This article appeared in the December 7, 2023 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writing. Sign up for the Letter here.
Poor Things (Yorgos Lanthimos, 2023)
As the common lament of late would have it, there isn’t enough sex in the movies. Enter Yorgos Lanthimos’s Poor Things, which directly positions itself against this cultural puritanism, unleashing an onslaught of unwholesome acts, all presented as unambiguously empowering for its heroine, a yassified Frankenstein’s monster named Bella Baxter (Emma Stone). Lanthimos has done it again, flaunting a foul-mouthed, sexually deviant dame who would not seem out of place in the world of The Favourite (2018), the director’s previous period piece. But what felt fresh about Lanthimos’s earlier plunge into the monstrous feminine (that film’s cocktail of ribald humor and grotesquerie belies the tragically vulnerable dynamics that animate Queen Anne’s court) has shriveled into something dutiful and pat in Poor Things. Loosely adapted from a 1992 novel of the same name by Alasdair Gray, Poor Things stages a feminist awakening in a manner tailored to satisfy liberal sensibilities. If that’s not exactly an off-putting goal, it does make for a conceptually boring and frequently trivial picaresque.
Bella is a grown woman with the brain of the baby that once nestled in her womb; the “old” her had committed suicide, only to be surgically reassembled and resurrected by a disfigured mad scientist named “God” (Willem Dafoe), short for “Godwin.” Per God’s assistant, Max (Ramy Youssef), Bella is a “very pretty retard,” equipped with husky-blue eyes, midnight-black hair that trails her like a cape, and the mental faculties of an infant. Configured as such, she’s a fitting object for male control: too dumb to be safe on her own; too precious to be let out of sight, lest she be snatched up by a lusty rival. Living a cloistered existence in God’s elaborate London town house, Bella sniffs out greener pastures by way of primitive bodily experimentation—a lick of Max’s ear; an apple shoved up her vagina.
The opportunity for escape presents itself in the form of Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo), a mustache-twirling lawyer and expert womanizer who entices Bella to break out of her cage and join him on a sensuous tour of Lisbon. Chapter cards showing Bella next to other supernatural creatures—some are mixed-species monstrosities plucked from God’s garden—indicate new legs of her journey. The black-and-white palette of the first act is soon replaced by a carnivalesque color scheme of mustard yellows and velvety blues, while the narrow tunnel-vision effect created by cinematographer Robbie Ryan’s extreme wide-angle lenses seems to expand outward gradually throughout the film, capturing a broader (get it?) perspective. In Lisbon, Bella feasts on pastéis de nata and Wedderburn’s cock, captivating the older gent with her exceptional endurance and unabashed hedonism—the film’s stunning revelation being that women can be sex-obsessed perverts, too. She eventually grows tired of Duncan and his generic masculine insecurities; the storied libertine stoops to gross jealousy and territoriality when he realizes Bella’s libido far surpasses his own.
Lanthimos’s steampunk fantasia takes place in a 19th century brimming with gonzo anachronisms. Victorian-era brothels, courtrooms, and gnarly laboratories are portrayed against psychedelic skies peppered with flying vehicles, while the puffed sleeves and frilly frocks of the period are deconstructed as metallic two-piece ensembles of cartoonish proportions. Poor Things is the filmmaker’s most lavishly and fantastically designed film to date; it embraces the artifice of its Wellsian (as in H.G.) trappings with an impressive commitment. Despite its inventive aesthetics, however, the film takes as its comic point of departure the oft-satirized ideology of the Victorian patriarchy and its various parochialisms. It’s a conveniently stuffy foundation against which Bella’s aberrant behavior easily registers as bold and outrageous. “Creature of freedom” that she is, Bella spits out her food at the dinner table, menaces a crying baby, and casually talks about Duncan’s penis in front of a predictably scandalized audience.
As with The Favourite, co-scripted with Deborah Davis, Tony McNamara has written a screenplay that weaves modern profanities into mannered, literary speech. The elegant wordplay, pleasingly peppered with f-bombs, is delightful at first, but the impression wears off as the film’s one-note sense of humor grows repetitive. Bella symbolically castrates the men around her again and again, and each time, she does so with a triumphantly indifferent gaze—a matter-of-factness that instantly dissolves objections. Whether it’s Bella’s brazen conduct or a revelation regarding God’s abnormal scientific methods, the film anticipates the shock of each moment with a well-placed “good God!” (usually courtesy of Max), an overly enunciated “fuck,” or an abrupt cut to Bella in the throes of another orgasm. The approach works initially as a burlesque of gothic fiction—the lab-manufactured monstrosity is a woman with agency!—but Lanthimos goes no further. The prevailing simplicity is echoed by the film’s zany formal elements: the jarring zooms, hazy fish-eye sequences, and discordant music (by Jerskin Fendrix) with which each scene has been tricked out. All that these peculiar, interesting (to borrow the word Bella uses to justify her sexual adventuring) choices tell us is that Bella’s point of view is anomalous; to ride the wavelength of an uninhibited feminine subjectivity is to witness a parade of curiosities that vaguely gesture at a position against the norm.
Bella meets a pair of intellectuals (Hanna Schygulla and Jerrod Carmichael) on a cruise and learns about inequality; then she ventures to Paris and works at a brothel, where she confronts the cruel realities of labor under capitalism and becomes both bisexual and a communist. The constructed nature of Bella’s identity resonates with 19th-century ideas about self-definition and individuality (Bella reads Ralph Waldo Emerson), inflected by contemporary notions of queerness and sexual fluidity. It’s an empowering look, but given the shallowness with which Lanthimos renders these themes, Bella—as a literal body of work—stands merely as an assembly of eccentric parts. Her moral and spiritual awakening resembles a process of accumulation, in which she collects experiences that build toward a too-neat vision of feminine emancipation. Her manner of speaking—toward the end of the film, she’s capable of waxing poetic about her beliefs—is the most robust indication of her personal growth.
Credit where credit is due: Stone strikes a difficult balance between compassionate and crude, naïve and shameless; she is beautifully passionate, yet stilted and enigmatic. Her performance is far more complex than the film around her, which, in the end, pits Bella against a final boss of misogyny. Her mysterious past life resurfaces in the form of her husband (Christopher Abbott), a cruel aristocrat who threatens to lock her up and mutilate her genitals. Ultimately, Bella triumphs—the final scene is a fist pump–inducing group portrait of girlboss wish fulfillment, uniting Lanthimos’s flat vision of liberation with his predilection for funny animals and potty humor. Truly liberated—and liberating—sex is a way of exploring the murky underbellies of our unknowable desires. In Poor Things, it is a punch line, or a weapon in a feminist tool kit. For all her adventures and triumphs, Bella’s intimate life is impoverished—it exists mostly to prove a point.
Beatrice Loayza is a writer and editor who contributes regularly to The New York Times, The Criterion Collection, Artforum, 4Columns, and other publications.