By Crispian Balmer
VENICE (Reuters) -"Poor Things", a gothic, sex-charged comedy directed by Greece's Yorgos Lanthimos, won the prestigious Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival on Saturday.
Starring Emma Stone, Willem Dafoe and Mark Ruffalo, the British-made film wowed festival-goers with its zany story of a woman reanimated after suicide by a mad doctor who replaces her brain with that of her unborn baby.
Childlike but with an adult's body, Stone's character Bella Baxter grows increasingly independent and excited by her sexual experimentations as she undertakes a voyage of self-discovery through a surreal version of 19th century Europe.
"The central character is Bella Baxter, an incredible creature, and she would not exist without Emma Stone, another incredible creature," said Lanthimos, whose previous films include "The Favourite" amd "The Lobster".
Venice marks the start of the awards season and regularly throws up big favourites for the Oscars, with eight of the past 11 best director awards going to films that debuted here.
The top acting awards at the festival went to two U.S. stars -- Cailee Spaeny, who played the former wife of Elvis Presley in the biopic "Priscilla", and Peter Sarsgaard, who featured in the gritty family drama "Memory".
The runner-up Silver Lion award went to "Evil Does Not Exist", an enigmatic, rural drama directed by Japan's Ryusuke Hamaguchi -- the only Asian entry among the 23 films competing for the main prize.
Saturday's ceremony wrapped up the 11-day movie marathon, which drew an array of top films to Venice, but far fewer stars than normal as a long-running Hollywood actors' strike prevented many A-listers from coming to promote their work.
Actors and writers are demanding that streaming sites and film studios improve their contracts and impose curbs on the use of artificial intelligence.
Collecting his award, Sarsgaard said AI had to be curbed, warning that the issue had implications that went far beyond Hollywood.
"This holy experience of being a human will be handed over to the machines and the eight billionaires who own them. So if we lose that battle in the strike, our industry will be the first of many to fall," he said.
Among other prizes handed out in Venice was a special Jury's Award for "Green Border", a harrowing film about migrants trapped on the Polish-Belarus border, directed by Poland's Agnieszka Holland.
Best director went to Italy's Matteo Garrone for "Me Captain", another gripping migrant movie, which follows two teenagers from Senegal as they cross Africa hoping to reach Europe. The young star of the film, Seydou Sarr, won the award for best emerging actor or actress.
Best screenplay went to Guillermo Calderon and Pablo Larrain for the script of "El Conde", a satirical film about Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet.
(Reporting by Crispian Balmer and Roberto Mignucci; Editing by Clelia Oziel)