“The power of freedom is scary to people at times”: Yorgos Lanthimos on Poor Things

Lanthimos’s latest film, a Frankenstein story full of sex and humour – and even hope – is on a larger scale than anything he has made, but loses none of his strangeness and wit. Photography by Yorgos Lanthimos.

11 January 2024

By Nicole Flattery

Yorgos Lanthimos and Emma Stone on the set of Poor Things (2023) © Atsushi Nishijima
Sight and Sound

There’s an assessment uttered by Bella Baxter in Yorgos Lanthimos’s new film Poor Things as she nears the end of her Grand Tour, after her time in Lisbon, her sojourn in Paris: “I’ve adventured and found nothing but sugar and violence.”

‘Sugar and violence’ is a neat summation of Poor Things – the delectable, near-edible set design; Bella’s puffy, girlish costumes; the mesmerising dance sequence; all of it barely masking the brutality at its centre. Lanthimos has been making strange concoctions for nearly two decades now. His breakthrough, in 2009, was the Greek drama Dogtooth, an unsettling drama about a family fenced off from the world. His English-language debut was 2015’s The Lobster, a satire of our cultural obsession with coupledom. However it was The Favourite, his film about ambition, sexual competition and rabbits in Queen Anne’s court, which catapulted him to something like the mainstream in 2019. The Favourite, a darkly comic story about shame and humiliation, smuggled in under the guise of a period drama, proved Lanthimos a singular filmmaker with an uncompromised vision; and won the Grand Jury Prize at Venice, seven Baftas and a slew of Oscar nominations. It also showed that audiences would follow him, with box-office of close to $100 million on a $15 million budget.

Now, Lanthimos has reunited with one of the stars of The Favourite, Emma Stone, for Poor Things – a film made on a larger scale than anything he has done before, without sacrificing any of his strangeness or wit. Along with Ari Aster (the recent Beau Is Afraid), and Robert Eggers (The Northman, 2022), Lanthimos is a filmmaker committed to being both funny and frightening, unconstrained by traditional Hollywood narratives – and very willing to put his own ideas, and neurosis, on screen.

Poor Things is based on a 1992 novel by the late Alasdair Gray. It follows Bella Baxter, a creation of her doctor father Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe), as she figures out the idiosyncrasies of the world. Bella has the body of a woman and the mind of a child – a large part of the comedy comes, as it always does with Lanthimos, from seeing social conventions disrupted. The doctor’s student Max McCandless (Ramy Youssef) falls in love with Bella, but she abandons him for sexual escapades with the cad Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo). The film maps out Bella’s voyage from isolation to excitement and fun by moving from black and white to bursts of colour. Even with this vibrant palette, and using more locations than his previous work, Lanthimos retains his unique sense of claustrophobia. And his timing is impeccable: Barbie has already demonstrated this year that filmgoers will come out in force to watch a naïve young woman discover the real world.

Poor Things (2023)
Photograph by Yorgos Lanthimos

I called Lanthimos at his home in Athens this summer, when wildfires were ravaging several of the Greek islands. Even as people were being evacuated, holidaymakers were still arriving. This could easily be a scene from Poor Things – tourists reclining on sun loungers as the world burns around them. It raises an issue Poor Things is concerned with: “If we’re all cruel beasts, born that way, die that way.” I’m interested in what first attracted the director to Gray’s novel. “I have a Scottish friend who’s a big fan of his,” he tells me, “so I read quite a bit of his stuff. When I read Poor Things, I was immediately taken by it. I went to Scotland to meet Gray, actually. He was very, very generous and energetic. He showed me all the places in Scotland he imagined the story taking place. When we got back home, he gave me his blessing.”

A feature of Lanthimos’s films is the extraordinary performances he gets from his actors; their willingness to go to uncomfortable places with him; his talent for spotting their underutilised qualities. Colin Farrell broke away from his heart-throb status to play David, a man nobody wants to date in The Lobster; the director was one of the first to capitalise on Barry Keoghan’s unnerving charm, in The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017); Olivia Colman was both playful and petty, mean and pitiful, as Queen Anne in The Favourite – a more emotional performance than her work on TV in Peep Show (2003-15) and Fleabag (2016-19), and one that won her an Oscar.

