“She is the most literal character. ‘It’s sunny, you wear glasses. I put on shoes because it hurts when I walk outside without shoes on,’” says producer and actress Emma Stone of her latest role as Bella Baxter in “Poor Things.”
Based on Alasdair Gray’s novel of the same name, Bella is a creation of Willem Dafoe’s mad scientist Godwin Baxter. He brings Bella back to life after she tries to kill herself, using the brain of an unborn fetus, and Bella ends up a young child trapped in a woman’s body. Director Yorgos Lanthimos used different chapters to punctuate Bella’s discovery of the world and learning what it means to be a woman in a man’s world. Together, the film’s group of artisans reflected that evolution through their respective crafts.
Holly Waddington’s costume designs needed to reflect Bella’s arc and her development, starting with ones at the beginning of the film that are very childlike.
“I was very much playing with the idea of undress,” says Waddington. “In my mind,” Vicki Pepperdine, playing Bella’s governess Miss Prim, “would dress her in a big grownup outfit, a blouse with a skirt, and by late morning, she’d be wearing the blouse and nothing on the bottom half, just a pair of knickers.”
Once Bella meets Duncan (Mark Ruffalo) and he whisks her away to Lisbon, she is very much on her own without Miss Prim to guide and dress her. “So she goes out wearing her knickers and a big jacket. She’s almost like a young girl who has access to a grown-up wardrobe and it’s just a bit wrong,” Waddington explains.
As the couple leave Lisbon to board a cruise ship, Bella’s looks get more ad hoc. “The yellow cape is very discordant. It’s very ugly, but it felt right for where she’s at,” says Waddington, who wanted Bella’s look to fit in with the wealthy when the ship docks in Alexandria, Egypt. It’s also where Bella glimpses poverty. Her outfit is “clown-like in ridiculously blown-out ruffles and this red mouth,” Waddington says. “There’s this ridiculousness of what she’s doing on the boat, and the refugees dying on the floor. It is one of the few times you see her in a fully put-together outfit.”
Bella’s adventure continues to Paris, where she prostitutes herself — an experience she finds rewarding. One of her first Parisian looks is “a condom coat.” “It happens to be the color of a vintage condom,” says Waddington. “But it’s completely unsuitable for the weather because it’s snowing and she’s got these funny little boots on which are a little like 1960s Space Age boots with peep toes. She’s freezing.”
But there’s symbolism to that outfit. “That condom cape is such a metaphor for where she is,” Stone says. “She’s protected by this sheath, but then she’s going to work in the brothel.”
Similarly, the film’s makeup and hair department head Nadia Stacey had to echo Bella’s arc through hair.
“We start and she’s a baby,” Stacey explains. We’re in her controlled-experiment environment, so her hair is up and plaited. She obviously wouldn’t wear makeup because she’s a baby; she doesn’t know about it.
“There’s nothing at all in the beginning, it’s just the canvas, which is Emma’s complexion, dark eyebrows and dark hair. That’s Bella. It’s strange-looking, which is how it should be — because she’s this experiment,” she adds.
However, when Bella gets to Lisbon, no one is telling her what to do. “Everyone around her has got thes period hairstyles, but she has long, free-flowing hair in the middle of it all, and women would not have done in that time,” Stacey explains. “It’s a marker to show that she doesn’t [go by] the society norm, she
is a girl starting from scratch.”
Stacey’s other task was to show how Bella’s hair grew at an accelerated pace without using wigs since Lanthimos was not a fan.
To achieve that, Stacey dyed Stone’s shoulder-length hair black. She would then pin different lengths of hair to Stone’s mid-crown area depending on where Bella was. She used a makeup chart to keep track of the various lengths with “masses of hair just hanging.”
Explains Stone: “They sewed that into my head, and it would get heavier. And that was helpful because she’s getting this pressure to assimilate.”
Bella’s journey was central to the evolution of composer Jerskin Fendrix’s score as well. “When you see her as a toddler, the score was able to wobble with her and not be entirely in control of itself —that’s an interesting and empathetic point that I was able to bring to her journey,” he says.
When Bella travels to new destinations, however, the score opens up and gets wider. Fendrix introduced new instruments and added a sense that there was more on a bigger spectrum.
“The first big apotheosis of this is in Alexandria, where she experienced this horror for the first time, and up until this point, there have been some questionable things in her development, but so far nothing awful has happened, really. Then she’s confronted by death, famine and suffering,” Fendrix says.
“This is the point where the music had to tear through you. It couldn’t just be something dramatic, it needed to be like a scream and I needed to have anguish.”
In the same way that Fendrix’s score opens up, the visual world does, too. Under the production design of Shona Heath and James Price, Bella went from the black-and-white Baxter house to a Lisbon of watercolors.
“There’s a psychedelia to it. There’s a ‘Wizard of Oz’ feel. She’s looking through rainbow,” Heath explains.
In Lisbon, “she’s free,” Price observes. “She’s experienced sex and all the good things that life has to offer.”
The idea was that the world would be a romantic place she could wander in. But when she’s on the cruise, “she’s captive again,”Heath says. “Duncan put her in a suitcase and expected her to be happy.”
Design-wise, there were chandeliers chained to the ceiling and depictions of caged animals. “On the floor, there’s a tiger attacking a goat. It all felt claustrophobic. The [ship’s] cabin was not a sexually liberating time. This was about understanding her brain engaging with society.”
Stone calls Bella her favorite character of all time. “One of the things I wanted to express was that she does not assimilate,” the Oscar winner for “La La Land” says. “She’s seeing the world in the way that she sees it. She was never small and fragile, so she’s been free to express and learn exactly how she wants to.”
Stone adds: “She understands more about dressing for the world and how you express yourself in the world, but it’s very much by her own choice.”