Poor Things Is a Light and Gorgeous Lanthimos Fantasy That Could Use More Weight

Poor Things, Yorgos Lanthimos’s new film, is gorgeous, thought-provoking, and wonderfully acted. All it’s missing is some more weight behind its feminist spirit.

Emma Stone in Poor Things. (Searchlight Pictures)

I expected to love Poor Things. It’s the result of a reunion of the creative team responsible for 2018’s The Favorite, which I loved: Lanthimos directing, screenwriter Tony McNamara, and lead actor Emma Stone. A friend who is a great fan of Poor Things had many compelling things to say about its virtues. And I agree insofar that it’s a unique film, certainly, no small thing in these days of derivative cinema. It refuses the victim discourse that tends to attach to women as the “poor things” of the mocking title, by celebrating the triumphal journey of one woman who lives without shame and is therefore free to choose her path in life, making of it an arc of bracing self-invention.

But here’s why, ultimately, I wasn’t persuaded.

Poor Things is a female Frankenstein’s monster tale based on the 1992 novel by Alasdair Gray. It’s about Bella Baxter, played by Stone, the laboratory creation of the reclusive Dr Godwin “God” Baxter. He’s recovered the body of a pregnant, disastrously married Victorian woman who committed suicide, then replaced her damaged brain with the still-living brain of her baby. Godwin himself is the horribly scarred product of his own sadistic “mad scientist” father’s experiments, which have also rendered him impotent and caused him digestive difficulties that result in his burping up magically colored bubbles at every meal. (There’s a lot of this kind of biological whimsy in the film. Animals cut up and sewn together for laughs aren’t really my idea of a good time, however.)

Emma Stone and Mark Ruffalo in Poor Things. (Searchlight Pictures)

The Adventures of Baby-Woman in Wonderland is essentially what follows for much of the movie, as Bella lurches through her early youth in Godwin Baxter’s mansion, her poor motor skills and nonexistent impulse control pairing alarmingly with her full-grown body. She’s not as monstrous as the crudely stitched-together chimeras that represent Godwin’s other experiments — the pig-headed chicken, or the horse-headed steam-driven “horseless carriage” Godwin uses for transportation — but she’s plenty hard to manage nevertheless. She spits out her already chewed food, hurls dishes when she’s displeased, and soon develops a questing sexuality that mortifies the entire household. It combines with an urgent desire to see the world outside the locked doors of her opulent prison.

Though she’s betrothed to Godwin’s kindly but obsequious lab assistant, Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef at his most wide-eyed and adorable), Bella becomes fascinated by the aggressive sexual advances of louche lawyer Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo in an inspired comic performance). Duncan sweeps her off to the continent for further exploration and self-discovery and plenty of sex.

Of course, she soon outgrows him, as he reveals himself to be a bougie buffoon early on. He’s driven ever more desperate by his inability to control Bella, especially once she starts reading philosophy and developing her own moral consciousness that causes her to notice — and then want to help — the poor.

Her liberation and ascent to full adulthood are signaled by these developments: she ditches Duncan, supports herself through sex work, and becomes a socialist. She also starts wearing “serious” black for the first time in this interlude, notes costume designer Holly Waddington, after many sequences of pastels and flesh-evoking colors and sexualized designs such as the “vagina blouse” and the “condom coat.” Soon it’s time to go back to Godwin, or “God,” as she always calls him, to have the inevitable meeting with her maker.

In reading interviews with Lanthimos and Stone (who also produced the film), it becomes clear that they are most proud of representing a woman who moves through the world without shame, while the men in her life come unglued over their lack of control over her. And there is some exhilaration in watching these things.

But the fantasy version of the Victorian world that’s created by McNamara and Lanthimos is such a soft fantasy, mostly, that there’s almost no indication of public resistance to this woman without shame. Bella is constantly warned by Duncan that her behavior is unacceptable — it’s just “not done,” he says — but nobody in the cities of Lisbon, Paris, or London seems to have much of a reaction to it. There’s no clear evidence that wealthy, respectable people in streets, hotels, restaurants, or other public places are scandalized. Where’s the staring, the shocked commentary, the demands to have this apparently disturbed woman removed from view?

By midway through the film, Bella is marching around alone in public wearing her own versions of Victorian dress, especially favoring prim, high-collared, mutton-chop-sleeved jackets incongruously combined with little wispy floating panties below that leave her almost half-naked. She’s not accosted by outraged citizens, or the police, or the press, or officials from the institutes for the insane where supposedly transgressing women were routinely imprisoned in the real Victorian world. Nobody seems to care.

