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'Poor Things': a Frankenstein-inspired black comedy

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Of all the films being mentioned as Oscar contenders this fall, the coming-of-age satire "Poor Things" may be the strangest. It stars Emma Stone, Willem Dafoe and Mark Ruffalo. And it has a story that critic Bob Mondello says is what you might expect if Mary Shelley had written "Frankenstein" as a sex comedy.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: We begin in a steampunk-stylized Victorian London. Willem Dafoe's scarred but charismatic Professor Godwin Baxter comes home from his anatomy classes to the cheerful sound of dinner plates shattering and a delighted screech from his ward, Bella...

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EMMA STONE: (As Bella Baxter, screaming).

MONDELLO: ...Who leaps into his arms quite as if she were not a fully grown woman. Then she turns to the grad student Godwin's brought home as his assistant.

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WILLEM DAFOE: (As Dr. Godwin Baxter) Bella, this is Mr. McCandles.

RAMY YOUSSEF: (As Max McCandles) Hello, Bella.

MONDELLO: He sticks out his hand, and Bella regards it, then...

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YOUSSEF: (As Max McCandles) Oh.

MONDELLO: ...Punches him in the nose.

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STONE: (As Bella Baxter) Bud.

DAFOE: (As Dr. Godwin Baxter) Blood.

STONE: (As Bella Baxter) Bud.

DAFOE: (As Dr. Godwin Baxter) Blood.

MONDELLO: Emma Stone's childlike Bella knocks for a loop pretty much everyone she meets, though not always this directly. She is, as Ramy Youssef's sweetly attentive McCandles will discover, healthy and curious...

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STONE: (As Bella Baxter) Bella want look at world.

YOUSSEF: (As Max McCandles) I don't think we're allowed up here.

MONDELLO: ...A product of one of Godwin's experiments...

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DAFOE: (As Dr. Godwin Baxter) She's progressing at an accelerated pace.

MONDELLO: ...Who is still puzzling out how her body works, especially when she discovers...

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YOUSSEF: (As Max McCandles) Bella.

STONE: (As Bella Baxter) Ah.

MONDELLO: ...Its most celebrated pleasure center.

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YOUSSEF: (As Max McCandles) In polite society, that is not done.

STONE: (As Bella Baxter) Oh.

MONDELLO: Godwin's been fiercely protective of Bella and ironically ends up undoing that protection by hiring a lawyer to codify it. Played by a louche Mark Ruffalo, the lawyer turns out to be a cad.

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STONE: (As Bella Baxter) Bella not safe with you, I think.

MARK RUFFALO: (As Duncan Wedderburn) You are absolutely not.

MONDELLO: He spirits Bella away for a sensual odyssey on which she takes immense delight in the joys of rich pastries...

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STONE: (As Bella Baxter) Who made these? We need more.

RUFFALO: (As Duncan Wedderburn) No more. One's enough. Any more is too much.

MONDELLO: ...And the bedroom activity she refers to as furious jumping.

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STONE: (As Bella Baxter) Why do people not just do this all the time?

MONDELLO: But funny thing - the more emancipated and knowledgeable Bella grows, the more resistance she gets from the men in her life.

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RUFFALO: (As Duncan Wedderburn) You're always reading now, Bella. You're losing some of your adorable way of speaking.

STONE: (As Bella Baxter) I'm a changingable (ph) feast, as are all of we, apparently, according to Emerson.

MONDELLO: Working in both black and white and vibrantly clashing colors, Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos makes "Poor Things" a "Candide"-like odyssey of female empowerment, taking his heroine from cosseted innocence to a Parisian brothel.

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YOUSSEF: (As Max McCandles) It is your body, Bella Baxter, yours to give freely.

STONE: (As Bella Baxter) I generally charge 30 francs.

YOUSSEF: (As Max McCandles) Well, that seems low.

MONDELLO: Anchoring what might otherwise feel like a fairytale is a downright fearless Emma Stone, going from herky-jerky awkwardness to grace, always with a kind of innocence about social convention - say, spitting out food at a fancy dinner.

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STONE: (As Bella Baxter) Why keep it in my mouth if it is revolting?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, crying).

STONE: (As Bella Baxter) I must go punch that baby.

MONDELLO: If you've not yet encountered this director's weirdness in, say, "The Favourite," his Oscar-winning mad queen tale that also featured Stone, treat yourself, and know that the eccentricity he brought to his previous very odd films was just a warm-up.

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STONE: (As Bella Baxter) I am finding being alive fascinating.

MONDELLO: Here, the design work is eye-popping, from a toy-like cruise ship Bella set sail on to the Egyptian castle where she learns of poverty and cruelty, with every corner of the screen teeming with surprises - Bella's home, say, populated with the duck goats and dog hens that you'd expect an experimental surgeon's ward to have as pets. And ever at "Poor Things'" center, in puffy sleeves that look almost architectural, stands this breathtaking creation who has built herself from scratch.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "POOR THINGS")

KATHRYN HUNTER: (As Swiney) A woman plotting her course to freedom - delightful.

MONDELLO: A woman for whom the world is fresh and new and unfailingly magical, much like the exhilarating film that surrounds her. I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Bob Mondello
Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.