Yorgos Lanthimos’ whimsical, adult-themed gothic fable Poor Things, starring Emma Stone in a potentially career-defining performance, appears to be the big, early favorite at the 2023 Venice Film Festival. The film brought the house down at its first two press screenings ahead of its world premiere in Italy Friday night, with several moments of dark comedy becoming huge applause lines inside Venice’s Sala Darsena cinema.
Poor Things is Lanthimos’ first film since The Favourite, also starring Stone, which premiered to raves at the 2019 Venice Film Festival and went on to receive Oscar nominations for best picture and best director. Judging by the early reception in Venice, Poor Things looks certain to launch Lanthimos and Stone back into the middle of this year’s awards season conversation.
An adaptation of a novel of the same name by Scottish author Alasdair Gray, Poor Things follows Bella (Stone), a young Victorian woman who has been crudely reanimated by a mad scientist (Willem Dafoe) following her suicide. Regaining her footing in the world, she runs off with a debauched lawyer (Mark Ruffalo) on a surrealistic odyssey of self-discovery and liberation. The film, which Stone also produced alongside Lanthimos, is set for a U.S. release from Searchlight Pictures on Dec. 8.
Lanthamos received a hero’s welcome on the Lido Friday afternoon, getting cheered into the press conference room for his first public discussion of Poor Things. A bracingly original confection, the new film leans into the off-kilter absurdist humor that made the Greek auteur a festival darling, while also blending some of the resplendent period detail of The Favourite with new elements of gothic horror and whimsy. (Stone, Dafoe and Ruffalo were absent from the Venice press conference, as they will be from the film’s red carpet rollout, due to the ongoing Screen Actors Guild strike in Hollywood).
Lanthimos acknowledged the difficulty of summing up his new project, saying, “It’s very hard to describe. There have been many films throughout time that were unique and exceptional, but I guess maybe in our time, there aren’t many films like it, so it’s hard for me to say what it is.”
But he added that the film “feels very contemporary,” despite its pseudo-Victorian setting, because of the way that it explores “freedom and the way we perceive the world” and “the position of women in society.”
Poor Things is also uncommonly sexually explicit for a U.S. studio film. Whether it will land an NC-17 or R rating remains an open question, but the experience of sex in its manifold forms and political circumstances is a central element of Stone’s character’s empowering coming-of-age story.
“It’s weird, isn’t it? Why is there no sex in movies anymore?” Lanthimos said when asked how he and Stone handled the film’s frank and sometimes absurdist depictions of sex. “It’s a shame Emma can’t be here to speak about it, because it’s weird that all of it will be coming from me,” he added.
The director noted that it was an interesting part of the novel, with Stone’s character’s freedom “about everything, including sexuality.”
“It was very important for me to not make a film that was prudish, because that would be completely betraying the main character,” Lanthimos explained. “So we had to be confident, like the character, and have no shame — and Emma had to have no shame about her body and the nudity when engaging in those scenes. And she understood that right away.”
Poor Things is the fourth film Stone and Lanthamos have made together. He said the creative trust and “shorthand” they have developed over the years was helpful in how they communicated about the character and the sex scenes. He also said that although Poor Things is a sizable studio film — with Disney’s backing — they were able to build the sets and light the scenes in a way that required very few people to be on set (as few as three people besides the cast) while shooting the sex sequences.
“So that created a very comfortable, intimate environment,” Lanthamos said.
“Also, I have to credit Elle McAlpine, who was our intimacy coordinator,” he added. “In the beginning, this profession felt a little threatening to most filmmakers, but I think it’s everything, where if you work with a good person, it’s great, and you realize that you actually need them. So, she made everything so much easier for everyone.”
Further explaining the scenes explicit moments, he said: “We sat down with Emma at some point and decided what kind of position we would do here, what kind of thing we do there, and what’s missing — from the experiences of sex and the different desires people have — in order to make enough of a presentation of human desire and idiosyncrasies. It was important to all of us to have that be a part of the film and not shy away from it. And it’s also very funny sometimes.”