Arts and Entertainment

Rich Ideas in Poor Things

Poor Things (2023) is not a diatribe; it is rich in aesthetics and ideas, and it leaves the audience imbibed with a hunger to “experience everything.”

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Yorgos Lanthrimos’s Poor Things (2023) threw the internet into a state of crisis. A horde of internet critics was quick to dismiss it as facile voyeurism, a film full of sexual ideas and nothing more. But Poor Things is not a diatribe; it is rich in aesthetics and ideas, and it leaves the audience imbibed with a hunger to “experience everything” in a quest to achieve self-reliance.

The film opens, in black and white, with Bella Baxter (Emma Stone). She is a beautiful woman with floor-length dark hair, who dons a Victorian child’s nightgown. For reasons not immediately revealed, Bella is a full-grown woman with the mind of an infant. Poor Things is an adaptation of Alasdair Gray’s 1992 novel of the same name, with one crucial difference: the film centers on Bella’s point of view while the novel is told from the perspective of medical student Archibald McCandless.

Like the monster is to Dr. Frankenstein, Bella is the creation of Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe), who is known to her as “God.” She lives in his playhouse with other similarly beautiful and strange experiments; her pets are dog-chickens, and she rides around in a bicycle car. She lumbers around the house, gesticulating and yelling out in joy when she breaks things or draws blood. In these early scenes, cinematographer Robbie Ryan used a vignetted wide-lens camera to create a “portal sort of feel, so that you are looking into another world.” It feels like one is looking at Bella’s seminal experiences through a keyhole; just as the men in her life watch Bella’s body, movie watchers are also made into voyeurs. 

Jerskin Fendrix’s score, called “Bella” in its first iteration, is wobbly and infantile. In an interview with Stereogum, Ferdix said, “I really like instruments that breathe for themselves—which seems apt for the biomechanics of the film—so pipe organs, uilleann pipes (which are like Irish bagpipes), a lot of synthesized breath and voice stuff.” In the scenes of Bella’s captivity, her use of language, her thinking, and her actions are all primitive. But as Bella gets curious about the world outside of “God’s” house, she craves sexual experiences and is lustfully whisked away by Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo) to Lisbon. When she experiences foreign foods, live music, and lots of self-actualizing sex, Bella’s consciousness expands; the colors brighten and the shots widen concordantly. All the vivid colors and elaborate landscapes emphasize that the film is from the perspective of a rapidly developing child filled with curiosity from seeing the vastness of her world for the first time. She approaches each new experience as an opportunity for play.

Poor Things is set in an ambiguously Victorian Europe with futuristic, steam-punk elements sprinkled throughout the different locales Bella explores. The set is littered with unnoticeable surreal details. Similarly, rather than editing CGI clouds into the footage, Lanthimos manufactured massive LED screens to project moving fantasy skies during filming. In realizing the world of Poor Things, Lanthimos has not attempted to make our world feel surreal—he has actually constructed Bella’s fantasy universe. 

In perhaps the most famous scene of the movie, Bella Baxter and Duncan Wedderburn are having dinner in a restaurant in Lisbon when Jerskin Fenrix’s music swells and Bella instinctively joins the other dancers. Lanthimos describes the whole affair, choreographed by Argentinian choreographer Constanza Macras, as a “very funny, awkward, physical situation.” She is convulsing like an animal playing and going mad; it’s as if she is trying to lose control. Bella’s carnal movement and long swinging black hair are contrasted with the opulence of the other dancers and the classiness of the restaurant. This tension builds until, in a blur of purple and yellow movements, Duncan tries to physically fight a man who has been winking at Bella from across the room. Duncan is threatened by the thought of losing Bella because by dancing, she has repossessed her body.

To assert his control, Duncan effectively kidnaps Bella and brings her on a cruise to Athens. When Bella arrives on the boat, she overhears an old woman named Martha Von Kurtzroc (Hanna Schygulla) and a cynic named Harry Astley (Jerrod Carmichael) arguing about literature. She is amazed at the novelty of intellectual discussion, just as she had been with food, sex, and dance, remarking that “ideas are banging around Bella’s head, and hot, like lights in a storm.” When she starts to read the work of Emerson and other Transcendentalists, she learns the concept of self-reliance. Martha and Harry have gifted Bella a new world of play. Duncan knows that this intellectual enlightenment is a threat to Bella’s initial subservience and his control over her. When she tells Duncan that she is “a changingable feast,” he throws Bella’s books off of the boat in a flurry of desperation and sexual confusion. It’s Bella’s insatiable search for meaning that ultimately frees her.

Poor Things received backlash primarily because Duncan had copious amounts of sex with Bella, who had a child’s mind. However, this argument ignores the nuances of the messages this movie presents. Duncan is indisputably framed in a negative light, and Bella’s brief fascination with sex is just one aspect of her rapid development. At this point, she is going through her pseudo-teenager phase, obsessed with the instant gratification of sex, and eventually, her sexual curiosity leads her to work in a brothel in France. Poor Things does not linger here, because it is less concerned with the intricacies of sex work than with tracking Bella’s development. Instead of preaching feminist dogma to the audience, it displays feminine sexuality in action. 

Though they may contain some bitter truth, many of Lanthimos’s past films fall cold and stiff. Poor Things (2023) avoids this bloodlessness by definition; it is a movie about learning as a form of play. In watching Bella’s Dionysian dance toward self-reliance, moviegoers are reminded of the primitive pleasure of learning and are shown the potential for creativity in their own lives.