Given this lack of outrage and consequence, what’s the big deal about portraying a woman without shame? The shame is culturally imposed, but the cultures we see here don’t impose it. Which leaves Bella triumphant in a void — and the subsequent lack of drama makes the movie drag unmercifully. The only threat to her freedom is the way individual men in her personal life are forever trying to lock her up in plush mansions. But she has very little trouble escaping them.

The film is sumptuous and pretty to look at, with flamboyant cinematography by Robbie Ryan (who also shot The Favorite). There are many keyhole shots, and distorting fisheye lens imagery, and a shift from black and white to color as Bella encounters the wider, more colorful world. This formal flashiness is presumably meant to make us “look afresh” at the world presented to us, but it also has a quality of fancy window dressing not very securely attached to what it is we’re looking at.

There’s an infuriating shallowness about the larger sociopolitical issues the film evokes. Part of Bella’s education is learning about human suffering, which it seems that the wealthy men in her life have shielded her from. The “cynic” (played by Jerrod Carmichael) decides to show her “what real life is” from the height of a lavish ocean liner, gazing down into an imprisoning desert pit so far below that we can’t really see the horrors of poverty being described. There are dead babies, we’re told, and we can see vague signs of abject misery.

Why McNamara and Lanthimos chose to represent poverty as this isolated zoo-like phenomenon when the characters could presumably stop at any port and take a walk to see it all around them is just one of the many baffling aspects of the film. This fantastical version of the Victorian world airbrushes out so much of the social reality that it’s like one of those new children’s fables they write and film in which nothing bad or dangerous or harrowing is allowed to appear, so that it’s like a children’s fable in which nothing too harrowing is allowed to happen and all is downy-soft and pastel-colored.

Bella is immediately obsessed by the idea of helping the poor, though she’s still too childlike to find any practical way of attempting it. Later on, when she’s wearing “serious black,” she’s represented as having achieved maturity through a combination of sex work and socialism. Her new political commitment is covered in a single line about going off to a “socialist meeting” with her fellow sex worker and lover.

The film’s references to Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein: Or, the Modern Prometheus also seem vague and tangential. The book’s focus on the agony of the monster, rejected by his creator and shunned by society, are all reversed in the film, in which there’s no agony, no rejection, no shunning. Shelley’s themes of irresponsible parenting, especially in relation to the problems of education, and most especially of unguided self-education, are also shrugged off. What’s wrong with unguided self-education? In Bella’s case, it appears to be the best kind.

In the film, the name of Godwin Baxter clearly refers to William Godwin, Mary Shelley’s father and a radical philosopher admired by the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (which is how Mary and Percy happened to meet and fall in love). Mary’s mother was Mary Wollstonecraft, an equally radical thinker who wrote the foundational feminist work A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792. Godwin and Wollstonecraft were married, though they didn’t really believe in the institution, and their teenage daughter ran off with the already married Percy Shelley to live a life of free love. Only the suicide of Shelley’s wife and the resulting scandal pushed them into marriage.

Traces of the Godwin-Wollstonecraft-Shelley experiences and modes of thought are brushed lightly through Poor Things without really sticking to anything. For example, Bella has no objection to Godwin’s plan to marry her off to the assistant McCandles, so long as she can have a sexy sojourn with Duncan first. Though if ever a being might be expected to question the institution of marriage, you’d think it would be Bella, that surgical combination of a mother who died by suicide to escape it and the unwanted baby that resulted from it. Pregnancy as a side effect of sexual pleasure seems to hold no terrors for Bella, and sexually transmitted diseases are, of course, never mentioned either.

This kind of extreme airbrushing of harsh reality reminds me again that, whereas The Favorite seemed sharp, darkly hilarious, and formally well thought-out, Poor Things ultimately seems lax and simplistic in its feminist ideas and inclined to stretch its “cleverness” too thinly over too long a narrative. More thought seems to have gone into its visual opulence, especially the wild costumes of Emma Stone’s character, than its major themes. All the potential consequences of liberating behaviors that kept women oppressed for generations have been removed from this fairy tale — and since it is a fairy tale, I guess you could say, “Fair enough.” Poor Things is very light Lanthimos — it’s gorgeous to look at, thought-provoking, and wonderfully acted by all, but especially by Stone, Ruffalo, and Dafoe. It’s possible to see it in generous terms as an inspirational fantasy for 2024. And I’m trying to do that! I really am.