Everything in Poor Things is wonderfully bizarre, from the performances and dialogue to the production and costume design. And yet at its core, as is so often the case in the Greek auteur’s movies, “Poor Things” is about the awkwardness of forging a real human connection. We want to know each other and make ourselves known. The figure at the film’s center, Bella Baxter, seeks to achieve enlightenment, become her truest self, and establish enriching relationships with people who genuinely love her and don’t just want to control her. The nuts and bolts of this story may sound familiar: A young woman embarks on an odyssey of exploration and finds her identity was within her all along. The execution, however, is constantly astonishing.
It’s Victorian London, and Emma Stone’s Bella lives in a tasteful townhouse with the mad scientist who also serves as her father figure. As Dr. Godwin Baxter, Willem Dafoe offers a gentle presence beneath his scarred visage. Bella is a grown woman but behaves like a toddler at first, grunting out words and throwing plates and dancing gleefully around stiff-legged. She calls him God, and that’s actually not hyperbole. We will learn the backstory behind all of this in time, and I wouldn’t dream of giving any of it away here.
Godwin is one of several men who try to mold Bella over the course of her development; one of his students, Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef), is another. Max moves in with the intention of assisting Godwin in his research but ends up falling in love with Bella and asking her to marry him, and Youssef brings an element of warmth and reason to this otherwise mad world. But he’s no match for Mark Ruffalo, an obvious cad with the very proper name of Duncan Wedderburn, who whisks her away on a lavish world tour. This consists mostly of vigorous sex in a variety of positions—which Bella calls “furious jumping” in her rapidly maturing mind—and it’s a key element to both her independence and the film’s brash humor.