Poor Things is Emma Stone and Lanthimos’s third collaboration, after The Favourite and the short film Bleat in 2022. Almost as soon as Stone heard about the script she stepped on board as a producer. Her performance is integral to the unity of Poor Things. Not only does she appear in nearly every frame, but she has to transition from infant to critical, thoughtful adult. How did they handle this physical transformation? “Creatively, there’s a synchronicity between us,” Lanthimos says. “I suggested a number of films for her to watch, including Herzog’s [1974 The Enigma of] Kaspar Hauser and Milos Forman’s The Firemen’s Ball [1967]. There was a long thinking process. We identified the stages she would be in – in terms of how she walks, how she speaks throughout her journey. The rest of it is her instinct, her presence.” On the topic of his actors’ remarkable performances, he is modest – “I don’t do it. They do.” But he stresses that an understanding relationship is beneficial to all. “When we’re rehearsing I try to make it light. We’re just making films and we should enjoy it, be creative, have a good time.”

One piece of evidence that Lanthimos truly values collaboration with actors is his welcoming of intimacy coordinators – he speaks highly of Elle McAlpine, who was on set for Poor Things. There was a lot of intimacy for her to coordinate: Bella’s most marvellous discovery is the orgasm. She romps her way through Europe with the dubious solicitor Duncan Wedderburn before ending up, with her singular lack of shame, at a French brothel. Every scenario is treated with a sort of curiosity and a liberating lack of prudishness. There’s been a morally conservative debate lately about the point of sex scenes on our screens. Poor Things is a good illustration of why they should exist: because they’re filthy, joyous and occasionally funny, and they illuminate something strange and sad about human experience. Lanthimos has always made sex strange – memorably disquieting in Dogtooth, a manipulative tool in The Favourite – but in Poor Things I found his approach notably fresh and sex-positive, a respite from the trauma narratives that have dominated the last decade. Bella has no interest in feminine self-sacrifice: like a greedy kid in a candy shop, she wants to try it all. “As with everything with Bella,” Lanthimos explains, “she absorbs the knowledge, the experience, then she moves on. She’s very particular in that way. As she grows, she discovers the limits of it too.”

The moral centre of Poor Things is the conflict within Bella. Her free-spirited, impulsive nature faces a reckoning; maybe life isn’t all about dancing, sex, grasping fleeting pleasure. When she first meets Duncan, he tells her, “You, like me, are a creature of feeling and moments,”  but as Bella gradually becomes aware of the lives around her, and the role she wants to play, her simplistic worldview falls apart. So does her relationship with Duncan. This is a recurring theme of Lanthimos’s – how to stay in a relationship as tastes and perspectives evolve, how every relationship is a battle of wills with eternally shifting power dynamics. At one point, Duncan says to Bella, “You’re always reading now, you’re losing some of your adorable way of speaking.” In fact, as Bella becomes more educated and socially conscious, it’s Duncan, feeling his control slipping away, who becomes childlike, prone to tantrums, unprovoked bursts of rage at this unconventional woman whose behaviour is so inexplicable to him.

Poor Things (2023)
Photograph by Yorgos Lanthimos

Controlled freaks

When I think of Lanthimos’s work, the word ‘control’ occurs to me again and again: the control exerted by the family unit in Dogtooth; the controlling and inhibiting effects of heteronormative relationships in The Lobster; even the numbing, disfiguring effects extreme power and control can have on your personality and behaviour in The Favourite. His 2011 film Alps is also about that: actors who perform as the deceased to grieving parties, people who are trying to gain control over even death. To your average person, Bella Baxter represents a problem. To a control freak, she is a nightmare. “In a certain sense,” Lanthimos says, “everyone is trying to mould Bella and own her, or be with her, be part of her life. Because she is so unique, and her behaviour is so unexpected, people don’t know to react to it and they don’t have the tools to deal with her. I think this was the interesting part of having a character that could basically drive everyone mad, because she’s not conventional and isn’t complying with whatever is expected of her.”

