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  • Writer's pictureYulissa Chavez

The Problematic Genius of "Poor Things"


Think Frankenstein with the art styles of Frida Kahlo and Dahli. Bella Baxter has been recently resurrected by Dr. Godwin "God" Baxter to experience the world in the film Poor Things (2023) starring Emma Stone, Mark Ruffalo, and Willem Defoe and directed by Yorgos Lanthimos. This includes the good, the bad, and the ugly.


This is your warning that we will continue with spoilers. Trigger warning: violence, sexually explicit topics, and abuse.


Plot:

In Victorian-era London, England, a pregnant Victoria Blessington (Stone) commits suicide by jumping off a bridge. Her body is washed up and found by a prominent surgeon, Dr. Godwin “God” Baxter (Dafoe). Realizing that the woman he found was well along her pregnancy, Dr. Baxter saves the infant by swapping the infant’s brain into the body of her mother’s. He then revives Victoria, being reborn as “Bella Baxter.” Bella, having the mind of an infant, is learning motor skills, speech, and the world. This includes adult themes. Throughout the movie, she explores her taste in food, texture, clothing, and sexuality. Her brain develops exponentially throughout the film.


Max McCandles (Ramy Youseff) becomes Dr. Baxter’s assistant. With Dr. Baxter’s permission, Max asks Bella to marry him. She does not understand the concept of marriage but sees Max as a nice person who she trusts. Duncan Wedderburn (Ruffalo) comes to draft a marriage contract for the elusive Bella, intrigued by why the contract is so complicated. Duncan seduces Bella, convincing her to travel with him to Lisbon, Portugal. Bella does, craving adventure and escaping the confines of her sheltered life. After indulging in luxuries and consistent sex, Duncan surprises Bella by taking her on a cruise headed toward Athens, Greece much to her dismay. On the cruise, she meets an elderly woman, Martha Von Kurtzroc (Hanna Schygulla), and a young pessimist, Harry Astley (Jerrod Carmichael). A developing Bella at this point is reading books on philosophy and is questioning whether her relationship with Duncan is sustainable. Harry warns Bella that she needs to arm herself with the truth because people are “evil beasts”. Meanwhile, Martha doesn’t mind Bella’s extravagance, exploration, and blatant vulgarity. There, the naive Bella gives away Duncan’s gambling winnings. Because they can no longer afford the cruise, Duncan and Bella are tossed in Paris, France. In Paris with no money, Bella stumbles upon a brothel. After speaking to the head of the brothel, Madame Swiney (Kathryn Hunter), Bella sees the brothel as an opportunity to gain money, sex, and housing. Bella eagerly enters as a sex worker. Duncan abandons her shortly after learning of her most recent work venture. After some time, Bella has become more confident and mature, advocating for the body autonomy of her fellow sex workers in the brothel. Upon receiving a letter, she learns that Dr. Baxter is sick, so she heads back to London.


In London, Max revisits the idea of marrying Bella. Bella, now understanding the concept of marriage, proposes to Max, which he agrees to. At the wedding, a man named Alfie Blessington (Christopher Abbott) accompanied by Duncan, interrupts, claiming that Bella is already married to him as Victoria—her original name. Bella goes with Alfie to continue her life with him as his wife. Realizing that Alfie is cruel and calculating, Bella asks to be let go. Alfie confines Bella to his mansion. Shortly after, Dr. Baxter dies peacefully.


Alfie demands that Bella drink a chloroform-laced cocktail for a genital mutilation at gunpoint. Bella defends herself and Alfie ends up getting injured. Bella wants to carry on Dr. Baxter’s work and takes pride in her intelligence. Bringing an injured Alfie to Dr. Baxter’s lab, she switches Alfie’s brain with a goat.


The Male Gaze at Play with Feminine Autonomy


The cinematography is undeniable. We view integral moments of Bella’s child development through a fish-eye lens as if we are studying her ourselves. Bella’s outfits throughout the film are juxtaposed with what women were expected to wear in the Victorian era while also being free-flowing, bright, comfortable, and childish. Bella dons a tail in most of her dresses, an homage to Lobster (2015) also directed by Yorgos Lanthimos. The film starts in a noir-style black and white to reflect Bella’s sheltered lifestyle. As the film progresses, the film shifts into color and the surroundings becomes vibrant as Bella discovers the world. The film is a visual experience.


Poor Things shows the terrible, ugly underbelly of gender roles and money. It provides poignant criticism of how people are molded by their environment and their sense of morality through the influences of people, awards, and consequences.  It exposes how people are greedy and lustful for power, money, and sex.


Bella is the “perfect woman” - naive, childish, and easily manipulated by men while also being seductive and willing to satisfy their sexual cravings. Throughout the film, all of the men tell Bella what she needs to believe and how she needs to act. Max wants a wife and mother for his children, Duncan wants a sex object, Dr. Baxter wants a science project, and Alfie wants an object to abuse and have control over. In all of their demands, Bella refuses to confine herself to the expectations that each of these men have for her. Instead, she has a very logical and practical approach to life by the end of the film: know the world to better it. She calls into question why people are suffering in poverty while others are hogging resources and why women are shamed for being self-sufficient.


Now, let’s get uncomfortable and talk about the problem that is presented with a woman having an infant’s brain exploring adult themes. On one hand, the idea that an infant's brain is placed in the body of an adult to experience “the world” is disturbing and creepy - and borderline pedophilic. After experiencing a love affair with Duncan, and more partners by being a sex worker in a brothel, I couldn’t shake the feeling that this film is explicitly sexual with the added creepy element that the consent of the main character was questionable. There are plenty of moments within the film that are made to satisfy the male gaze. But maybe that’s the point: to make the audience realize just how terrible we have made the world to be.


Another glaring issue that I cannot fail to mention is how Bella’s journey to independence and bodily autonomy is very much dependent on her detachment from sex with men. This is a new approach to the Born Yesterday Sexy trope, where a woman has the sex appeal of a woman by today’s beauty standards, but the mentality and maturity of a child. Bella is liberated from the men in her life telling her what to do, but she may not necessarily be liberated from the gender roles and money that she must be surrounded by. Throughout the film, she uses the funds she gains from the brothel and her intelligence in science to improve her life at the moment. She is reliant on the very same systems she denounces and questions.


Favorite Quotes:


“I have adventured and I have found nothing but sugar and violence.”

“Polite society will kill you.”

“Money is its own form of sickness”.

“I still believe people will be happier with choice.”

“Hope is smashable, realism is not. Protect yourself with the truth.” 

“If I know the world, I can fix it’’.

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