Bella Baxter (Emma Stone) in Yorgos Lanthimos’s Poor Things.

Dive Into the Surreal, Stylized World of ‘Poor Things’

The Oscar-nominated team behind the film pulls back the curtain.

February 16, 2024

Surreal, fantastical, and evocative are just a few of the adjectives that best describe the unique (and now Oscar-nominated) visual style of director Yorgos Lanthimos’s film Poor Things—think Merchant Ivory meets sci-fi in a dystopian Gothic fairytale.

Adapted from Scottish author Alasdair Gray’s 1992 novel of the same name, it tells the story of Bella (Emma Stone), a young woman whose body is brought back to life after a failed suicide attempt, leaving her with the developmental age of a newborn and the body of a mature woman. Responsible for this medical feat is the eccentric and renowned surgeon Dr. Godwin “God” Baxter (Willem Dafoe)—a steampunk take on Mary Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein—who becomes Bella’s guardian, setting the stage for a coming-of-age story about sexual freedom and women’s liberation set within the restrictive confines of Victorian London.

Tufted floors and an organic-shaped plaster relief create a womb-like atmosphere.

Photo by Atsushi Nishijima. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2023 Searchlight Pictures All Rights Reserved.

To execute his creative vision, Lanthimos enlisted the production design team of Shona Heath (a fashion-world favorite and longtime collaborator of photographer Tim Walker) and James Price (whose past credits include The Iron Claw and Paddington 2) to create a universe that reflects the unnatural psychological evolution of Bella as she rapidly progresses through infantile curiosity, defiance, deviance, and then enlightenment, as though following a Freudian manual. “There needed to be a world created for Bella to inhabit,” says Lanthimos. “It couldn’t just be something realistic. We aimed to open the period and insert elements that allude to an era, but allow it to be more of a fairy tale or a metaphor for things. There are various elements that are either science fiction or anachronistic or imaginary.”

Sir John Soane’s Museum provided inspiration for the London home of Dr. Godwin Baxter (right).

Ramy Youssef and Willem Dafoe in POOR THINGS. Photo by Yorgos Lanthimos. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures.© 2023 Searchlight Pictures All Rights Reserved.

The director looked to visual references including the darkly opulent interiors of Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula and 1930s studio classics like Frankenstein, paintings by Egon Schiele and Francis Bacon, and the Belle Époque illustrations of Albert Robida and Albert Guillaume. Unlike most period films, massive scale and glorious backdrops trumped the need for period-perfect accuracy. “We always tried to imagine that this story was set in a past time, but with the vision of the future,” explains Heath.

  • The London garden is a well-manicured riot of color.

    Photo by Yorgos Lanthimos, Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2024 Searchlight Pictures All Rights Reserved.
  • Art Nouveau shapes (and a bit of phallic imagery) decorate the exterior of a Parisian brothel.

    Photo by Yorgos Lanthimos. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2023 Searchlight Pictures All Rights Reserved.

The first act of the film takes place in London, shot in moody black and white. Baxter’s house and laboratory are a study in character design where various architectural styles are stitched together like the doctor himself, who has been the subject of countless experimental procedures. Drawing inspiration from Sir John Soane’s Museum, the celebrated 19th-century architect’s Neoclassical home, the townhouse was built as a single structure, centered around a large hallway that opens to each of the rooms in a fluid pathway. In the dining room, an assortment of porcelain plates is displayed on the walls with surgical precision, while the formal table is draped discordantly in a plastic-like covering to protect it from the mayhem of Bella’s mealtime. Upstairs, Bella’s private chambers, with their tufted floors, upholstered walls, and undulating plaster ceilings, mimic the softness of the womb.

Steampunk meets sci-fi in the film’s imagined version of Lisbon.

Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2023 Searchlight Pictures All Rights Reserved.

When Bella flees London with her lover, Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo), the palette blossoms into full color, a transition that mirrors Bella’s progressively independent mind as she explores the world beyond the confines of her controlled environment. A surreal version of of Lisbon, filled with hotels, restaurants, and hot-air balloons, was recreated at Korda Studios in Etyek, Hungary. Each block in the city was built atop a steel skeleton then painted and aged for an old European aesthetic against a 60-foot-high backdrop. Cobblestone streets and brick-covered buildings pulse with life, liberating Bella from the restrained, monochromatic life left behind.

Other sets include a lavish ocean liner (shots of its exterior are actually a 10-foot model set against an LED sky), a Paris brothel (influenced by Edgar Degas), and a hotel and slums in Alexandria (also designed in miniature). “The sets were epic in scale,” notes Price. “We built composite structures that you could walk into, take your shoes off, and feel at home.”

A sweeping staircase in Alexandria bridges the world of Bella’s luxury hotel with the slums below.

Jerrod Carmichael and Emma Stone in POOR THINGS. Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2023 Searchlight Pictures All Rights Reserved.

Every aspect of Poor Things’ production design is rife with metaphor: Bella’s sartorial evolution (courtesy of costume designer Holly Waddington, who also received an Oscar nod for her work) follows her rejection of performative and restrictive Victorian society, with the standard crinoline and corset tossed aside in favor of silk shorts and loose blouses with exaggeratedly puffed sleeves. Paintings hung throughout the ship portray caged animals, trapped like Bella with her lover. The Parisian brothel forgoes the usual palette of gaudy reds for a mix of lavenders, blues, and putrid yellows, reminiscent of bruised flesh and decay.

The film’s palette changes as Bella confronts darker realities.

Photo by Atsushi Nishijima. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2023 Searchlight Pictures All Rights Reserved.

Even in the midst of this exaggerated concoction of the surreal and the macabre, Heath and Price manage to imbue Bella’s world with a sense of joy, wonder, and possibility. Poor Things is a wild ride through a fantastical mind as it questions ideas of self-hood and the constraints of gender in stunningly artful fashion.