Poor Things is the title of a film directed by Yorgos Lanthimos and starring Emma Stone, Willem Dafoe, Mark Ruffalo, and Ramy Youssef. The screenplay was written by Tony McNamara based on the 1992 novel by Scottish artist and postmodern author Alasdair Gray (1934-2019). It was released to cinemas in the United States on December 8, 2023 by Searchlight Pictures and to streaming and cinemas worldwide on January 12, 2024. Winner of the Golden Lion at the Venice International Film Festival, it has also received two Golden Globe Awards for Best Picture (Musical or Comedy) and Best Actress (Musical or Comedy), and five BAFTA awards. Nominated for eleven Academy Awards, it won in four categories: Best Actress, Best Costume Design, Best Production Design, and Best Makeup and Hairstyling.

At its core, the story is a deeply weird, darkly comedic fairy tale that takes the premise of Mary Shelley's masterwork Frankenstein and runs naked through a Victorian bordello with it. It's a far wilder, more provocative and licentious derivative work, with just a few basic character analogies. Stone plays the protagonist Bella Baxter, a reanimated dead woman who possesses the transplanted brain of her unborn child. Dafoe plays her reanimator and guardian, the horrifically scarred and eccentric surgeon Godwin Baxter. There's the doctor's laboratory as well as his assistant Max (a medical student played by Youssef), but from there it goes off the rails in its own direction. There are some remarkable artistic liberties taken in the fairy telling, as the award-winning "Victorian" settings depicted throughout the film are extravagant exaggerations of period stereotypes and notably influenced by the surrealistic imagery found in the writings of Jules Verne or the films of Guillermo Del Toro. All manner of fictional mechanical contraptions and fantastical conveyances appear throughout the film, to say nothing of the preposterous medical science on display. I guess the title Transgender Frankenstein meets Psychedelic Steam Punk might not have been as marketable. One reviewer called the film "a feminist take on A Clockwork Orange", as both stories explore the concept of free will in an oppressive society.

Synopsis (Spoilers)

The film opens with a bridge jump and the body being recovered from the water. Cutting to some time later, we are introduced to the mad scientist and his student, and brought back to his residence where we are introduced to Bella. The zombie lady has a baby brain, so she's still figuring out how to do basic things like talking, eating and toileting. The dichotomy of having a fully developed adult body is the vehicle for much of the humor in the early part of the film. Sawbones is rather sickly, so he depends upon a cook/chamber maid and the student assistant to lend a hand with the upbringing, and as events progress the student becomes smitten and an engagement is arranged. The mad scientist hires attorney Duncan Wedderburn (Ruffalo) to write up the marriage contract, but turns out he's an interloping grifter who quickly gives Bella the Business, and bang, they're off like a prom dress. From make-believe London the two set out running, stopping first in make-believe Lisbon. Bella is astonishingly strong-willed and becomes curious about what Portuguese penises would be like inside her, so Duncan lures her onto a steam ship headed to imaginary Egypt. There she meets some oddball passengers who introduce her to philosophy. Duncan repeatedly tries and fails to control Bella, but ultimately gives up and starts drinking and gambling. Taking shore leave in not-really Alexandria, Bella becomes distraught when exposed to the suffering of the poor, and vows to help them somehow. Back on the ship, Duncan makes a killing at the gambling tables and stumbles drunkenly back to their quarters with his winnings only to pass out. Bella takes all his money and gives it to some sailors on the condition that they give it all to the poor (ha ha). Duncan awakes to discover the loss, and the two are put off the ship in made-up Marseilles because they cannot pay their fare. With no money or home, they head to pretend-Paris where Bella joins the world's oldest profession and Duncan loses his mind. She becomes a quick study of the whoring arts under the local Madame's guidance, and gets it on with another prostitute who teaches her about socialism and lesbianism.

Meanwhile, back in pretend-London, doctor scarface is on his death bed and sends his assistant Max to find Bella and bring her home. He first finds Duncan, who's in a mental institution and this leads Max to Bella. She returns to Godwin to reconcile and finally get married to Max. Then, just as it looks like all this madness is about to end, some guy shows up claiming to be Bella's husband, oh and by the way her name's actually Victoria. She's like "OK, let's see where this leads", and off they go together. Only he turns out to be a violent and sadistic psychopath, and Bella realizes that Victoria committed suicide rather than live with this monster. In what is probably the most tense scene of the film, she manages to disable him with the drugs he was going to give her before mutilating her genitals, and he accidentally shoots himself in the foot — no I mean, he literally fires a gun and blows a hole in himself. You thought I was being metaphorical! Sorry. She drags his wounded ass back to the castle just in time for Godwin to die with her at his side. Then Bella decides that if Godwin can transplant brains, she can follow his notes and do the same! Because yeah, it's just brain surgery, how hard could it be? Anyway, the asshole husband ends up with a different brain... is it Godwin's? No! Dammit, that would make more sense than what actually happens. Why didn't she prolong Godwin's life instead of fucking around with a goat? Cheap laughs, I guess. And roll the credits.

