Bella Baxter (Emma Stone) has been cloistered away from the world at the behest of her guardian Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe), whom she refers to as “God.” You see, Bella isn’t just a young woman. The doctor has reanimated the corpse of a pregnant woman who died by suicide, and the brain inside Bella’s head is that of the woman’s unborn fetus. When we meet Bella, her motor functions are iffy at best, her capacity for language minimal, and her relationship with polite society is nonexistent. Godwin has enlisted the assistance of medical student Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef) to monitor Bella’s development at all hours of the day. As any person trapped would want, Bella longs to see the world, and the opportunity comes in the form of idiotic cad Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo), who sets forth on a journey that brings them all around Europe.
Most of Lanthimos’ protagonists understand the rules of their respective worlds, and their journeys typically involve them learning that they either need to break free of those rules or tragically succumb to them. Bella isn’t like that at all. Because she has been locked away, she has no conception of what the world expects from her. She likes to eat, learn, and have a lot of sex, and she doesn’t understand why the world would look down on a woman enjoying these things. After all, what’s better than an orgasm? Why wouldn’t you want to talk to random strangers about how often they have sex? Sure, behind closed doors people love engaging in these things, but we can’t talk about it. Why? Well, polite society has deemed it so. Bella has lived a life free of shame, and she’s all the happier for it. By centering on a character completely naïve to the world rather than someone too aware, Lanthimos can so quickly show you how farcical all of these norms are up front.
Though it might not have seemed totally obvious at the outset, Lanthimos has found a perfect collaborator in Emma Stone, whom he first linked up with on “The Favourite.” To be a part of the world he creates, one does not just have to open themselves up to be completely emotionally vulnerable, but physically and vocally, you will be asked to do things that could be quite taxing, not to mention completely bizarre where you could so quickly lose sight of the overall vision. Stone is completely game for whatever Lanthimos throws at her, as she truly is a character actor through and through. “Poor Things” asks her to play everything from babbling and waddling around like a toddler to complete emotional devastation to speaking in vernacular and sentence fragments that no person has ever spoken with before. It’s a bravura performance that doesn’t contain a whiff of self-awareness or vanity. For someone who is already one of the most respected performers of her generation, “Poor Things” takes Emma Stone to a whole new level, which she conquers handily.