By Eileen G’Sell
Dir. Yorgos Lanthimos, U.S./U.K./Ireland, Searchlight Pictures
Yorgos Lanthimos is hardly famous for a high-minded depiction of women. His female characters have been known to knock out their own canines, secretly blind one another, hurl themselves off balconies, and binge so hard on tiny cakes that their stomachs can’t contain it. They are, by turns, crass, robotic, detached, deranged, and mercenary. They are willful interlopers glaring at the sky, somatic catastrophes intent on being sated. They are captivating to behold onscreen for the lengths they go to get what they want.
Poor Things, Lanthimos’s latest feature, initially appears to be yet another lurid tilt-a-whirl with a depraved and feral woman. Like the Greek auteur’s The Favourite (2018), it is an irreverent take on a period piece. Like The Lobster (2016), it is grounded in science fiction. Like The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017), its patriarchs are emasculated. Like his breakout satire Dogtooth (2009), something vaguely diabolical lurks within domestic space.
And yet Poor Things is strangely, even shockingly, hopeful, despite being the director’s most overtly political film. It is also arguably Lanthimos’s first feminist film, though I suspect many will argue about its efficacy as such. None of these qualities are immediately obvious, and part of the joy in watching is how nimbly the narrative and tone shift from absurd to quite serious, from droll to devastating and back again. Based loosely on the 1992 novel by Alasdair Gray, the movie feels bracingly modern despite its lavish steampunk, Victorian trappings.
Redolent of both Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Arthur Penn’s The Miracle Worker, Poor Things follows a heroine who defies expectations of both female passivity and bourgeois etiquette. In place of Dr. Frankenstein we meet Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe), an acclaimed Scottish surgeon with a body and face extravagantly scarred by scientific experiments he endured as a child under his father’s care. When the drowned body of a beautiful aristocrat is found below a London bridge, Baxter whips up a wild scheme in his personal laboratory. Naming his electrically resurrected creature Bella (Emma Stone), Baxter raises her as his own, forbidding her to leave his gaudy and, to my eyes, very Gaudí-inspired, home. “She has the soul of an innocent, trusting, dependent child inside the opulent body of a radiantly lovely woman,” Baxter explains to his assistant Max (Ramy Youssef), whom he tasks with charting Bella’s progress. Max, of course, falls in love with her.
Men gawking at a grown woman with an infant’s brain? Emma Stone pissing on the foyer floor? Are we meant to laugh at this gangly vessel of delight and tantrum dubbed an “experiment?” Are we meant to snicker at a father figure referred to as “God”? As we witness Bella lurch about, shatter plates, and straddle an eggplant at the dining room table, it’s more unnerving and potentially misogynist than funny.
Thankfully, Bella does not remain pitiful, or “poor,” for very long, nor a nubile “thing” to be fetishized and dismissed. Absconding from “God’s” suffocating, if sumptuous, manse with Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo), a lawyer renowned for his top-shelf sex skills, Bella embarks on a “grand adventure” in Lisbon, Alexandria, and Paris. Embracing Wedderburn’s libertinism, if not his pomposity and random cruelty, Bella experiences a sexual awakening that augurs a type of intellectual enlightenment. “Is it a physiological problem?” she inquires bluntly when Wedderburn can’t go another round in the sack. “A weakness in men?”
Watching Bella’s cognitive, physical, and political evolution provides its own sort of pleasure—much of it owed to Stone’s performance. Making her period drama debut in Lanthimos’s hyper-stylized The Favourite, Stone is even flintier and funnier this time around; her gift for facial contortion and physical acting is nearly Chaplinesque (if Charlie was a leggy 34-year-old woman an inch taller). With each act, her movements through space subtly become less stilted, more graceful, though the transformation is imperceptible in any given scene. Bella’s garments—from girlish smocks and bloomers to corseted gowns—likewise reflect her burgeoning maturity. Most impressive, perhaps, is how Stone’s dialogue delivery reflects the heroine’s gradual absorption of syntax, diction, and intonation—through which, of course, she is able to not only express her observations about world but also question its illogic.
Patriarchy is at the heart of most worldly nonsense, and the more Bella travels, the more she questions “God” and male authority. Unsurprisingly, the more she speaks up, the more Wedderburn lashes out. When his gambling addiction and mounting debts get them kicked off a luxury cruiser, Bella takes to the oldest profession, unaware, and ultimately unconcerned, with its stigma. “I need sex and I need money,” she tells a Parisian madame named Swiney (Kathryn Hunter, whose voice and physiognomy stole the show in Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth). Bella’s dispassionate assessment of sex work prompts an equally frank response: “A woman plotting her course to freedom. How delightful.”
At the sight of Bella purchasing eclairs with her newfound income, Wedderburn throws a tantrum for the ages. The number of times Wedderburn calls Bella a cunt would be disturbing were it not for how pathetically desperate and comedically out of control Ruffalo is each time he spits the word out. For most of the film, Wedderburn’s rage puts him in the position of truculent child, and her in the role of rational adult. In Poor Things, men are the real hysterics, a welcome reversal in any film—but especially one set in a historic era known for pathologizing female deviance.
By contrast, Bella is more befuddled by her combustible lover than personally offended. Epithets bother her far less than the suffering around her—from starving babies to neglected old women on cruise ships. Where her concern for others seems motivated by a progressive sense of empathy, her rejection of male power—be it jealousy, romantic monogamy, or the idea that sex work is shameful—is tied to her expanding analytical acumen. Not unlike Helen Keller, whose perspective and mien utterly transformed as she acquired a mastery of language, Bella evolves from wretched gamine to inquisitive sage. Also not unlike Keller (who became a leftist icon), Bella’s enlightenment ignites a radical’s fervor.
When face to face with abject poverty, she collects all of Wedderburn’s cash and tries to give it to the poor. When paid to bed men who don’t smell good, she politely asks them to splash on some lavender water. Her time working in the Paris brothel is neither romanticized nor conflated with instant trauma: 20 seconds of “furious jumping,” as she calls intercourse, is clearly preferable to putting up with Wedderburn’s intensifying lunacy. Invited to tag along to Socialist meetups by another prostitute, Toinette (Suzy Bemba), Bella immediately grasps the fact that sex work is work—which feels as revolutionary now as it would have then. It’s also fairly subversive that this subplot was even included. Who would expect a $70 million dollar period drama to idolize a socialist nymphomaniac with Crystal Gayle hair?
Viewing promiscuity as often pleasurable, sometimes profitable, but never tied to her moral worth, Bella returns to “God’s” London house a new woman by the end. “What if being sexualized is neither dehumanizing nor empowering and is simply value neutral?” asks leftist feminist and former sex worker Melissa Gira Grant in Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work. “Should women be more concerned that men want to fuck us or to…fuck us up?”
An unsentimental egalitarian, Bella is ultimately more concerned with the latter. By the end of Poor Things’s epic two and a half hours, her empirical joy and awkward hope are ours for the taking. “I am finding being alive fascinating,” Bella supplies as the main reason she would like to avoid dying. Can there be justification more high-minded than that?