‘Poor Things,’ starring Emma Stone, offers substance as well as shock value

poor things review

Emma Stone and Mark Ruffalo co-star in “Poor Things.”

Every director is a Dr. Frankenstein.

They assemble a variety of spare parts, borrowed or stolen or improvised, and stitch them together. They add a brain and a heart. And then they give their creation a jolt and hope, desperately, that what they’ve made somehow comes to life.

Yorgos Lanthimos is one of cinema’s wildest mad doctors. And his latest invention, “Poor Things,” is a marvel.

It’s not for everyone. But then his movies — “The Lobster,” “The Killing of a Sacred Deer,” “The Favourite” — never have been. Intensely personal, occasionally surreal, they’re studded with startling sex and violence. The improbable — even the unbelievable — is never very far away.

And yet they use those shocking moments and flights of fantasy to make our human flaws and foibles painfully, coldly real.

Willem Dafoe in “Poor Things.”

In this case, the Frankenstein analogy is not an idle one: “Poor Things” is a classic man-made monster story, mixed with a bit of “Pygmalion.” Set in an alternate, steampunk universe, it begins with the experiments of Dr. Godwin Baxter, a scarred genius who lives alone in a fabulous mansion.

Well, not quite alone — he’s kept company by Bella, an awkward young woman with the brows of a Frida Kahlo portrait and the mind of a child. She is learning things, after a fashion. But so rapidly and haphazardly that Baxter engages a young assistant to detail her development — and, finally, tells him, and us, the truth: Bella is both woman and child, being the lab-made product of an adult corpse and a fetal brain. And now, that body and mind are trying awkwardly, eagerly to get in sync.

It’s a gruesome idea but the execution is rarely grisly because the look of the movie is so gorgeous. (That expected production-design Oscar for “Barbie” suddenly seems like less of a sure thing.) Its imagery is stitched together, like Dr. Baxter’s creations, but far more smoothly and wittily. Airships drift lazily over 19th-century cityscapes; mechanical horses pull motorized carriages.

But the movie has far more than design going for it; it has a philosopher’s curiosity. Based on the wildly inventive novel by Alasdair Gray, it leaves some of that work’s Nabokovian gameplaying aside to delve deeper into older topics.

How much of who we are comes from nature, and how much from nurture? Is there something organically real about our concepts of right and wrong, or is morality itself a construct? What would we be like if we were free of all restraint?

At the beginning, Bella is basically a full-grown infant and as completely, guiltlessly amoral as baby — she’s all wants, all needs, all new experiences. Her first discovered delight is throwing things and watching them break on the floor. This pleasure is fleeting. Her second revelation is masturbation. This she pursues with an unflagging interest.

Emma Stone and Mark Ruffalo in “Poor Things.”

Until she notices Godwin’s new assistant, and he notices her. And suddenly Bella’s education takes on all sorts of new aspects.

Godwin’s house is a kind of perverse Eden (it’s no mistake, but a little on-the-nose, that Bella calls him “God”). His lab is crammed with animal experiments that didn’t quite work, his halls filled with manufactured chimeras, simultaneously whimsical and horrifying.

But they’re not the only grotesqueries around. Godwin himself is hideously scarred, the product of his own scientist father’s “improvements.” And Duncan, a brief visitor, soon adds his own, albeit invisible, monstrosity.

As the lying, lustful Duncan, Mark Ruffalo is sometimes a little hysterical and that’s a shame; when a story is as fanciful as this one, it’s stronger when the performances root it in reality. But Willem Dafoe alternates deftly between cold science and paternal concern as the hideously disfigured Godwin.

And Emma Stone is both feral and funny as the literal work-in-progress Bella, whether trying to comply with society’s taboos (even though she’d really like to punch that squalling infant over there) or happily flouting them (once introduced to intercourse — “furious jumping,” she calls it — she’s an enthusiastic practitioner).

It’s a courageous performance, and not just because Stone is frequently nude (the usual easy way for an actress to be dubbed “brave”) but because she also dares ignore our usual standards for beauty — either physically or morally. (At one point, alone and needing to make money, she calmly takes a job in a cheap brothel.) And in so doing, she only pushes the story’s themes further. Where do all our supposedly mutually agreed-upon standards come from, anyway?

Soon, Bella’s Candide-like naïveté, which at first seems like a shield, becomes a kind of sword as she questions one preconceived notion after another. What is the natural relationship between men and women? Between employer and employee? What is the price of complete freedom, and who pays it, in the end? These are the sort of things “Poor Things” is really concerned about.

Except, instead of delivering them as lectures, they scatter them like little Easter eggs across a Jules Verne landscape full of improbable inventions, fanciful architecture and Victorian eccentrics.

Again, like Lanthimos’ other films, “Poor Things” is not for everyone. Although I think it really does have something for almost everyone — Gothic atmosphere, intellectual divertissements, raunchy sex. (There is even a raucous dance scene; Bella’s moves put that robot M3GAN to shame.) The film is eye-catching, outrageous, funny. And something even more important.

As Dr. Frankenstein himself would exult, it’s alive.


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