Emma Stone goes for bawdy, boundary-pushing broke in “Poor Things,” a funny, unsettling, ugly, fantastically constructed cabinet of cinematic wonders. Adapted from Alasdair Gray’s novel by Tony McNamara (“The Great”) and directed by Yorgos Lanthimos (who collaborated with McNamara and Stone on the antically anachronistic “The Favourite”), this time-traveling picaresque about a woman’s striding awkwardly — then fearlessly — into the modern age is that rarity among movies: a tale that begins as an off-putting exercise in fetish, only to blossom into something that’s not just shocking for its own sake, but genuinely revelatory and meaningful.
Stone plays Bella, who for mysterious reasons seems to be a child trapped in a grown person’s body. In the opening sequences of “Poor Things,” filmed in chiaroscuro black-and-white, Bella is living with her surrogate father, Godwin Baxter, who has invented her, a la Frankenstein, as a case study in brain transplants. A doll-like automaton who can barely form words and plays piano with her feet, Bella is a blank slate reminiscent of Helen Keller; the dubious miracle worker here is Godwin, played by Willem Dafoe with a monomaniacal gleam in his eye and a crazy quilt of scars across his face. Bella calls Dafoe’s character “God,” a bit on the nose for someone who initially seems to be so creepily controlling that he might as well have “Toxic Man” tattooed on his stitched-up forehead. But nothing is as it seems in “Poor Things,” especially when it becomes clear that Bella won’t stay a wide-eyed naif for long.
In fact, she’s learning at a canter-like pace, especially when it comes to her body’s most primal urges. It turns out that Bella enjoys physical pleasure, an impulse that sends her on a journey halfway across the world: Lisbon, an Oz-like garden of earthy delights she visits with an amoral popinjay named Duncan Wedderburn (played with hilarious bumptiousness by Mark Ruffalo); Alexandria, where Bella encounters poverty, injustice and perfidy for the first time; and Paris, where she finds sexual self-discovery and financial autonomy in a whorehouse run by an eccentric madam named Swiney (the fabulous Kathryn Hunter, last seen deploying her incantatory powers in Joel Coen’s “The Tragedy of Macbeth”).
The aesthetic roots of “Poor Things” extend from Charles Dickens and Mary Shelley to George Bernard Shaw and Erica Jong; from Vivienne Westwood to Jules Verne; and from Terry Gilliam to Jean-Pierre Jeunet. As Bella comes into her own, the film blooms into a fanciful riot of color, textures and points of view; Lanthimos likes to use canted camera angles and concave frames, giving the entire enterprise the feeling of a voyeuristic, barely controlled whirligig. Visually, “Poor Things” is an unalloyed treat: Even spectators who might cringe at the gouged eyes and spatchcocked cadavers in God’s lab (not to mention a disquieting scene involving Bella and an errant apple) will delight in its deliciously exaggerated costumes and decor. Retro-futurist Victoriana and storybook whimsy abound, from Bella’s gothic-chic wardrobe to God’s Moreauvian menagerie of animal experiments gone awry.
Because McNamara wrote the script, “Poor Things” brims with his signature polished, sophisticated humor; because Lanthimos directed, it’s full of envelope-pushing zaniness and self-amusement, especially when it comes to Bella’s increasingly uninhibited sexual appetites. This is where “Poor Things” enters ambiguous territory. As thoroughly committed as Stone is to the bit, there are moments when viewers might wonder for whose benefit she’s baring it all so bravely. As real ideas begin to overtake Bella’s hedonistic instinct, the idea of her finding agency through hyper-sexualization admittedly feels freeing, but also undeniably gratifying for the men looking through the lens.
This is Hollywood, after all, so “Poor Things” demands to have its kinky cake and feminist allegory, too. The film’s central contradiction is that the more outlandish the story becomes, the more grounded it is in women’s seemingly eternal struggles around power, selfhood and constricting social norms. As Bella careers into a new century, her journey morphs into a fable about the getting of wisdom — along with pleasure, empathy and joy. With a little sex, of course (op. cit.: Hollywood). Actually, with a whole lot of it. But, when “Poor Things” is firing on all its subversive steampunk cylinders, also with much more.
R. At area theaters. Contains strong and pervasive sexuality, graphic nudity, disturbing material, gore, and coarse language. 141 minutes.