The creation of a mad scientist learns what it means to be a woman in Poor Things. Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe) is a mad scientist who hires his student Max McCandless (Ramy Youssef) to observe the progress of his “daughter” Bella (Emma Stone). Max soon comes to realize that Bella is not a normal human being, but a creation of Godwin using the body of a recent suicide victim. Sporting a, literally, infantile mind, Bella reacts to the world with extreme naivete. Wanting to see the world, Bella ends up running off around the world with sleazy lawyer Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo). However, as Bella's intelligence increases, she also learns to live independently from the desires of men.
Poor Things Synopsis
Poor Things is a fantastical coming-of-age comedy directed by Yorgos Lanthimos (Killing of a Sacred Deer, The Favourite). The film reunites Lanthimos with Emma Stone, star of 2018's The Favourite, who is also a producer on the film. Stone plays Bella Baxter, the recent creation of the deformed Dr. Godwin Baxter, whom Bella cheekily nicknames “God.” Godwin reluctantly allows Bella to join lawyer Duncan on a trip to Lisbon, where she learns about the joys of sex.
However, when the trip moves to an Ocean Liner to Alexandria, Bella meets the very independent Martha Von Kurtzroc (Hanna Schygulla) and her cohort Harry Astley (Jerrod Carmichael), which begins Bella's journey towards becoming independent herself, which includes ignoring Duncan's sexual desires in favour of reading on the deck. This begins to antagonize the relationship between the two and in retaliation, Duncan tracks down Alfie Blessington (Christopher Abbot), a figure from the past of the woman Bella once was.
My Thoughts on Poor Things
For better or for worse, Poor Things is a film that is best known for its multiple graphic sex scenes involving Emma Stone's Bella Baxter, including a whole sequence where Bella takes a job in a Paris brothel. There has been increased debate in recent months about the necessity for sex and nudity in films and TV, with younger viewers beginning to argue that they are gratuitous and distasteful. However, Poor Things can be seen as an example of the sex scenes necessary for Bella's character growth.
Early in the film, while still in a very infantile state, Bella discovers the joys of masturbation, which soon evolves into her “furious jumping” with Duncan. While Duncan, who turns out to be a very toxic male character, would likely prefer that Bella remain a mindless sex slave, she ends up undergoing an evolution into a much more independent woman. While Bella chooses to still have gratuitous sex because she enjoys it, she ends up eventually driving Duncan quite insane.
Putting aside the sexual content of the film, Yorgos Lanthimos takes the basic concept of “What if Frankenstein's Monster was Female” and uses it to create a surreal feminist fairytale. The production design of the film is quite akin to the films of Terry Gilliam and I can also see the influence of Guillermo del Toro's The Shape of Water. Poor Things follows Guillermo del Toro's mantra of feeling sympathy for the “monsters” of the story.
It is almost a shame that the sexual content in Poor Things would be enough to turn off prudish viewers since the film ends up being a very nuanced tale about learning to be an independent woman. This includes the final act of the film, where Bella goes with the very menacing Alfie Blessington to try and learn exactly what drove the woman she once was to commit suicide in the opening moments of the film. This results in Poor Things being of journey of discovery that comes around full circle.
I would argue that Emma Stone exceeds her Oscar-winning performance in La La Land with her performance as Bella Baxter in Poor Things. Throughout the film's 2h21m running time, Bella undergoes an immense transformation and almost feels like a completely different person by the end of the film. This leaves the predominantly male supporting cast to take a backseat to Stone, though Poor Things does feature some standout performances from Willem Dafoe, Mark Ruffalo, and Ramy Youssef, in what can be seen as a breakthrough role from the latter.
Ultimately, I have to say that Poor Things is the crowning achievement of the career of Yorgos Lanthimos, which dates back to his 2009 breakthrough Dogtooth. Like that film, Poor Things might not be for all tastes, but it features a career-best performance by Emma Stone.