Content created in partnership with Searchlight Pictures
We are introduced to Bella Baxter, the complicated ingénue in Yorgos Lanthimos’ surrealist black comedy Poor Things, in black and white. The character played by Emma Stone is a Frankensteinish experiment dreamt up by her guardian, the celebrated scientist Dr Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe), who has the mind of a toddler but the body of an adult. The stark colouring of the film symbolises Bella’s life before liberation, while she learns to think and act as the woman that her outside form already demands of her.
Yet, even in monochrome, Bella’s costumes stand out: as she sits fumbling the keys of a piano, her giant, puffy sleeves quiver with every note she strikes, serving to exaggerate each movement and telegraph the jolting machinations of her curious mind. Similarly, while she learns to walk around the mansion in which she was created, the big frills and floating chiffon of a babyish night dress enhance her jerky clumsiness.
The styling, masterminded by costume designer Holly Waddington, fuses the buttoned-up, formality of Victorian attire with a certain juvenalia: Bella is designed to look like a child who has gotten carried away in an adult’s dressing-up box. When she is introduced to Max McCandles, a student of Godwin’s played by Ramy Youssef, she looks half-dressed, her leg-of-mutton sleeves and elaborate ruffles offset with bloomers, a tail-like bustle and bare feet.
Later, when she meets the rakish Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo), she wears a nightie and quilted dressing gown coat, as if she’s stayed up past her bedtime. Her dark hair, too, is childish, grown as long as her seat and often worn in a messy plait. Stone is seemingly makeup-less, save for darkened, full eyebrows and pouty blushed lips.
Once Bella escapes the mansion with Wedderburn, to start a salacious love affair in Portugal, the film becomes saturated in sumptuous technicolour, as she starts to explore the amazement of the world. Her clothes, too, mimic this joyful expression of wonder – and sexual liberation – with outfits in shades of sky-blue, canary yellow and dusty pink, even more exceptionally ruffled and over-the-top than before.
But it is during Bella’s time in Paris, where she is working at a brothel, that the costumes become truly wild. For her first encounter as a sex worker, Bella sports what Waddington refers to as a “condom” coat – a pale-yellow mac made from latex – so that she resembles a walking prophylactic. “I wanted to avoid black and red, and I didn’t want any black underwear – I wanted skin tone colours,” Waddington told British Vogue. “None of the women wore corsets, either – they’re such a symbol of bondage, so that felt wrong for this film.”
As Bella matures she starts to dress in a more classically cerebral way, in an all-black frock-coat, leather boots and a white shirt and tie studious enough for Wednesday Addams. And, yet, there is still a naive sensibility to her, as if she’s a child playing the role of an adult, or has just read Proust for the first time. "The colour palette and the materials that Holly used were all deeply thought through and inspired by what Bella is going through and how she's evolving," Emma Stone explained ahead of the film’s release.
Waddington’s costumes reflect the sci-fi themes of the film, which is set in Victorian times yet has retro futuristic technology, with cable cars and flying machines. The male characters, in particular, have a decidedly steampunk sensibility, dressed in black and white tailoring paired with all the accoutrements, and even – like Jerrod Carmichael’s character, who Bella encounters on a cruise ship – goggle-inspired aviator sunglasses and a fedora. Dafoe’s prosthetics – a hodgepodge of skin that looks to have been quilted onto his face, and apparently took six hours each day in makeup – also lend themselves to a feeling of far-fetched, impossible science.
All of this culminates in a film that is visually spell-binding, challenging and fantastical – the costumes, perhaps, even more far fetched than the plot. And designed to reflect the beauty and horror of the world, as seen through a childlike-lens. As Bella says: “I am a flawed, experimenting person. I seek outings and adventures… and there is a world to enjoy, circumnavigate.”
Poor Things is in cinemas nationwide from January 1. Find a screening near you