times, and its final 15 minutes aren’t as scathingly effective as the movie that preceded them. The script, from The Favourite scribe Tony McNamara, adapting Alasdair Gray’s novel, seems to want to leave us on a glimmer of hope in this cesspit of morality, but even just a glimmer feels thematically out-of-place.
Poor Things isn’t quite as strong or singular as Dogtooth or The Killing of a Sacred Deer, but on the back of The Favourite, it cements director Lanthimos’ reputation as one of Hollywood’s most distinctive filmmakers. Something this weird and transgressive doesn’t come along often enough (closest comparison: Dušan Makavejev’s 1974 Sweet Movie), and it deserves to be celebrated; that Poor Things can be celebrated at the Academy Awards is an especially gratifying result.