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  • Writer's pictureMax Markowitz

Poor Things

A Nonstop Celebration Of Female Agency And Sexual Liberation

I’m starting to understand why brilliance is so often associated with madness. Some films are just so outrageous that a tiny teaspoon of insanity proves necessary to pull them off. Yorgos Lanthimos’s Poor Things is such a film. It is a deranged and demented fairy tale that’s often silly but never stupid or insincere. Every single grain of sand in the desert of filmmaking is bathed head to toe in perfection and substance. The only people I wouldn’t recommend it to are those with very sensitive heart conditions as this is a film where the audience's laughter takes center stage. Poor Things is extraordinarily clever, and visually gorgeous, has phenomenal acting, and invokes empathy in very unexpected ways. Yorgos has truly created a nonstop celebration of female agency and sexual liberation!

Having said all that, it IS endlessly weird and strange as all Yorgos Lanthimos films are. I tell my brother that Lanthimos is the  “The Mad Hatter Of Cinema” because he is. I wouldn’t say you have to see his previous films to fully understand Poor Things because it is his most bonkers film yet but it would HELP and yet, the shock of Poor Things is partly what makes it so magical. It’s a shock jolt for audiences unfamiliar with his work but I’m very confident that the audiences who are willing to go into it without thinking too hard and embrace the madness will find it the most FUN they’ve had at the cinemas all year. Emma Stone has never been MORE delightful, adorable, and hilarious. 

Poor Things is about Bella (Emma Stone), a pregnant woman in Victorian London who after ending her miserable life (The specifics of which are revealed in an astonishing third act) is resurrected by a brilliant but unorthodox surgeon, Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe) who replaces Bella’s brain with that of her unborn child. Godwin has horrific scars all over his face as he has had his body experimented on and tortured for most of his life by his cruel and deceased father. The lonely Godwin claims to have no emotional attachment to his work out of a commitment to revolutionary science (Which before Bella has just been various animals that humorously make unexpected appearances) but he cannot help becoming a tender father figure to Bella. He reads to her before bed and as she snuggles in his arms, you see that Godwin is the happiest he has ever been. He loves her so fiercely and wants to protect her from the cruel world and keeps her inside his luxury townhouse. 

Godwin is revered by the medical community (Who of course have no clue of his experiments) but mocked and laughed at for his terrifying appearance. He soon decides to hire one of his students Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef) as a research assistant. McCandless is a very sensitive soul who has always defended Godwin from nasty comments from smug students and is fascinated by Bella. Godwin, McCandles, loyal housekeeper Mrs. Prim (Vicki Pepperdine) who’s been sworn to secrecy and Bella soon form a bafflingly unconventional yet loving family. 

Godwin (Or God as Bella calls him) eventually allows baby Bella to venture outside for outings but only when supervised and when there are not any people around. He and McCandles take Bella to a clearing in a beautiful London park where Bella plays in the fall leaves and they have a picnic. People eventually arrive and they get in their carriage to go where poor Bella looks at everyone out and about enjoying themselves. “Bella wants a walk and ice cream!” She says. “No Bella, it’s time to go home now,” God replies kindly but firmly. “But Bella WANTS!!!” She shouts. 

Bella does not get ice cream that day but she does get to play with some of God’s cadavers as he works a few feet away from her. She plays as though she’s spilled her first paint set as she takes small scissors and repeatedly pokes her cadaver’s eye out. “Squish!” She laughs in delight. “Squish Squish Squish!” 

Bella develops much faster since her body is already grown and it isn’t long before she discovers sexual pleasure from herself. “Let us touch each other’s genital pieces!” She says to a nervous McCandles and nonchalant God who ignores her advances. She has no boundaries due to her innocence and unconventional upbringing and even goes as far as to take an apple and cucumber during dinner and pleasure herself with them right at the table. She has no clue about Victorian society's expectations of “proper ladies” and as time passes, she wants to go beyond simple outings. She wants to travel the world and gets her opportunity when God’s wealthy sleazy lawyer Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo) discovers Bella and becomes enthralled by her. Realizing Bella will grow to despise him if he keeps her from living the life that is hers to live, God sadly but compassionately allows Bella to travel with Wedderburn much to McCandal's dismay. 

