Poor Things: a male-centred fantasy of a child-like heroine’s sexual liberation and personal empowerment

Yorgos Lanthimos, “Poor Things” (2023)

A visually sumptuous feast, set in an alternative late Victorian steampunk world, “Poor Things” is a science fantasy concoction revolving around a child-like heroine who embarks on an odyssey, physical and mental, of self-discovery, sexual liberation and personal empowerment. London medical student Max (Ramy Youssef) becomes an assistant to famous surgeon Dr Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe) who need someone to document the progress of his ward Bella (Emma Stone). The doctor reveals to Max that Bella is the reanimated form of a pregnant young woman who committed suicide by jumping off a bridge into the Thames River; Dr Baxter retrieves the woman’s body and resurrects her by replacing her brain with her unborn child’s brain. As a result, when we first meet her, Bella is still learning how to walk and talk, and demonstrates typical toddler behaviour such as wild tantrums. She is also very curious about everything she sees and hears, and her intelligence is rapid in its development. Over time Max becomes attached to Bella and agrees to marry her. After meeting louche lawyer Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo), Bella runs off with him and together they begin a grand journey of hedonism and sex, starting in a fantastically imagined Lisbon. Bella becomes difficult for Duncan to control – she is forever wandering away from their hotel to discover new experiences – so he smuggles her aboard a ship sailing into the Mediterranean. Bella befriends two American passengers who introduce her to philosophy and literature, while Duncan fritters his time away in drink and gambling.

After Bella gives away Duncan’s winnings to two sailors in the belief that they will forward the money to the poor people she sees in Alexandria (of course, the sailors keep the cash for themselves), the couple are thrown off the ship in Marseilles, and they make their way to Paris. By now totally penniless, Bella starts working at a brothel, at which news Duncan becomes completely unhinged and has a nervous breakdown. Bella abandons Duncan and moves into the brothel where she comes under the care of brothel madam Madame Swiney (Kathryn Hunter) and befriends fellow prostitute Toinette (Suzy Bemba) who introduces her to socialist ideas and philosophy.

Bella receives news that Dr Baxter is terminally ill so she returns to London and reconciles with him. She renews her vows with Max but their wedding is interrupted by Colonel Alfie Blessington (Christopher Abbott) who has come to reclaim Bella as his wife, Victoria Blessington, the woman who had committed suicide just before Dr Baxter found her body in the Thames River.

As a child-woman with no preconceived ideas about how to behave or to conform, relying completely on her own wits, and maturing as she assimilates new experiences and learns from others, Bella is a fantastical character despite her monstrous origins, and Emma Stone does incredible work in giving Bella her distinctive personality and voice, even when the character is under incredible pressures from the men in her life. In their own ways, Dr Baxter and Max try to control her movements and keep her restricted to the Baxter mansion; and Duncan Wedderburn attempts to limit her movements too, by putting her on a ship. All three men are forced to give up due to Bella’s sheer determination to be the mistress of her own destiny, and Wedderburn himself ends up a broken man, consigned to an asylum. The most sinister character of all though, turns out to be the colonel who imprisons Bella in his mansion and prepares to force her to undergo genital mutilation to silence her sexual urges and make her more amenable to his sadistic demands. Bella’s transformation from gawky newborn reanimation to a more self-aware human is reflected in the changes of clothes from relatively bland and ordinary to increasingly bright and often bizarre, even military-styled costumes as she finds purpose that will allow her to help the needy and the poor.

Stone is surrounded by a capable cast, in particular Dafoe and Ruffalo as the two most significant guardian-type males in what we see of Bella’s early life. Dr Baxter and Max realise that Bella is her own woman and start to respect her as an individual, while others like Duncan and the colonel who refuse to see Bella as anything else other than a weak female to be taken advantage of, end up ruining themselves. Just as significant as the cast is the setting of Bella’s story in an alternate Victorian era where modern brutalist architecture has become the rage and lavishly outfitted cruise ships belch out bright lurid radioactive green smoke as they blithely sail the seven seas.

All the same, Bella’s odyssey might strike viewers as very strange and even rather retrogressive as an example of female empowerment: becoming a prostitute and subjecting her body to clients’ strange whims (even to the extent of being tied up) hardly seems emancipatory at all. The references to socialism are very fleeting and there is nothing in the dialogue or in the Paris scenes to suggest that Bella absorbs or rejects socialist ideas and values at all. One of Bella’s cruise ship pals expresses a deeply pessimistic view of humans as brutish and dismisses all philosophical ideologies as useless. Though there are several scenes where Bella puts herself in physical danger, there is no indication that she suffers any trauma at all that might lead her to question the values Dr Baxter and Max taught her, or to discern the contradictions and hypocrisies of Victorian middle and upper class society.

The film does tend to drag on longer than it should, especially during the Paris brothel scenes which can be frankly disturbing, and the sub-plot in which Bella finally learns the reason for the suicide that led to her rebirth might come across to viewers as an after-thought to spice up the growing tedium of Bella’s picaresque adventures. Despite the outstanding acting, the beautiful costumes and sets, and the use of CGI to create a colourful and vibrant alternative Victorian-era world, the process by which Bella gains control over her destiny after all the restrictions, bullying, abuse and violence she has had to face turns out to be the most unbelievable element in a film full of fantasy. Bella’s oddball example can be no guide for women such as her unfortunate predecessor who resorted to death to escape a violent marriage.