“What she has,” he continues, “is this power of freedom. And that is scary to people at times.”

Bella doesn’t understand the distorting relationship men often have with power and control. In one memorable scene, the brothel madam (Kathryn Hunter) explains to Bella, as she expresses confusion at how the brothel is run, that “Some men enjoy that you don’t like it.” Every man in Bella’s life tries to have a certain amount of agency over her, except her inventor, whom she refers to as God. At the beginning of the film, he sees Bella as an experiment, which he does want to control. But he never stops her from going on her emotional journey, doesn’t attempt to stop her adventuring. “I think he just realises that she has to experience the world, and that’s what she is there for. He becomes a loving father figure with a lot of faults. I don’t think I could ever have anyone in my films, any person who doesn’t have any faults and made some mistakes like he does.”

Lanthimos’s characters are rarely defined by tragedy; he allows his female characters, in particular, to be nasty, cruel, dangerous. They are whole, rather than types. Queen Anne in The Favourite has suffered several miscarriages, but is also manipulative, childish; Bella has known tragedy, but it doesn’t quench her appetite. “I love exploring that,” Lanthimos tells me, “the ambiguity of someone’s actions or beliefs. I just find it fascinating that people can be so unexpected.”

Something Bella and Queen Anne in The Favourite have in common is the way they lash out at their opulent surroundings, their misbehaviour showing the inherent ridiculousness of wealth and polite society. In one scene, a frustrated Duncan rails against Bella’s foolishness in front of his rich friends and gives her three correct phrases to repeat, which she does at all the wrong moments (at times Poor Things reminded me of Hal Ashby’s 1979 film Being There, the simple, child-like character shattering the performances of adults). What really begins Bella’s intellectual journey is encountering Harry Astley, played by Jerrod Carmichael, on a cruise. “Money,” he tells her, “is its own form of sickness.” He shows Bella the inequality that has been hidden from her, the labour and poverty that allow her lifestyle, what is happening beneath the surface. For that reason, Poor Things feels more decidedly anti-capitalist than any of Lanthimos’s previous work. The novel it’s based on is also committedly socialist. “Alasdair Gray goes way more into it,” Lanthimos says: “There’s a large part of the novel that’s about it. I think our version was always going to be more focused on her journey. But we were conscious of trying to make her journey complete, so she obviously comes up against all these structures in society, whether political, emotional, financial. Period films can and should be very modern.”

Poor Things (2023)
Photograph by Yorgos Lanthimos

Lanthimos’s settings are always hard to pin down. The Favourite takes place mostly in Queen Anne’s palace, but the language is modern; the hotel in The Lobster is in the Irish countryside but specifically nowhere; Poor Things is set in the 19th century, but the interiors and Bella’s coquettish costumes feel explicitly modern, futuristic even. Lanthimos’s landscapes are all his own, boundaryless, imaginative spaces. He is clear on this point: “It’s not like because you’ve made a period film, you’re not allowed make it relevant to current issues. We created this world which was period, but also non-period, with futuristic elements, but that doesn’t stop you from being contemporary.”

On the topic of capitalism and the deadening effects the accumulation of wealth can have on the human psyche, it’s worth mentioning that Stone was supposed to be part of this conversation, but because of the recent actors’ strike her publicity duties have ceased. Lanthimos is visibly disappointed when he talks about this. “It’s just bad timing for us. It’s unfortunate because we were so looking forward to being together and celebrating. Especially Emma after being so involved for so many years. It breaks her heart not to be able to be with the film. It had to happen though. I’m very supportive of what they’re doing.”

