VOGUE – When we first meet Bella Baxter, the character that Emma Stone brings to life in the upcoming Yorgos Lanthimos film Poor Things, she is a 19th-century European woman with the brain of an infant. The subject of a strange experiment by her guardian, Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe), with assistance from his associate, Max McCandless (Ramy Youssef), Bella is grasping at sentience, throwing dishes to the floor and stomping around in voluminous, puffy-sleeved frocks as she ages and matures at hyper-speed.
Watching Bella’s mental age catch up to her physical development is eerie, to be sure—for an explanation of how all of this works, see Scottish writer Alasdair Gray’s 1992 novel of the same name, adapted for this film by Tony McNamara—but it’s also strangely empowering. Of all the pleasures that the world has in store, sex is perhaps her most important discovery, and as Bella pursues it with verve, she emerges as a rare female protagonist who simply has no regard for societal judgment. When a former lover, played by Mark Ruffalo, tries to shame her for working at a brothel in Paris, she shoots back: “We are our own means of production.” (As it happens, she and a colleague are on their way to a meeting for young socialists.)
There are shades of Lanthimos and Stone’s darkly comic previous collaboration, The Favourite, in Poor Things, as well as (dare I say it?) a splash of the frank sexual economics that made Stone’s 2010 rom-com Easy A such a fun watch, but the new film is entirely its own, and the sex isn’t its only fulcrum. Bella’s delight in travel, custard-filled tarts, dancing, disobeying orders, and—eventually—academic study feels like an exhortation to embrace the sensory joys that exist at the edge of our consciousness. Without the gendered cultural context that might otherwise render her abilities and her preoccupations as less-than, Bella is utterly free—even amid the everyday brutality and patriarchal ugliness that also exists in Poor Things.