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Visiting the set of Poor Things in Hungary was a whirlwind journey from London to Lisbon to Paris, travelling in style by steamboat: a dizzying one-day itinerary. It was an encapsulation of Bella Baxter’s emancipatory odyssey in the latest, most lavish film by Yorgos Lanthimos (The Killing of a Sacred Deer, 2017; The Favourite, 2018). Poor Things – adapted from a 1992 novel by Alasdair Gray – is a morbidly witty story about a young woman, Bella (Emma Stone), who is brought back from the dead by the Victor Frankenstein-like father figure Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe), and escapes her gilded cage to discover the joys and tragedies of the outside world. It is sillier, funnier and more extravagant than anything the Greek director has yet made. Premiering on the world stage at this year’s Venice Film Festival – where it took home the Golden Lion – it was a talking point thanks to its frank explorations of sex and sexuality and its flippant attitude to violence, all made more striking by the sumptuous filmmaking in which they are packaged.
Creating these astonishing, at times bewildering, locations was a mammoth undertaking both in sheer scale and in the absurd attention being paid to (absurd) detail. When I visited in November 2021, 80 per cent of all the film craftspeople in Hungary were working on Poor Things and it occupied the country’s two largest soundstages. Empty of actors, some sets were in the process of being torn down, while others were being frantically constructed – we clambered over wires and piles of wood, and climbed half-made, still being-painted staircases. What a first feature, then, for production designer Shona Heath, whose background is predominantly in fashion (she worked on the film alongside James Price, who art-directed Paddington 2, 2017, and Judy, 2019, among others). Reminiscing later via Zoom, Heath says: “We had a lot of crazy ideas that I never thought would become physical. I thought a lot would have been lost due to sensible voices or money – and actually, pretty much all of it happened. Every time I walked on a set, the first thing I would do was laugh because I couldn’t believe that we got away with some of this.” From entangled ears sculpted on to a ceiling and enormous, phallic windows to padded, hand-embroidered walls, no opportunity for the outlandish went untaken.
1. London and Godwin Baxter’s House
When we arrive on the London street on which stands the house of Godwin Baxter, Bella’s guardian and creator, the façades of the buildings on the right-hand side of the road are all being torn down. There’s something exceptionally sad about walking around in a world which is being dismantled as rapidly as it was made. There are quirks in the street-level design, which James Price describes as “Georgian meets modernist”, but the real fun starts behind Baxter’s front door.
“Once we had established Baxter’s house, it felt like the handwriting was there for everything,” Shona Heath explains. “It was a reflection of his love of the human body.” This ranges from the ears in the ceiling, the brain-like pattern of the wall panelling and the fleshy notes of pink in the house’s colour palette, to the more literally corporeal formaldehyde-encased organs and appendages in Baxter’s laboratory. There’s no mistaking that this is the house of someone enamoured, or obsessed, with bodily experimentation. With select moments shot on an ultra-wide-angle 10mm lens, the ceilings and floors were of primary concern in Heath’s design work: “[Shooting on a wide lens] causes quite a lot of problems because the ceiling becomes as important as the walls, and Yorgos was very, very specific that he wanted a lot of texture. We were trying to avoid straight lines because straight lines in rooms [shot with a] wide-angle lens warp in not such a beautiful way. So we were trying to make the ceilings round or curved, make the doors have unusual shapes. It made the house feel engulfed and womb-like.”
2. The Ship
Construction is at its most furious – and risk of injury at its highest – on the colossal steamboat set. Our guide shouts above the din of electric saws and cranes moving stacks of wood, gesturing towards the luxurious, custom-made furniture in the ship’s lounge and gambling parlour, the chandeliers above and the wooden tiger mosaic on the floor underneath us. Yet the scene is strangely calming. Thanks to the presence of a towering, curved LED screen, wrapped around the boat’s hull and playing a looped video of lapping waves and an otherworldly sunset, the chaos of construction is easy to ignore.
The Portuguese capital is Bella’s first taste of life outside the gilded cage created for her by Godwin, an introduction to pleasure, excess and hedonism. The set is vibrant, otherworldly and sprawling – so much so that when you turn a corner and find unpainted board and scaffolding you’re taken aback, before remembering that this world does have its limits. The composite nature of the construction means that it’s possible to trace Bella’s steps from her hotel room to the portside bar where she indulges in pastéis de nata before you wander over to the local oyster bar (a beautiful building only briefly glimpsed in the film, with its huge, concave oyster-shaped wall creating a sense of cavernous space).
“In Lisbon, we didn’t use any blue ever. It was about taking some colours away to create a more enveloping place. I always imagined it as a dusty, Wizard of Oz kind of place,” Heath explains. This means that the ornate, blue tiling that characterises real-life Lisbon is replaced instead with designs in rich red. Lisbon is warm and welcoming – in contrast to Bella’s final port of call.
It never stops snowing in Paris. At least, that’s what we’re told will happen – the machine that will create that effect isn’t yet installed. Says Heath of this very wintry location: “In Paris, the overall feeling was the colour of snow – which I always think is slightly lilac grey. The colour palette was quite monochromatic, [but] then the trees were red… like lungs or veins. There was always this nod to the body, the internal.”
Paris’s centrepiece is the two-storey brothel at which Bella finds employment. On the front, two gigantic, penis-shaped windows are accompanied by two nude female figures draped over the doorway – the directness of the design chimes with Bella’s very matter-of-fact approach to sex work. A light-up floor – a touch of Kubrick, perhaps, nodding to 2001: A Space Odyssey’s bedroom – welcomes clients into the more refined lobby, while upstairs it’s all grime and grottiness. One detail that may pass by unnoticed on camera is the texture of the walls of Bella’s room. At first glance it looks as though handprints have been made in the plaster, as though by bodies trapped within the walls. But closer inspection reveals that this is thick, fur-lined wallpaper and the marks are from those who have touched it: first a flurry of craftspeople, then a gaggle of journalists, and soon a line-up of johns.
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