It’s been a year of arresting lead performances in movies, perhaps none more so than Emma Stone’s in Yorgos Lanthimos’ Poor Things. The movie is a lot: a surreal, ornately designed, provocative fantasia set in an alternate Victorian Europe. It features, among other memorable characters, a mad scientist who belches up murky bubbles and stitches hybrid animals together, and it deals with themes of sexual liberation, socialism, gender constructs, and free will. Its huge, practical sets are crammed with details, captured by woozy fish-eye-lens cinematography.
And yet Stone, playing reanimated corpse Bella Baxter, easily dominates all this noise. She is perhaps the most original and charismatic lead character in any movie from 2023: a young woman who starts under the care of mad scientist Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe) and with the apparent mental age of a toddler. She develops rapidly over the course of the film, fuelled by an insatiable hunger for experience. And by the end of the film, she has a fierce, principled intelligence.
Putting her performance together was a technical challenge for Stone, Lanthimos, and screenwriter Tony McNamara, the smart, acerbic Australian writer of Hulu’s series The Great, who previously collaborated with Stone on Cruella, and both Stone and Lanthimos on The Favourite.
“Usually, you have a movie and the character talks the same way for the whole movie,” McNamara said on a video call with Lanthimos and Polygon. He’s talking about Bella’s disarming turns of phrase, like calling sex “furious jumping,” and a man she has tired of (the caddish Duncan Wedderburn, a hilarious Mark Ruffalo) as a “swearing, weepy person.” “It’s not often you get a chance to create a language that’s evolving scene to scene and sequence to sequence. It just seemed a fun opportunity to have a character who [...] didn’t know the words for things.”
The part asks a lot from Stone: comic timing, intense physicality, fearless sexuality, odd linguistic rhythms, and consistency in portraying a character’s journey effectively from infancy into adulthood. As such, Bella offers a golden opportunity that Stone, who’s fast acquiring a reputation for bravery for her roles in projects like The Curse and Maniac, was not about to miss. She meets the challenge with her usual charm and energy, and some justified showboating.
But Bella’s brain remains somewhat out of sync with her body, and with the world around her. Her movements retain a puppet-like jerkiness, her language has a scattershot, naive poetry, and her behavior is impulsive and unfiltered. Annoyed by an infant’s cries in a restaurant one evening, she announces matter-of-factly to her dinner companions: “I must go punch that baby.”
Lanthimos says he sat down with Stone and broke the script up into stages of Bella’s development, each of which had a defined physicality as well as linguistic ability. “Sometimes we would think, Oh, maybe in stage three, actually, she’s speaking a little too eloquently, maybe we should pull that back. Or, I remember when she goes into that mode of using synonyms when she’s learning all these words, we would come up with more.” They made some adjustments on the fly, but in order to keep the film coherent and the character’s development on track, the script had to be “very precise and specific,” he says.
Bella doesn’t assume control of Poor Things through the sheer force of Stone’s performance alone. The character’s attitude is what wins the audience over: her sense of adventure, her morality, her lack of the shame or prejudice that come with social conditioning.
McNamara reckons this is because Bella enjoys a level of personal freedom that anyone watching the film will envy. “She is what none of us get to be,” he says. “We carry shame and society shapes us, and here’s a person who doesn’t have even those two things. [...] And I think there’s part of you that kind of goes, I wish we were that! I wish we could adventure through life and discover it on our own terms, and shape life the way we wish, and be slightly more impervious to outside forces, like she is.”
That’s particularly evident in Poor Things’ approach to sex. One of the most challenging aspects of the film comes when the still-childish Bella discovers her adult body’s sexuality, which she embraces with a voracious appetite that initially delights but eventually exhausts and infuriates the exploitative Duncan.
Stone and Lanthimos artfully defuse this potential bomb with humor, frankness, and most importantly, by giving Bella total agency over her sex life. “What we wanted to do is deal with it the same way that [we] dealt with anything else, like the same way that the character Bella doesn’t have any shame about anything, and no preconceived notions about anything. It’s the same with her about sex,” Lanthimos explains. “So she had to feel no shame, and just explore it and experience it the same way she experiences food, or whatever else. And some of it is pleasing, and some of it she wants to spit out.”
Poor Things is an overwhelming film at times, but it’s always entertaining. And while its robust humor and baroque visuals are consistent with Lanthimos and McNamara’s previous work, it has a sweetness and optimism at its core that might surprise some viewers. It’s almost unrecognizable as the work of the director of the severe, creepy parable The Killing of a Sacred Deer or the dreamlike melancholy of The Lobster. It’s closer to, but still quite distinct from, the worldly, kinky intrigue of Lanthimos’ The Favourite and The Great.
Without shying from thorny topics, Poor Things is ultimately a warm-blooded, generous, and uncynical movie. It has that in common with its 1992 source novel by eccentric Scottish author Alasdair Gray, although the book is balanced by a strain of downbeat political realism that Lanthimos cut from his more fantastical movie.
When I tell Lanthimos and McNamara that I was surprised by Poor Things’ lack of cynicism compared to their previous work, I get a weird reaction; they laugh awkwardly and exchange a puzzled look. But they ultimately agree about the source of the movie’s hopefulness. “I think it came out of Bella,” McNamara says. “I think it came out of that character. Like Yorgos says, being faithful to that character means you’re ultimately faithful to an idea of this sort of optimism about life’s adventure. There’s kind of an uncynical approach to experience and what that brings you and [how it] shapes you. And I think that’s why it maybe inadvertently became more of a happy ending.”
Poor Things is in theaters now.