“I OUGHT TO be thy Adam,” says the Creature in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. “But I am rather a fallen angel.” It’s the basis for every mad scientist story: You try to create man and end up with a monster. Fuck around with playing God and see what happens. Poor Things wants to add a few what-ifs into the Prometheus-myth mix. What if the Creature wasn’t a hideous Adam, but a gorgeous Eve that enticed every man who came into contact with her? And, like Shelley’s existentially miserable reanimation, began to see society for the patchwork of hypocrites and contradictory rules that it is? Or, to put it a different way: Imagine My Fair Lady’s Eliza Doolittle if she ditched Professor Henry Higgins and went on a multi-continent sexual rampage?

Based on Alasdair Gray’s award-winning 1992 novel, this serrated satire from Yorgos Lanthimos (The Favourite) drops you into Victorian-era London, at the very moment that a young woman steps off the city’s titular bridge. She is Bella Baxter (Emma Stone), and her contemporaries might call her “simple.” Or perhaps “beastly.” She communicates by grunting, smashing plates, and high-decibel screaming. When she’s not gleefully terrorizing the servants, she hobbles unsteadily throughout the house of her guardian, Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe) — God, for short. A surgeon by trade (and judging from the jigsaw scars on his face, intimately familiar with the scalpel), he spends his off hours exploring the boundaries of bleeding-edge 19th century science.

That includes fusing household pets together — behold, a barking goose-dog! — and the ongoing experiment that is Bella, which, as God explains to his assistant Dr. McCandles (Ramy Youssef), started as a trial run for perfecting the art of transference and resurrection. It seems that our heroine had taken her own life just as the good doctor was searching for a corpse. She was also pregnant, so he transferred the still-living newborn’s brain into the mother’s cranium, hit some switches in his home laboratory, et voila! Bella is back from the dead, albeit with a baby’s blank view of the world. With McCandles’ help, God will shield her from outside influences and educate his beautiful blank canvas. Slowly, she grasps the rudiments of a civilized life. Until Bella discovers free will. And masturbation. Then all bets are off.

A coming-of-age story that stitches together spare parts from Universal Horror (notably the early black-and-white scenes of bubbling beakers and crackling voltage), Gothic romances, picaresque novels and the sort of ye olde bawdy literature once banned by the fainting-couch set, Poor Things revels in the notion that experience and enlightenment are conjoined twins. But it also suggests that sexuality, that untamed urge, still gives nature the liberating edge over nurture. Lanthimos has splashed in these waters before, notably in his breakthrough movie Dogtooth (2009), in which Greek parents attempt to raise their grown daughters in a self-made bubble. Deadpan humor and dread remain his weapons of choice. Reteaming with his Favourite screenwriter Tony McNamara, however, he’s threaded them into a throwback comedy of manners that revolves around a particularly repressive era’s attitudes toward women. The fairer sex may be married, imprisoned, fetishized, objectified, forced into motherhood, and treated like property. But they mustn’t feel physical pleasure. That way lies madness… for men.