The two travel to Lisbon where Bella is enchanted by the luxury of their hotel, the exhilarating colors of the city, and the tasty pastries. She loves the sites and discovers the pleasures of food and wine….and of course, sexual intercourse which she refers to as “Furious Jumping”. Wedderburn is a cad and a player with women but he soon realizes that his abilities to control Bella are near zero. This makes for some interesting and “laugh yourself off the earth” dinners where Bella spits out the food she doesn’t like. “Why should I keep it in my mouth if it is revolting?” Bella replies when Wedderburn scolds her. “I have said the same thing to Gerald.” The woman sitting at the table with them says. I won’t spoil Bella’s response to her because I can’t even type it without collapsing on the floor in tears of laughter but I think you can predict the nature of her response. 

As Bella and Wedderburn’s time in Lisbon drags on, Bella continues to infuriate Wedderburn with her limitless behavior. “What of the tongue play you were about to perform between Bella’s legs? Is that not happening?” Bella asks matter-of-factly after he slams the door on her. He decides to trick her into boarding a ship for Paris with him hoping the confines of the ship will make her easier to control. ………..Well, we all know how THAT turns out. It is around this point of Poor Things that Bella starts to psychologically mature into a fully adult woman while still maintaining her innocence and limited knowledge of the world. 

She befriends Martha (Hanna Schygulla), a sweetheart of an older woman whom Bella is heartbroken to learn “Hasn’t been furious jumped in years.” and her friend Harry (Jerrod Carmichael), a man whose view of the world and the people in it are very cynical and no doubt stems from a place of heartbreak and racial trauma. Harry of course develops a soft spot for Bella as she brings out the light in anyone who’s suffering. He and Martha fuel Bella’s growing curiosity and encourage her commitment to reading books and the three enjoy discussing and intellectually debating philosophy on the deck overlooking the ocean. 

“You’re always reading now Bella,” Wedderburn complains. “You’re losing some of your ADORABLE way of speaking.” Bella’s vocabulary has improved somewhat. She uses her name in the third person when talking about herself and her grammar isn’t fully flawless but her accent sounds more adultlike and she’s stopped wobbling like a toddler long before she even entered Lisbon. The ship makes a brief stop in Alexandria where Bella is devastated to discover the amount of suffering and poverty, adults and children dying, and the indifference the 1% possess. Harry holds her and compassionately rubs her back as she wails in angst for the broken souls of the world. Once she’s calmed down and takes time to think, she decides that human beings have a responsibility to help one another and wants to dedicate herself to improving the world as best she can. 

Despite Harry and Martha’s offer to stick with them, Bella concludes that she needs to travel farther and continue experiencing life in the world. After a beautiful farewell, she takes all of Wedderburn’s casino winnings and attempts to give them to the poor. Crew members of the ship tell Bella they can deliver it for her and Bella naively believes they won’t take it for themselves but takes comfort that perhaps, some of these people’s lives will become just a little bit easier. 

By the time the ship arrives in Paris, it’s winter, and Wedderburn is enraged to learn Bella has given away all of their funds for travel. There is no more money and I howled like a hyena seeing them both in the freezing snow, Wedderburn shivering with rage whilst Bella was having a blast. She’s found her purpose in kindness and intellect. Her hope in the world has been restored and sees being poor as a teachable moment. Of course, this statement goes over really well with Wedderburn. She promises her furious companion she will fix the problem and leaves him shivering on the bench whilst she looks for work.

She stumbles upon a Parisian brothel run by the amusing Madame Swiney (Kathryn Hunter) who along with prostitute Toniette (Suzy Bemba) shows Bella the ropes of sex work. Bella does not desire any of the clientele but her curiosity and intellect are fascinated by the concept of sex work and finds it very interesting that so many men don’t care if a woman wants to have sex with them and that some even PREFER that they don’t. Once Bella’s made some money from her first client, she rewards herself by buying chocolate eclairs, munching on them happily, all pleased with herself as she walks through the snow back to Wedderburn in her little cloak. He is boiling with rage when he learns about Bella’s new job and even more enraged when Bella nonchalantly remembers that God had given her some money before she left and she’s had it all along. 

