January 26, 2024
Why I hated Poor Things but will watch it again and again
Emma Stone in Poor Things
A cinematic masterpiece Poor Things from the renowned director Yorgos Lanthimos, (known for The Lobster, The Favourite and The Killing of the Sacred Deer) made its way to theatres in the early weeks of 2024.
The film, which I was fortunate enough to see in a preview in Vienna, left me absolutely speechless.
Based on the late Scottish author Alasdair Gray’s 1992 novel of the same name, Poor Things delves into the story of Dr Godwin Baxter, a London-based surgeon who replaces a pregnant woman’s injured brain with the one from her unborn child.
The person resulting from this takes on a new identity of Bella Baxter. The film explores the dissonance between Bella’s brain’s development and her physical age – she navigates experiences typical of youth in a mature body.
Lanthimos does not disappoint with the cinematography. The director experimented with structure, colour, and lenses to evoke different atmospheres and feelings – for example, parts of the film are black and white, and colour is introduced to signal the beginning of Bella’s journey.
The acting is phenomenal as well. With Emma Stone as Bella, Willem Dafoe as Dr Godwin Baxter, and Mark Rufallo as Bella’s love interest Duncan Wedderburn, the star-studded cast movingly invokes the sense of the uncanny, something that lies at the heart of this modern ‘Frankenstein’ tale.
Finally, a special kudos from me for dialogue-writing. I admired how Bella called Dr Godwin ‘God’, something that added a new dimension to the in-film reality, forcing the viewer to consider that he was not her father, not her doctor, yet a person who had saved and created her – salvation is strikingly placed in a more secular context here.
Emma Stone and Mark Ruffalo in Yorgos Lanthimos's Poor Things
Here, my love letter ends – despite my positive reflections, it’s crucial to address the aspects that didn’t resonate with me.
As mentioned before, the movie introduces the process of the discovery of the world and its wonders by a woman, which includes sexual exploration. Lathimos himself stated that “an intrinsic part of the novel in itself is her (Bella’s) freedom about everything, including sexuality,” which I cannot help but agree with.
Though I do believe modern cinema holds the responsibility in de-stigmatising depictions of a woman’s sexual liberty, with innumerable episodes showing Bella’s discovery of masturbation to over a dozen explicit sex scenes, the movie goes a little overboard. As reported by The Daily Mail, because of the portrayal of sex, the movie was forced to be edited before hitting theatres in the United Kingdom.
Though Emma Stone said that she felt completely comfortable shooting erotic scenes, as Lathimos introduced an intimacy coordinator on the set of the film to make the experience comfortable for all actors involved, this does not justify the fetishization of female corporeality throughout the film.
With the film dominated by explicit scenes with men, this begs the bitter question: Is the exploration of the world by a woman only represented by her sexual relationships?
This reductive characterisation of Bella is exacerbated by the fact that all her interactions with women are short-lived, restricting the movie’s overall scope.
What could have been a nuanced exploration of the fluidity of female sexuality and potential queerness is reduced to a minute-long conversation between Bella and a woman she has sex with.
With no proper follow-up and insufficient screen time for other female characters, a movie that should have been about a woman finding a sense of self became one that perpetuated the stereotypes it hoped to break down.
Even with moments depicting her independence, the movie overall showcases a fixation on female sexuality that characterises Bella as an object of the male gaze.
I would have much preferred to watch scenes about Bella’s burgeoning identity divorced from her physicality, such as an extended version of the first time she is introduced to the concept of poverty.
Despite recommending the movie, I’m left with some lingering questions that leave me conflicted.
Has the story fully tapped into its potential, or has it taken the easy way out by recycling the same tropes about femininity?