The centerpiece of the new film “Poor Things” is an erratic dance number. The setting is a Lisbon restaurant, where the eccentric Bella Baxter (Emma Stone) and her narcissistic paramour, Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo), bicker over drinks. A sudden instrumental beat piques Bella’s curiosity, and she slowly makes her way toward the dance floor.
Bella is the result of a Frankenstein-like science experiment, and her actions convey the physical abandon. She gazes widely, as if hearing music for the first time, and hobbles as though she has never danced before. Her body jerks primitively to the beat. She rejects Duncan’s efforts to guide her movements.
“Poor Things” tells the story of a woman discovering her ability, a central theme of the creative tango between Stone and director Yorgos Lanthimos. Based on the Alasdair Gray novel and a screenplay by Tony McNamara, the film marks Lanthimos and Stone’s third collaboration, following the 2018 feature “The Favourite” and the silent short “Bleat” last year. They have emerged as an ambitious duo, pushing each other toward more audacious explorations of female power.
Stone broke through with 2010’s “Easy A,” a modern-day spin on “The Scarlet Letter” that established her affinity for sharp-tongued characters. She charms in “Crazy, Stupid, Love” and snipes in “Birdman.” She breathes life into a flatly written dreamer in the 2016 movie musical “La La Land,” an Oscar-winning performance that set the stage for bolder work.
Under Lanthimos’ direction, she becomes a physical comedian. “Poor Things” follows Bella after she leaves her scientist father figure to embark on a journey of self-discovery and empowerment, often by way of sexual adventure. Much of Bella’s inner world comes through in how Stone contorts her body. Her gait, once reminiscent of a toddler, begins to steady as Bella’s infantile brain matures. Her orb-like eyes relay a constant sense of wonder.
Each of Lanthimos’s features with Stone was written (at least in part) by McNamara, whose dialogue serves the actress’s quick wit. Before she leaves Duncan to dance in Lisbon, Bella levels him with baby talk that stumbles into blunt wisdom: “Bella so much to discover,” she says. “And your sad face makes me discover angry feelings for you.” The plain-spoken retort recalls the cutting exchange Stone’s character shares in “The Favourite” with a potential lover:
“Have you come to seduce me, or rape me?”
“I am a gentleman.”
“So, rape then.” Three short words, delivered in Stone’s supine posture and wry intonation, convey centuries of gender dynamics.
Lanthimos is fascinated by the impulses driving human behavior. In his breakout film “The Lobster” (2015), he argues that conforming under societal pressure can inspire loneliness, too. The black comedy follows hotel guests who turn into an animal of their choice if they fail to find romantic partners in 45 days.
Stone has increasingly strayed from the girl-next-door persona that defined her early career, including with the recent squirm-inducing television series “The Curse,” in which she plays part of a scheming couple gentrifying a New Mexico town for their home improvement show. Speaking to Vanity Fair about “Poor Things,” Stone referred to Bella, a woman of unbridled desire, as “my favorite character ever.”
She added: “Because she’s so free, because she lacks that shame about anything — eating, drinking, the way she’s taking in the world, her relationships to other people, her environment, sexuality — for me it was a really freeing experience.”
In Lanthimos’ films, Stone’s characters learn to reclaim sexuality as a tool of power. In “The Favourite,” set in 18th-century England, Stone plays Abigail, a maid whose family fell in rank due to financial mismanagement. She woos a gentleman to regain a title and competes with her cousin to win the sexual favor of Queen Anne. To Abigail, flirtation is a means to an end. Her sexual encounters are almost mechanical, and void of sensuality.
“Poor Things” explores a more primal form of female power by leaning into vulgarities. Abandoning the stately appearances of a woman like Abigail, Stone plays Bella with animalistic instinct. The character first seeks pleasure through masturbation — “Bella discover happy when she want!” she exclaims — then explores her sexual hunger while gallivanting around Europe with Duncan. She refers to sex as “furious jumping,” a vivid and unabashed description. By the time she chooses to work at a Parisian brothel, where she comes to view sex work through a socialist lens, Bella’s physicality is more fluid. She is free to do as she wants.
Stone spoke to the New York Times about how rare it is to feel so protected by a director: “I obviously have full-blown, very intense trust in him,” she said of Lanthimos. That faith transcends to the screen, where her characters have grown more liberated — and the filmmaking, more experimental. While her muscularity powers “The Favourite,” Stone’s performance is restrained by her character being corseted by courtly customs. In “Poor Things,” her primitive character doesn’t know the rules of the game — and this freedom allows her to command her kingdom in a way that Queen Anne could only dream of.
Stone has taken the lead in her freewheeling dance with Lanthimos, who told NPR that the actress ultimately “created the character” of Bella.
“I’d say I’m the creator,” Stone said, “and he’s the muse.”