Naughty Bits

As you've surely surmised from the synopsis, this is not a fable written for children. Being a quadruple Oscar winner, I don't need to sell you on the movie being good by Hollywood tastes, but it's not for everyone. I thoroughly enjoyed it, though there are some scenes that would probably be triggering for someone traumatized by sexual violence. Speaking of sexual, I was not expecting to see the pervasive display of masturbation and fucking that is so prominently featured in this movie. It's almost gratuitous, but not quite. There are even whorehouse scenes with male full frontal nudity. Penises! On the giant screen! And not like "here are ten frames of a glancing shot of part of a penis" but "here is an entire set of flaccid male genitalia walking across the room for ten seconds". Whatever happened to good old-fashioned American Puritanical tight-assed prudishness? Oh well, they're all ugly foreign men so I guess that makes it palatable for the censors. The producers did actually have to cut one of the sex scenes in the UK release so that the film could get an '18' rating, but that was because children were present in the scene and that makes it against the law over there or something. Who knew?

But Seriously

There's quite a bit of messaging to unpack in this story, as I believe some of its humor is incidental as much as it is intentional. We can't help but snicker at the masturbation scenes, but this is no farce: Bella may be a dynamo, but Stone is not clowning around, and though stylized in interesting and colorful ways, every character is meant to be take seriously. There is a pointed study of human behavior on display in reaction to Bella's shameless refusal to submit to social constraints. In an interview with Vogue magazine, Stone explains that "the more agency Bella gets, the more she learns and grows, the more it drives these men insane. The more she has an opinion and her own wants and needs and all of that, it makes them crazy; they want her to stay this sort of pure thing." Lanthimos adds that even though every single male character in the film has their own motivations and personality, they all seek to control Bella in their own way, and to make her conform to the behavioral conventions that were expected from women in the Nineteenth Century, from the most kindly and protective nature that Godwin shows to the most extremely violent and controlling nature of Victoria's husband. In a review of the novel's adaptation on LitHub, Jonathan Russell Clark writes, "Gray has created a wonderful metaphor for the ways in which men believe women to be subservient to them and the refusal of women to be controlled or treated like property. Bella as a character exists on the same plane as Toni Morrison's Sula Peace, Erica Jong's Isadora Wing, Alice Walker's Shug Avery, and D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley — sexually promiscuous women whose behavior challenges the norms not only of society but also literature itself, which often employs female sexuality as a reward for a man or as a reason for a woman's punishment." Presented as a wide-ranging study in outdated and repressive gender role enforcement, the story is making important points about how far we've come as a society in the past 130 years with regard to gender equality, as well as how far we still have to go.

More generally, Poor Things is making a statement about how personal liberty just doesn't sit well with polite society. Most everyone behaves the way they do in the presence of others because they were socialized as children to know what is appropriate and inappropriate behavior. Bella has received no such instruction, and is a truly free spirit with no self-awareness or hesitation, acting out or saying whatever comes to her mind. Promises and commitments are meaningless to someone driven entirely by childlike impulsiveness, and as the story progresses, Bella learns more and more about how the world works, how human beings should or shouldn't behave, and the lessons that consequences teach us. Still, this does little to temper her feral instincts. She is a force of nature rather than a product of nurture, and the reactions of rage and frustration depicted by the men who seek to control her are a metaphor for humanity's eternal struggle with our neurological id.

For me, the film's most moving plot line involved the backstory of Godwin Baxter. From the outset, the viewer is given the impression that Dafoe's character is eccentric and probably a bit insane, but at turns, when given the opportunity to explain his actions and circumstances, he reveals more and more about how he turned into the person he is. And the story he tells is one of heartbreaking abuse at the hands of his father, who was clearly the insane one. The poor doctor was subjected to so much physical, emotional, psychological and sexual torment, is it any wonder that he became this tragic, wretched, scarred husk of a human being? And by the time we reach the scene where Godwin dies, the message is clear that despite the chivalry of "women and children first", the wanton brutality of Nineteenth Century white men was visited upon both women and children alike. Historical accounts are one thing to read or hear about, but this film gives us a glimpse at the lived reality of it, surreal and exaggerated though it may be. Hardly a laughing matter, and Dafoe serves up this pathos in his inimitable style.

Final Thoughts

Were it not competing with the blockbuster Oppenheimer, I think this film would have won more Academy Awards than it did. It's a visual feast with outstanding performances and a very unconventional narrative. Sadly, it's much too unconventional for the kind of market share that Oppenheimer was made for, and its rather graphic and no holds barred portrayal of human sexuality and anatomical dissection has been off-putting to many. Regardless, I'm delighted that films this challenging and outside of the mainstream are not only being made but winning mainstream cinema awards. It's not as much of a mindfuck as Everything Everywhere All at Once, but it's damn near as entertaining and thought-provoking. ★★★★★

My own viewing of the film at Hollywood Theatre in Portland, Oregon

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.