Poor Things asks two questions: 1) What must women overcome to self-actualize, and 2) what if Emma Stone was gross? Adapted by Tony McNamara from Alasdair Gray’s novel and directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, Poor Things is about Bella Baxter, a baby-brained sexy lady growing into herself and past all the men in her life. Stone plays Bella, who begins the film in rich Technicolor as she throws herself off a bridge, only into sink to black-and-white as she is reborn as Bella, result of a gruesome experiment. Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe), himself the result of a series of gruesome experiments, saved the dead lady’s life, by some measure of “saved” and “life”, by sticking the brain of her unborn fetus into her skull and seeing what happens.
What happens is arguably Emma Stone’s best performance to date. At first, Bella is a tall toddler, wetting herself, speaking in abrupt fragments, moving in jarring increments, and preoccupied with death and dismemberment. She is a grown woman in body only, mentally and emotionally, she’s starting from scratch, like, well, a newborn. She is protected by Godwin, whom she calls, half-horrifyingly, “God”, who keeps her inside his house and its walled garden. Eventually, Godwin recruits one of his medical students, the sweet Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef), to monitor Bella’s progress. This leads, eventually, to Max and Bella becoming betrothed, though Max will not engage in sexual activity with her, as he views her as more child than not, even as she reaches later stages of development.
Horny attorney Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo), however, is not scrupulous, and soon enough Bella is engaged in “furious jumping” and running away with Duncan. This is where Poor Things starts to slide sideways, going from a bonkers Frankenstein tale to something deeper and uglier. Mark Ruffalo is having the time of his life playing the caddish Duncan, but the character is loathsome. In one regard, he gives Bella what she wants, which is nearly around the clock sex. But on the other hand, the actual SECOND Bella begins expressing wants and opinions independent of him, he recoils and becomes petulant, sour, and degrading.
Godwin and Max kept Bella on the shelf, so to speak, which is its own form of control, but as Bella progresses, outstripping Duncan not only sexually, but mentally and emotionally as well, Poor Things becomes less a jaunty bizzarro feminist Frankenstein story, and more a very black comedy about women making their way in a world that only values one thing about them. Bella gets by on her beauty, her sexuality, her sensuality, but ultimately, these are also weapons wielded against her. Bella’s compassion infuriates Duncan, her sexual desire is eventually taken as a sign of shallowness, and her willingness to commodify her body makes her an object of scorn and pity, even as she improves her education and understanding of the world in the leisure time afforded to her as a successful sex worker.
There are “good” men present in Bella’s life, chiefly Max, who at least respects her, even if he doesn’t inspire her to athletic bouts of furious jumping, and Harry (Jerrod Carmichael), a fellow traveler whose cynicism fails to rub off on Bella. At least these two men don’t resent Bella for being who she is and how she is, given the other men in her life, this is a marked improvement. But Poor Things still posits that a woman will always be settling in some way, accepting love without passion, or passion without love, or worse, trapped in an abusive relationship (Christopher Abbott shows up as Bella’s former husband, the worst man of the lot), and having no path to independence that doesn’t involve men.
That might be a function of the Victorian-ish setting, but Poor Things takes enough liberties with time and place—there is a steampunk style to this world, and production design that recalls the work of Terry Gilliam—that there’s no need for the narrative to adhere so strictly to bygone morals and social mores. It’s a deliberate comment on women coming of age in a hostile world, and one that takes a dim view on that world getting any better. Poor Things is a very funny film, with acute social satire and an anti-romantic comedy premise rendered in gonzo, Gilliam-esque fashion. It’s also deeply cynical, though it justifies its own cynicism in its commitment to the bit, that an intelligent, independent woman is inherently threatening to men. Like Bella, Poor Things is sometimes hard to take, but it’s not wrong.
Poor Things is now playing in limited theaters and will expand across North America on December 22, 2023.