From the mind of the Glaswegian writer, Alasdair Gray, Poor Things tells the Frankestein-esque tale of Bella Baxter, played by Emma Stone, through a seemingly Victorian, coming-of-age, and aesthetically-alluring world crafted by Yorgos Lanthimos and Tony McNamara. Bella Baxter mysteriously falls into the hands of the genius scientist and professor, Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe), who pioneers an unusual procedure on Bella to replace her brain with that of her fetus. Godwin Baxter, as a paternal figure to Bella Baxter, exposes Bella to the gore and marvel of his profession, shaping the cognitive development of this 30-something-old woman with the help of his gentle and loving assistant, Max McCandless (Ramy Youssef). Like any growing child, Bella has a deep curiosity for the outside world, ranging from the people, cities, and ideas she yearns to uncover. More specifically, Bella Baxter’s strange candor is most engrossed by socialism, sexuality, and science, which become major aspects of Bella’s growing mind.
Bella’s route towards enlightenment begins when she makes the decision to leave her home with Godwin and Max and agrees to the vagabond lifestyle with the sexually liberated character, Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo). Together, Duncan and Bella explore the cities of Paris, Alexandria, and Lisbon, while Bella’s sexuality blossoms, along with her passions for philosophy and dance. As Bella continues to learn more about the world and as she becomes less dependent on Duncan to provide her knowledge and experience, Bella Baxter’s sheer curiosity and zest for life fully occupy her. Her detachment from Duncan, a former philanderer, only increases Duncan’s infatuation with Bella, and Duncan becomes the film’s laughingstock. In many ways, Duncan embodies the pitiful archetype we see very often in the real world; men, who treat women as sexual exploits or as disposable creatures, feel emasculated when such behavior is reciprocated.
Ultimately, Bella’s naivety and recklessness is what makes her a true heroine. The universe of Poor Things closely mimics our real world, including all of the social, sexual, and political issues that plague the world today. Through Bella, audience members feel a sense of hope and possibility that perhaps, with a blindly optimistic approach like hers, some of today’s issues have obtainable solutions. While Bella scarcely finds permanent solutions to deep-set social issues, she does show the audience the value of asking the right questions and never setting a limit to the amount of knowledge an individual can pursue. Her character truly forces audience members, and other characters in the film alike, to introspectively wonder why we choose to uphold our modern social conduct, and how our unwavering uniformity contributes to dissatisfaction within ourselves and the persistence of major issues around the globe.
Throughout my viewing, I was most enthralled by the film’s dialogue, more specifically, the humorous script and comedic executions. Emma Stone’s frankness was juxtaposed with Mark Ruffalo’s sensual and sometimes frantic behavior, leading me to laugh at almost every interaction between the two characters. Not to mention, the film’s score is incredibly eerie and almost opposite of the narrative, which left me constantly unprepared for the next sequence of events. The bending of the viewer’s natural perception of how the narrative may unfold was my favorite part of the film. It was authentically human and also very metaphysical, reminding me that humans can (and should) let go of our predispositions to experience situations extraordinarily. The only major issue I had with the film was its underlying commentary on sex work, articulated with Bella Baxter’s character arc in Paris with Madame Swiney. Feminist discussions about sex work have become increasingly at odds in fourth-wave feminism. While many view it as women reclaiming their sexuality to profit over the hyper-sexualized behavior of men, others view it as a concession to the excessive desires of men. The film takes a stance with the former, showing Bella Baxter’s attempt at improving the sex work industry through communication between the man and the woman involved. Consistent with other parts of the film, Bella makes the best of the disturbing situations life puts women under, but this position on sex work felt unlike the socialist and feminist themes apparent in other scenes. Considering Bella Baxter’s echoing of Karl Marx as she walks to her socialist meetings, debates about whether sex work is women “owning the means of production” is largely contested, but seemingly brushed over in Poor Things.
Nevertheless, Bella Baxter’s unique life story depicts many of our world’s greatest struggles, from prostitution to unhappy marriages to moral obligations, all through a Marxist and feminist perspective that society can only dream of emulating. Layered with comedic dialogue, uncomfortable scenes, an odd but magnificent use of a fish-eye lens, and stellar performances from a stacked ensemble, Yorgos Lanthimos portrays the blessing and the curse of experiencing the world with the blind curiosity of a child.