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film review

Poor Things

Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos

Written by Tony McNamara, based on the novel by Alasdair Gray

Starring Emma Stone, Mark Ruffalo and Willem Dafoe

Classification 18A; 141 minutes

Opens in theatres Dec. 15

Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos has conjured a lifetime’s worth of nightmares over the course of his career. Would-be lovers stab their own eyes out in The Lobster. Barry Keoghan menacingly slurps spaghetti in The Killing of a Sacred Deer.

Yet the director offers his most horrifying scenario yet in his new dark comedy Poor Things – all the more so because the gag is more heard than seen. Really, it’s the film’s very Frankenstein-esque conceit: A young woman named Bella (Emma Stone) is brought back to life by an experimental surgery after jumping off a bridge to the icy waters below. But in resurrecting her, the gently maniacal Dr. Baxter (Willem Dafoe) replaces Bella’s brain with that of the unborn child inside her belly. Mother, daughter, vomit-inducer.

The outre set-up is explained early in Poor Things, lobbed at the audience by Lanthimos like a grenade which the director hopes will send the pearl-clutchers scattering from the get-go, leaving only the truly brave cinephiles to hack it out. But so much of Poor Things, both in its conception and maturation, feels self-satisfyingly provocative instead of imaginatively profound.

Loosely adapting Scottish author Alasdair Gray’s 1992 novel, Poor Things is set in a fantastical version of Victorian London. Think Tim Burton curlicues meets the maximalism of a Terry Gilliam steampunk epic filtered through obnoxiously liberal use of the fish-eye lens, and you’re halfway there.

Open this photo in gallery:

Ramy Youssef and Willem Dafoe in Poor Things.Yorgos Lanthimos/Searchlight Pictures

After Bella is resurrected-slash-born, she is nursed to a kind of adulthood by Dr. Baxter and his not-quite-Igor-y assistant Max (Ramy Youssef). But just as a bizarre kind of love blooms for Max and Bella, she is whisked off into the great unknown world by the caddish lawyer Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo), an escapade that awakens a number of discoveries (sexual and otherwise) for poor young/old Bella.

Lanthimos and screenwriter Tony McNamara seem to be aiming for Swiftian satire of the most incendiary variety. But in its rib-poking scenarios and bawdy body politics, it lands as the unintentionally timed answer to, “What if Barbie was rated R and also not nearly as funny?”

Blessedly, the overriding smugness is balanced by a trio of excellent performances from Stone, Dafoe andRuffalo. They understand the assignment, and strap their dunce caps on with glee.

Stone especially runs away with things as the literally woke heroine, her ambiguously developed mind expanding at an intimidating pace as she explores all corners of the world, and all four posts of a bed. And though Stone is required to be naked and/or having sex every other scene, the actress’s confidence in her character’s intentions and extremely specific world view burns with an own-it sense of autonomy that strips away any concern of directorial exploitation.

It might be unfair to call a movie with such ambitious production design, sharp casting and sheer commitment to the bit, well, baby-brained. But if the transplanted grey matter fits.

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