Poor Things review – Emma Stone has a sexual adventure in Yorgos Lanthimos’s virtuoso comic epic

<span>Photograph: Atsushi Nishijima/AP</span>
Photograph: Atsushi Nishijima/AP

That cooing note of kindness and pity in the title is misleading – in fact, there is pure vivisectional ruthlessness in this toweringly bizarre epic. Poor Things is a steampunk-retrofuturist Victorian freakout and macabre black-comic horror, adapted by screenwriter Tony McNamara from the 1992 novel by Alasdair Gray and directed by the absurdist virtuoso Yorgos Lanthimos. Lanthimos shows us an extraordinary, artificial, contorted world, partly shot in monochrome, sometimes bulging out at us through a fish-eye lens, elsewhere lit from within in richly saturated tones, like an engraved colour plate.

And his leading lady is someone who takes it to the next career level, or the level beyond the next level: Emma Stone. She gives an amazing and hilarious performance as the sexual-innocent primitive Bella Baxter, the secret experimental subject and ward of charismatic, troubled anatomist Dr Godwin Baxter (whom she calls “God”), played by Willem Dafoe. Bella’s beady gaze under a near-monobrow takes everything in, while she makes what sense she can from the brave new world with which Dr Baxter has surrounded her.

Bella is a young woman who had attempted to take her own life by throwing herself from London’s Tower Bridge. Baxter daringly retrieves her almost-dead body under cover of darkness from the Thames’s muddy bank and – like a cross between Mary Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein and Shaw’s Henry Higgins – reanimates her using methods whose exotic ghastliness is only revealed at the story’s end.

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Childlike and yet adult-bodied and increasingly excited by her discovery of masturbation – which in turn stimulates her language skills beyond infantile pidgin English – Bella is a shocking and beguiling figure. She is tutored and looked after by Dr Baxter, his housekeeper Mrs Prim (a great turn from Vicky Pepperdine) and Baxter’s fresh-faced research assistant Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef), who falls deeply in love with Bella. Baxter permits Max to propose to his young pupil on condition that the married couple continue to live with him in his colossally intricate townhouse.

But disaster beckons when the solicitor who arrives with the documents formalising this arrangement turns out to be a bounder and a cad; he seduces Bella and takes her away with him on a grand European tour of sensual indulgence and adventure, and Dr Baxter fatalistically concludes he has no choice but to let Bella go. This wicked fellow is one Duncan Wedderburn – an outrageously funny performance from Mark Ruffalo, whose entire face is transformed into fleshy naughtiness by adding a moustache and, in one scene, a straw boater.

Lanthimos draws on Lynch’s The Elephant Man and Franju’s Eyes Without a Face, and Emma Stone’s gloriously artless heroine has something of Herzog’s Kaspar Hauser or Emily Watson’s Bess in Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves. Her faintly jerky head movements and unselfconscious gait – awkward and yet somehow elegant at the same time – is also rather like Ray Bolger’s Scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz.

With the disreputable Wedderburn, Bella visits Lisbon, where she is mesmerised by a beautiful fado song, and Alexandria, where she takes it upon herself to rescue people from poverty using Duncan’s winnings from the casino. In Paris they are to find their nadir and Bella realises that sex work is the key to paying the bills. Bella becomes, in her way, a great Victorian explorer and adventurer and discoverer of the sexual self, like a figure from Steven Marcus’s The Other Victorians or Ronald Pearsall’s The Worm in the Bud. And how amazing that she is entirely convincing by the end as a romantic figure and autodidact who, unlike Frankenstein’s monster, aspires to study medicine herself.

This film comes to us from an elite group of talent, including cinematographer Robbie Ryan and production designer Shona Heath, with an insinuatingly strange musical score by Jerskin Fendrix. Everything in it – every frame, every image, every joke, every performance – gets a gasp of excitement.

• Poor Things screened at the Venice film festival. It will be released on 8 December in the US, 12 January in the UK and Ireland, and 18 January in Australia.