I ask Lanthimos about another novel adaptation he was rumoured to be working on – Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation, only published in 2018 but already generation-defining. At a basic level, it’s about a woman, recently orphaned, who decides to fix her life by sleeping for a year. I can see what attracted him to the material: the dreamy inner world of the narrator, the sly critique of modern society. Why wake up? What has the world got to offer you? Lanthimos is open about where they are now in the process: “It’s a great book, but a challenging and complicated one. I love it, but in order to transform it into a film it takes a lot of trial and error, there are things you have to reinvent for it to work on screen. And we just need to arrive at the point where we feel it can be done, basically. So we’re working on it with Ottessa, and it’s a project I’m very excited about developing.”

Lanthimos has already wrapped another film which he describes as a “contemporary story, a very different kind of film” to Poor Things. “The same actors play different characters in different stories and it’s a lot of actors we’ve worked with before. Emma Stone, Willem Dafoe, Margaret Qualley, Joe Alwyn from The Favourite. And they already knew each other. So it was like creating this travelling troupe.”

The willingness of these actors to work with Lanthimos again and again speaks to the level of trust he fosters in his creative relationships. He cultivates a similar trust with his audience. He’s a filmmaker who is never holding the viewer’s hand, never leading their emotions in one direction; he operates in mood, style, weird feeling. He’s an enigmatic  artist at a time when ambiguity is dismissed or even treated with suspicion (take the sheer number of near-conspiracy theories that followed Todd Field’s open-ended Tár, 2022). When I ask him about this he explains that it simply follows his own taste. “It’s personal. When I watch something and I’m being told too many things and being told to feel a certain way, I have a bad reaction. I’ve nothing to gain from watching this very thin, narrow version of life.

“It’s natural for me to want to take away things in order to have something to give. You’re taking out things in order to allow people to engage and enjoy it more. And be more energetic too instead of saying, ‘It’s this and only this.’”

Poor Things (2023)
Photograph by Yorgos Lanthimos

Space-maker

Although his work is frequently described as deadpan, I find it laugh-out-loud funny. One of the pleasures of watching a Lanthimos film with an audience is hearing the audience’s laughter and then the silence of disbelief that often follows: what exactly are we laughing at? Is comedy something he thinks about intentionally or does it come naturally? And how does he cope with the varying reactions to his work?

“It has a lot to do with the specific experience of every individual that watches my films. There are all these different layers in my films, and they are funny but they’re also quite dark. The tricky thing about them is that there isn’t a scientific method. Especially if you’re trying to create something which is complex and complicated, which I think we’re always striving to. You must allow the space for each person to come in with their own personality to experience the film, in a different way. It’s the best you can hope for.”

Lanthimos makes up his own rules; his worlds are enclosed – perhaps because he finds the structures and inflexibility of this one so limiting. “I enjoy questioning the state of things, and the rules we all live by. It’s something I’m preoccupied with. Why is it so rigid? And how could it be different? And what would happen if it was different? If one person was different? I think that’s what drew me to Bella, as well.

“It’s always a quest to figure out why structures are the way they are. Although we see a lot of the time they don’t work, we still insist upon them. It perplexes me. So I’m trying to ask these questions, no matter what the characters or story are.”

There’s a line Bella says in Poor Things that I love and I repeat it back to Lanthimos: “In some ways it would be a relief to be rid of my questing self.” I’d never quite heard it articulated like that before. We’re all supposed to be searching, on a quest for freedom and knowledge, but none of us ever want to admit how painful and lonely that quest can be. It’s difficult to capture both sides. “Bella acknowledges it,” Lanthimos tells me, “but it doesn’t stop her. She acknowledges that she will get tired, she will be hurt, but she goes on. She just goes on with the next thing. I think Poor Things is my most positive film, my most hopeful film.”

I have to ask, since the idea of control features so heavily in his work, does he find it hard to let go? He laughs, and I clarify – does he find it hard to let go of his films?

“I don’t really watch my films again after I’ve finished them. Only a decade later I might watch something. In that time you have some distance, and see certain things. But really we make them and just let them go. Let the world experience them.” You have to let your wild and errant children – like Bella – be free.

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