Arts & Events

Poor Things’ Monster of Sexual Liberation

Emma Stone in Poor Things (2023), photo from IMDB

By Ari Lauer-Frey

“It is only the way it is until we discover the new way it is,” says Bella Baxter (Emma Stone), the protagonist of Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos’ newest and multi-Oscar-winning film, “Poor Things”. Inspired by Alasdair Gray’s 1992 novel of the same name, discovery in “Poor Things” takes place within a Frankenstein-esque dramedy. The tale centers around eccentric scientist Godwin ‘God’ Baxter (Willem Dafoe), his mansion of peculiarities in Victorian-age London, and most importantly, Bella – the greatest peculiarity amongst his creations. Like Lanthimos’ other films, “Poor Things” has an unrelenting fascination with the human condition – particularly its shortcomings, flops, and fumbles – that feels simultaneously genuine in intent and absurdly comedic in effect; both elements are personified in the world-defying nature of Bella Baxter.

  Also shared with many of his past films is “Poor Things’” unabashed utilization of sexuality as a means for analysis – social, political, corporeal, personal, interpersonal et al. The contractual, survival-seeking motivations of humanity – as well as the optimistic simplicities of human connection – are considered in the search for a fitting spouse in the dystopian society of “The Lobster” (2015), a world in which partnership is obligatory and single status is punished through the forced transformation from human to animal. “The Favourite” (2018) – also starring Emma Stone – explores inherent mimetic desire via a high-stakes lesbian love triangle that takes place within 18th-century English aristocracy. And Lanthimos’ third feature film, “Dogtooth” (2009), reads like a modern, mildly incestuous spin on “Paradise Lost” – John Milton’s epic poem about Adam and Eve: tyrannical parents mold and limit their children’s experiences to what can be found within their garden’s walls. In this world, sexuality ends up serving both oppressive and freeing functions in the children’s lives. For “Poor Things,” Bella’s countless climaxes act to display her experience of and response to the world beyond God’s mansion (some pretty clear symbolism here), emphasized in the abrupt shift from black and white cinematography to a deeply saturated palette following her first sexual experience, which is described by Bella as “rollicking!”

  It is revealed very early in the story that Bella’s existence is the result of a tragic, strange combination: God’s fusion of a pregnant woman’s body with the intact brain of her fetus after committing suicide. The result, like Frankenstein’s monster, is a fully developed body hosting a fresh mind that’s hungry for all the imprints of experience – a being defined by incongruencies. She is a brain and body born from singular circumstances, and this singularity is her leading principle throughout the film. As Manohla Dargis states in her review of the movie for The New York Times, “She learns about the world’s pleasures and cruelties, and in classic Bildungsroman fashion develops intellectually and morally (kind of).” The viewer sees Bella go from finding entertainment in burping and smashing fine china to discussing the philosophical points of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Stone, who received the Oscars Best Actress award for her performance, is much deserving of this recognition. She thoughtfully executes a role that requires constant re-assessment and configuration; Bella bulks up, stumbles, refines and does it all again with each experiential addition to her character; these additions are displayed largely through her changing physical mannerisms and improved articulation, and create a narrative in one individual that feels expansive and utterly human. 

  Unlike Frankenstein’s monster (who is rejected by society for his grotesque form), this monster is born into the body of a beautiful woman and is almost immediately confronted with a different form of isolation: the oppressive tactics of desiring men. These forces materialize in two central figures: the doting and protective Max McCandles (played by Ramy Youssef), who works as God’s assistant, and Duncan Wedderburn (played by Mark Ruffalo), a depraved, and (sometimes) charming lawyer who offers the path of adventure and indulgence. Yet, perhaps due to her unique condition of new and old life, Bella sees their advances for what they truly are – attempts at dominance – and rejects the elements of these relationships that attempt to create power dynamics. The men in her life are left puzzled and defeated by her straightforward, blunt logic of being. And this process follows in every part of her journey: taking in knowledge, experience, and ideas from the people around her and spitting out all the excess, all the trappings and failings of their ideologies. She takes in skills of reasoning but refuses the compartmentalization of empiricism; she explores love but refuses its attempts to limit her autonomy; she develops a critical lens of the world but leaves behind unproductive cynicism; she embraces a pleasure-seeking spirit but denies the false promises of hedonism – as well as the efforts to make the world of pleasure one led by the minds of men and their penises. She is an ultra-efficient machine of self-discovery and liberation.  

  Bella’s unique experience of the world is reflected in the fantastical, perfected visuals of the film. Her dissonant inner world materializes in the strangely beautiful production and set design, an imagined past that is simultaneously shot into the future through its grand presentation. Above all the visual elements is the impeccable costume design, and most noticeably, Bella’s absurd and bodacious outfits; they change in sharpness, color, and attitude throughout the story, but one element almost always remains: exaggerated, puffy shoulders – framing Bella’s curious face. In a way, these voluminous shoulders act as a confirmation of Bella’s nature – an idiosyncratic approach to life that pushes against the schematic realities around her. Like her attire, Bella is bold and honest (to herself and to others): she is truthful about her boredom, disappointments, and disagreements with others, she spits out food she doesn’t like, dances when she wants and how she wants, and has sex when she wants and with who she wants. Undoubtedly, some will find the maximalism of the movie – in visual aesthetic, attitude, and sexual content – to be gratuitous. But, many others will walk away from the viewing experience with the belief that loud and bright is the only way for this film to be.