She puts one leg in front of the other with all the difficulty in the world. She moves like a disjointed doll crushed under an avalanche of frills. She masturbates at the table, throws food and welcomes her guests with an unexpected punch. Bella Baxter (Emma Stone, also co-producer) is a three-year-old in the body of a thirty-year-old woman. Her surrogate father, Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe), resurrected her by transplanting the brain of a fetus. Understand: she is the female version – and much more hilarious – of Frankenstein’s monster.
Welcome to the world of Poor Creatures, the new film by Yórgos Lánthimos presented in competition at the Venice Film Festival. After his most popular feature film, The Favorite, the Greek filmmaker delivers one of the most accomplished and unique films of the festival. It adapts the eponymous novel by Alasdair Gray on the tribulations of a mad scientist, overwhelmed by the desires for emancipation of his guinea pig. The original work was published in 1992, but is set in the 19th century. It is a pastiche of an English novel, built on a cross-section of views, false documents and sometimes contradictory testimonies. Bella’s adventures are told through the eyes of her creator and the men in her life. The only exception is a passage in the form of a handwritten letter where she reclaims her history and denounces the rigidity of the Victorian era.
The discovery of sexuality fuels his desire for exploration
In more than one aspect, Poor Creatures functions as an extension of Yórgos Lánthimos’ obsessions. His cinema has always been filled with infantilized figures or figures stuck at a primitive stage. We obviously think of the childish queen of The Favoritemaking the Court shudder with his whims, and to the adolescents of Canine, raised by their parents in self-sufficiency and in fear of the outside world. The Greek filmmaker’s feature films are composites of closed universes codified by absurd rules. There is the family unit of Killing of the sacred deer, disturbed by the arrival of a sadistic teenager. Or the authoritarian world of The Lobster, where singles are condemned to find their soul mate or risk being transformed into animals. Like these asphyxiated characters, Bella Baxter only knows the gothic mansion of Dr. Godwin Baxter. But the discovery of sexuality, through contact with lawyer Duncan Wedderburn (excellent Mark Ruffalo), fuels his desire to explore.
Since then, Poor Creatures takes the form of a learning tale. From Lisbon to Paris, from social evenings to sleeping in a brothel, Bella Baxter discovers desire, philosophy, inequalities and existential boredom. The film follows an evolving pattern while reinventing itself, from one grandiose and surreal setting to another. This evolution is also discernible in the costumes chosen by Holly Waddington, first full of volumes then structured to illustrate the transition to adulthood. Between excessive prudishness, questioning of their usefulness or announcement of a transgressive pseudo-renewal, let us count on the omnipresence of sex scenes to provoke a slew of debates. They are, however, essential to the story, filmed without any hint of voyeurism, even devoid of sensuality by their mechanical nature.
Bella expresses her desires and her desire for independence without filter. She invents a new language, but this awakening occurs above all through movement. Yórgos Lánthimos, who started out filming performing arts, knows how to exploit all the beauty and strength of bodies. Like Canine and of The Favorite, Poor Creatures contains a memorable dance scene (which we won’t spoil for you). Emma Stone plays with every inch of her being and pushes all limits without any fear of ridicule. Impossible to imagine another actress to play this role, the most complex in her filmography. Impossible to imagine a better director for this modern, feminist and crazy coming-of-age tale. The film also represents a new stage in the Greek’s career which departs from his usual nihilism. As if he too was discovering the virtues of candor and exploration.
Poor Creatures, in theaters January 17, 2024.