Popularly lauded as a feminist masterpiece, Poor Things explicitly explores female sexual liberation. However, it’s less like a manifesto and more like an elevated sex comedy. The film oftentimes falters in actually accomplishing what many are praising it for.
Poor Things follows a young woman by the name of Bella Baxter (Emma Stone). She has been brought back to life by her guardian, the scientist Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe), serving as a Victor Frankenstein type. Award-winning Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos serves as the film’s director. His work is often recognizable due to its otherworldly appeal and charmingly odd narratives.
At the start of the film, Bella’s actions mirror that of an infant, flowing with naivety. She is like a child learning how the world works. Suddenly aware of the phenomenon that is her existence, she becomes entranced by her body. More importantly, she becomes fixated on what that body is capable of.
Mesmerized by the world around her, she wants to explore more of it. Dr. Godwin Baxter, or God as she likes to call him, is very protective of his experiment. So, he refuses to let her out of their generously spacious household. As a proper narrative would have it, Bella finally decides to be the hero of her journey. She takes fate into her own hands and runs off with Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo), a lascivious lawyer. Together, they travel to new corners of the world.
Poor Things come off with a flair that can only be described as theatre of the macabre. In other moments, it comes off as an out-of-tune Tim Burton carbon copy. It is also often a philosophical work, whether intentional or not. It appears to explore themes of phenomenology and Immanuel Kant’s cynical question of humanity’s natural tendency to be evil. This can be compared to the question proposed in Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” was the monster made to be evil, or could it be argued within the paradigm of nature versus nurture that all his actions are an undesired effect of how he was treated?
Bella Baxter is proof that nature-versus-nurture can play a significant part in a person’s development. Her actions shift not only as a reflection of how others treat her but also as she learns how to properly treat herself. To honor that for herself as others wish to take her in as a possession. Instead, there’s a certain sense of a voyage towards self-worth, accountability, and self-possession. Many question Bella due to her unusual situation, but beyond being a sort of lab experiment, many demoralize and criticize her simply for being a woman.
Poor Things’s aesthetic production design at the hands of Shona Heath and James Price feels reminiscent of German expressionism and steampunk alike. Tall buildings and awkward patterns run amok while the stylish costuming by Holly Waddington holds it all together, creating a unique neo-whimsy.
Then there’s the matter of Emma Stone. She sells the film despite its shortcomings. It simply would not work without her dedication to the role. It is a vulnerable position to step into, considering how open and free Bella Baxter is throughout the film. Stone is exposed throughout the majority of the runtime, both physically and emotionally. Despite this, she embodies Bella entirely without reservation, which adds to the richness and bravery of her character.
While all of this may serve the purpose of the narrative Lanthimos sets out to capture, there is a certain tone to its depiction of sexuality that may feel unsafe to a viewer. There is a delicate nature that can more often than not only be properly captured by female and queer directors alike. It is important to portray sex as a natural act instead of a demoralizing and sinful happening. Nevertheless, there comes a point where showing a woman as being hypersexual for the sake of narrative progression becomes less of a representation of women’s liberation and more of tawdry hilarity.
It does not add anything new to the conversation. Instead, it further promotes the objectification of sexuality, making a spectacle of the female orgasm for cheap laughs. We view this through moments where Stone is tied up, fully exposing her body to the audience, or in other instances, when naked men are crawling towards her on all fours.
Letterboxd user Marya E. Gates pointed out that there is also the matter of zero portrayal of menstruation throughout the film. While Baxter is incapable of creating a new life due to her situation, other women throughout the film are just as able. Then there’s the added nuisance of relying on the outdated usage of the R-word for comedic effect when first describing Stone’s character. Combining these small oversights or misdemeanors showcases a direction that fails to fully comprehend what it means to be a woman.
It’s easy to lose yourself in the pastels and the fabrics of it all because it is truly a visual feast to witness. Regardless of this, Poor Things remains superficial, refusing to explore further nuances of the feminism many praise it for somehow representing. It falls prey as another victim to the male gaze.