Bella, completely indifferent to Wedderburn’s fury, continues working at the brothel and learning from Madame Swiney and Toniette. Swiney is a natural den mother who cares for “her girls” whilst wanting them to be independent. She’s a very wise woman with lots of maturity Bella admires. “We must experience EVERYTHING Bella,” Swiney explains. “Not just the good. But degradation, horror, sadness. This makes us whole human beings of substance. Then we can know the world and when we know the world, the world is ours.” 

Of course, people shouldn’t need to experience violence and oppression to be worthy of having substance but we have to remember that Swiney’s life hasn’t been sheltered like Bella’s. She’s experienced tremendous pain and is simply trying to make sense of the direction her life took in the best way she knows how. There also IS something to be said about how people who’ve experienced severe trauma see the world’s cruelty for what it is. There’s a frightening knowledge that was never asked for but if you’re a healthy person, you just may possess the capability to use it for good and if you're lucky enough even take some power back. This is what I believe Swiney was trying to convey to Bella. Toniette sees an eager student in Bella as well and when spring arrives, she introduces Bella to socialist meetings and Bella decides to follow in God’s footsteps and become a doctor. She uses her money on her education and confides in Toniette that watching surgeries in class makes her feel at home. Bella looks so adorable holding her little books to her chest as she walks the streets of Paris with Toniette. Their walk is momentarily disrupted by Wedderburn who fails to convince Bella to leave Paris with him. “Toniette and I are going to go learn about socialism,” Bella explains happily. 

Wedderburn’s toxic masculinity ego is completely shattered by now and he suffers a full nervous breakdown. God’s failing health prompts Bella to return to him for a visit and he’s so proud of her and all her accomplishments. The woman Bella was before she jumped off the bridge where God found her has found a second chance at happiness and taken her life back. 

There’s a featurette on YouTube called “The World Of Poor Things' where viewers can see how all the sets were built in Hungarian soundstages. Entire cities were built and it only makes seeing Poor Things in the flesh in cinemas all the more delightful. The design of Yorgos’s credits, the makeup & hairstyling, the costumes, and Jerskin Fendrix’s score truly elevate the already divine majesty of Poor Things to its permanent home amongst the gods of cinema. Just another star in a dazzling night sky. 

Emma Stone didn’t just deliver the best work of her career, she gift-wrapped it. She and Yorgos who have worked together before on The Favourite collaborated in bringing this beautiful, bold, liberating, and freeing woman to the screen where her reign of excellence shall shine forever. 

The world we live in is crumbling all around us. Of course, many like Bella do everything to improve upon it but so many out there simply don’t appreciate it and do everything they can to sabotage it. This next year shall be game-changing and if the game is lost, there may never be another one. Poor Things is by far the most entertaining, human, and hopeful film of 2023. Perhaps, even the best. I still have a couple more to see but Poor Things is in the running right now. 

It’s easy to forget because it was so long ago but the story of Frankenstein is submerged in feminist origins. It was written by a woman so trapped by the oppressive Victorian Society she lived in that she could only break free through her revolutionary writing and 225 years later, look what it inspired. Mary Shelley must be so proud looking down and watching this brilliant work of genius from the heavens. 

Perhaps we all have an inner prude inside of all of us that keeps us from delighting in certain human experiences. If you can ignore that person and shove him or her to the side and embrace the madness as I suggested, you may very well find that Poor Things was exactly what you needed. It’s a “Warm bowl of soup on a cold rainy day” of a film. An adorable and psychotic sexual odyssey of humanity in all its most ugly and beautiful forms. Just like Bella Baxter herself, Poor Things will freak you out on first inspection but in due time, you’ll have fallen completely under her spell.

intotheposterverse. (2023, May). Poor Things. Poster Spy.

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