Friday, December 8


TELLURIDE, Colo. — Yorgos Lanthimos’s new film, “Poor Things,” is packed with such unabashed, libidinous gusto that it makes “And Just Like That…” feel like reading a driver’s-ed manual.

It also contains what is, by far, Emma Stone’s most joyously sex-crazed role to date, as Bella Baxter, a woman who lives in a twisted version of Victorian London and embarks on adventures across Europe and the Middle East — often naked and engaged in what she calls “furious jumping,” all in the name of answering some of the film’s vital questions: What if women could be reborn in our adult bodies with zero shame about sex and an endless appetite for experiencing the wonders of the flesh? What if the strictures of polite society never interfered with our pursuit of pleasure? (“Why don’t people just do this all the time?” Bella asks her lover, Duncan Wedderburn, played by Mark Ruffalo, after losing her virginity to him in a particularly vigorous first encounter.)

On Saturday night, eager Lanthimos fans gathered in the Telluride Film Festival’s largest theater (constructed each year in a community hockey rink) for the first public screening in North America of “Poor Things.” Lanthimos also was present, having flown in from the movie’s world premiere at the Venice Film Festival on Friday.

The festival paid tribute to Lanthimos, the Greek auteur behind such bleakly funny, discomfiting works as “The Lobster,” “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” and “The Favourite,” in which Stone played the manipulative seductress of Olivia Colman’s Queen Anne. That twisted period piece earned 10 Academy Award nominations (with a win for Colman), while exposing Lanthimos’s perverse humor and visual flair to a legion of new fans. Popular demand to see “Poor Things” was so high that Telluride hosted two screenings simultaneously and another the next morning, as well as an unscheduled final screening that played to a packed house on Labor Day. (It opens in U.S. theaters Dec. 8.)

“I don’t even know how to describe this movie other than it’s astounding and beautiful and incredible and wonderful,” said Julie Huntsinger, the event’s executive director, as she handed Lanthimos the festival’s highest honor, the Silver Medallion. “And I want to announce that sex is back in movies,” she went on, gleefully, as the audience whooped and applauded in agreement. “Enjoy the movie. Have sex!”

In addition to that command, add Stone straight to your Oscars predictions. It turns out, the character of Bella is a bit of a scientific miracle, the result of an experiment in which Willem Dafoe’s disfigured mad scientist, Dr. Godwin Baxter, has reanimated the body of a pregnant young woman who’d thrown herself off a bridge — using the brain of the baby she’d been carrying. And voilà: Bella, who learns both language and how to masturbate, or “working on myself for happiness,” at truly remarkable rates.

It was on the set of “The Favourite” that Lanthimos told Stone about “Poor Things,” which screenwriter Tony McNamara had been adapting from a 1992 comic novel by Scottish writer Alasdair Gray. Stone hopped onboard immediately and became a producer. She has been involved in the film’s development for years. (She can’t promote the film because of the actors strike.) Lanthimos told journalists at a news conference in Venice that “it was very important for me to not make a film that would be prudish, because that would be completely betraying the main character. We had to be confident Emma had to have no shame about her body, nudity, engaging in those scenes, and she understood that right away.”

When we meet Bella, she’s playing piano with her feet, tossing her food into the faces of her caretakers and stiffly lurching with immature motor skills. Before long, rubbing her lower half while waking up, she has made a new discovery. Bella just can’t understand why Godwin’s maid is horrified to walk in on her pleasuring herself at the breakfast table with an apple. “Bella discover happy when she want,” she announces, as if it’s the most natural thing in the world. (It should be, the film seems to be saying. The movie appears to be firmly on the side of everyone having more sex.)

To the men around her, Bella is something to control, but she persists in her sexual journey, letting strange men lick her, bluntly assessing their kissing techniques and, in a wonderful stretch at a Parisian brothel, discovering that there is such a thing as bad sex. Some of the men in her life have an issue with “all the whoring,” but Bella, who’s going through a socialist phase, doesn’t. “I am my own source of production,” she declares, which drew big laughs from the Telluride audience.

Stone, too, seems to be her own source of production. Lanthimos told a Telluride audience that he could help her performance by structuring the production so that Bella was developing somewhat chronologically. (The film was shot in London and on soundstages in Budapest, mostly in totally constructed environments that included a version of 19th-century Lisbon with flying tram cars.) For the sex scenes, the director went back to his early days and pared the crew to just two people besides the actors and himself: cinematographer Robbie Ryan and assistant director Hayley Williams. This is Stone’s fourth collaboration with Lanthimos, including a 2020 silent short film and a yet-to-be-released feature (“And”), so they know each other well. “Sometimes we didn’t even have a sound guy, and we just rigged mics,” Lanthimos said. “It was very intimate and safe and comfortable.”

During a Q&A, production designer James Price said he’d felt a lot of freedom, because they were working in a world that couldn’t really exist, where a dead woman could be reanimated and start her life over again, having never learned that there are things she couldn’t do. Stone’s performance, though, seems to suggest that maybe we don’t need reanimation to get rid of shame. Maybe we can just decide that on our own.

“The trailer really doesn’t sell it right,” said a film executive who spoke on the condition of anonymity because, well, that’s how people operate at film festivals when the talk turns blunt. “They make it seem like it’s a female ‘Frankenstein,’ when really it’s about self-discovery. It’s everything I wanted ‘Barbie’ to be.”


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