“Poor Things”: a dreamlike look at female liberation

“Poor Things”

4/5 ****

“Poor Things” is a 2023 film directed by Yorgos Lanthimos and was a nominee for Best Picture at the 96th Academy Awards. Although it did not win Best Picture, Emma Stone won the Oscar for Best Actress. The film is set in a vaguely Victorian-inspired world and tells the story of Bella Baxter (Emma Stone), a young woman reanimated by her baby’s brain by mad scientist Dr. Godwin “God” Baxter (Willem Defoe). After she gets engaged to medical student Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef), Bella runs off with lawyer Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo). Throughout the film, as Bella’s brain develops, she learns more about herself and the world around her. Because she has a still-developing brain, Bella does not fully understand the societal constrictions for women; therefore, she constantly breaks and challenges them without realizing. 

To start off, this film is weird. The overall aesthetic of the world, costume design and music made me feel almost like I was in a dream. Before Bella goes on her adventure, the film is shot in black and white. After Bella begins her adventure, however, the world is full of color and the camera moves in a more contemporary way. It is as if Bella gaining a new freedom in her life added more beauty to it. The way the film is shot is also incredible, using filming techniques that reminded me of old Hollywood films such as “Frankenstein” and “Dracula.” The camera zooms in and out and moves around the space like it is on a dolly. Not only that, but there are many shots from a fisheye lens, a lens that distorts the image and gives it a round, hemispheric look. The intimate cinematography makes the film very voyeuristic, as if the audience is spying on the lives of these characters. 

The film’s main theme is that of female empowerment in terms of develops quickly, and she discovers her sexuality without knowing the strict social ideas around sex. As a result, Bella unconsciously breaks the social taboos around sex in different settings. While she is traveling with Wedderburn they are constantly having sex, and yet she still intends to marry Max, breaking the concept of a woman only engaging in sex with her husband. Bella also casually discusses sex in public settings, not understanding the social cues of sex being a subject of private and intimate conversation. Unlike the people of her pseudo-Victorian world, Bella sees sex more casually. Later, when Bella becomes a sex worker, she questions why it is the pleasure of the male customer that is prioritized rather than the pleasure of both parties. 

Another big thing that the film critiques is when men try to hold women back for their own interest. Wedderburn is a prime example of this, going to great lengths to attempt to contain Bella’s free spirit. Despite him critiquing polite society when they first meet, Wedderburn still tries to enforce the rules of this same society onto Bella. When he discovers he is unable to keep Bella on a tight leash, he puts her in a trunk to go on a cruise ship where he’d be able to monitor her movement more. When Bella begins learning about philosophy from two other passengers, Wedderburn tries to stop her to no avail. They eventually go their separate ways when Bella begins working in a brothel, where she begins a relationship with her fellow sex worker and socialist, Toinette (Suzy Bemba). When she begins sex work, however, she discovers that the business focuses solely on the pleasure of the male client. When she attempts to stand up and question the system, she is brought down, not by a man, but by the runner of the brothel, Madame Swiny (Kathryn Hunter). 

Godwin’s relationship with Bella is also interesting. He sees Bella as a strange combination of experiment and daughter and starts the film as incredibly controlling of her. While he eventually loosens his leash on her, he still keeps from her how she became the way she was and tries to contain her by marrying her to Max. Godwin is still another male figure that attempts to contain Bella for his own benefit, in his case for the sake of science. 

All of these social rules that Bella breaks also come back around to her past life as Victoria Blessington, wife of General Alfie Blessington (Christopher Abbott). Victoria Blessington committed suicide, only to have her brain be replaced with her child’s. Bella comes to discover what made Victoria so unhappy was that she was married to a man who was controlling and cruel. Unlike Bella, Victoria did not know herself nor had a sense of independence that gave her the confidence to get out of her situation. Alfie also serves as a foil to Max, who, unlike the other men in the film, respects Bella and wants what is best for her. 

Overall, “Poor Things” is a fantastic film that talks about female independence and sexuality in a very nuanced way. Emma Stone’s performance as Bella is absolutely incredible, and it is so interesting to watch her character develop into a mature young woman while still keeping her childlike, whimsical charm. The world is extremely immersive and unapologetically strange. Just a fair warning, the film contains a lot of sex and nudity.