Film Reviews

Poor Things

Published December 27, 2023
Bella tales time out from furious jumping for some sedate reading

 Imagine Frankenstein remade as a Scottish sex comedy and you’ll be slightly better prepared for Poor Things. I say “slightly” because Yorgos Lanthimos and his favourite scriptwriter, Tony McNamara, have created another bizarre, indefinable production that juggles extremes of vulgarity and profundity. Pay too much attention to the foul language and bare flesh, and you risk missing the point.

Poor Things is a polarising piece of cinema that will see some viewers walking out, while others watch in a kind of rapture. It’s based on a 1992 novel by the eccentric Glaswegian author, Alasdair Gray, whose sexual politics were not always immaculate. Gray’s strong point was a teeming, fertile imagination, displayed in both his writing and the illustrations he penned for his own stories.

In the novel he gives us two versions of Bella Baxter’s tale, one written by her husband, the other by Bella herself. This second account flatly contradicts the first, leaving us to decide who is telling the truth. Gray fictionalises himself as the editor of these warring memoirs.

Lanthimos and McNamara have simplified matters by accepting the husband’s version, although Bella remains a formidable presence. The film embraces and extends Gray’s vision of the Victorian era; the city in which the story begins, (presumably London); and the fantasy landscape of Europe and the Mediterranean where Bella pursues her adventures.

Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe) is a renowned surgeon who teaches at the local unversity and lives in a fabulous mansion. Known colloquially as “God”, he is a brilliant man, but also a misfit because of the scars that divide his face into a lopsided jigsaw puzzle. This, we will learn, is the result of his late father using him as a guinea pig for his sadistic medical experiments.

A chip off the old block, the disfigured Godwin has no inhibitions when it comes to conducting his own investigations. His house is filled with dogs with the heads of ducks, chickens with heads of pigs, and similar aberrations. His masterpiece, however, is Bella (Emma Stone), whom he retrieved from the river after she had thrown herself, heavily pregnant, from a bridge. Godwin resurrected the young woman in a novel manner, transferring the brain of the unborn baby into the mother’s skull, meaning that she is simultaneously parent and child.

This Bella is a fully grown woman with the mind of an infant. She staggers around, babbling nonsense, having tantrums, peeing herself and breaking things. To monitor her progress, Baxter enlists a student, Max McCandles (Ramy Yousseff), to move in and keep notes. When Max falls for this child-woman, Godwin agrees to their bethrothal, but before the marriage can take place, Bella is whisked away by an unscrupulous, preening cad, in the form of lawyer, Duncan Wedderburn (a moustachioed Mark Ruffalo).

In Lisbon, Duncan and Bella indulge their sexual appetites, and struggle with “polite society”. Bella, still a child but developing fast, has a hunger for new experiences and no understanding of the social graces. The odyssey will continue on a luxury liner, where their relationship rapidly deteriorates. A stopover in Alexandria provdes Bella with a horrifying realisation of the cruelty of the world. Destitute in Paris, she explores a time-honoured way of earning an income, refining her ideas about men and women. When she finally comes home to “God” and Max, there is one final twist in store.

Much of the story revolves around the consequences of putting a child’s brain into the body of a sexually mature woman, meaning that Emma Stone spends a good deal of time in stages of undress, engaged in what Bella calls “furious jumping”. She ernestly inquires of Duncan: “Why do people not do this all the time?”

Alasdair Gray, who was a sexual fantasist but a realist in his view of human nature, would accept Stone’s svelte attractions as sufficient enticement for some viewers, but his story has a lot more to offer. While Bella is maturing sexually, she is also developing intellectually. By the time she is on the ocean liner, we find her reading Ralph Waldo Emerson and asking philosophical questions with a childish directness. She has a genius for logical, commonsense ideas that run up against the complicated nature of human social behaviour.

The story is a perverse Bildungsroman – the chronicle of a character’s formative years and spiritual education – but more closely aligned with the Marquis de Sade’s Justine than Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister. The abiding reference is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, with “God” as a benevolent mad scientist, and Bella as the monster. But where Frankenstein’s monster went searching for love and met only rejection, Bella is the universal object of male lust. Her personal evolution is from object to subject. There’s a feminist fable here for those who can look past all the furious jumping.

While Frankenstein’s monster grows dejected and misanthropic in his loneliness, Bella develops an equally negative view through excessive contact, being repelled by the cruelty she sees on all sides. Bella is the monster that exposes the true monstrosity of humanity. The outstanding exceptions to the rule are God and Max, the kind-hearted vivesectors.

Poor Things makes no pretense to be anything but an extravagant fantasy. Lanthimos’s view of the Victorian era is riddled with sc-fi anomalies, from the stitched-together animals of the Baxter residence to God’s carriage, which has a horse’s head but is propelled by steam engine. In Lisbon we watch strange airships floating by in the background. Bella’s preferred outfits have huge, puffed-up collars and shoulders.

In such a realm, the acting cannot be expected to plumb the depths of human emotion. Good guys, such as Max, and baddies such as Duncan, are thoroughly one-dimensional. Only Bella and God are allowed a little light-and-shade.

Dafoe is enormously sympathetic in the role of Bella’s creator and doting father, but it’s Emma Stone’s spotlight. One hears the word “brave” being used to describe this performance, and that’s very true, although “reckless” and “foolhardy” are also possibilities. If she’s still making movies in her nineties, Stone will never have another role like Bella Baxter. She has plunged into the character with the same fearless gusto with which Bella breaks out of God’s mansion and crash-lands in the stream of life. Beyond the sex, surgery and cruelty, there lies a moral about self-determination we can all embrace.





Poor Things

Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos

Written by Tony McNamara, after a novel by Alasdair Gray

Starring: Emma Stone, Willem Dafoe, Ramy Yousseff, Mark Ruffalo, Vicki Pepperdine, Jerrod Carmichael, Kathryn Hunter, Suzy Bemba, Christopher Abbott, Hanna Schygulla

Ireland/UK/USA, MA 15+, 141 mins


Published in the Australian Financial Review, 26 December, 2023