The film Poor Things explores themes including women’s liberation, class and property, in a wonderfully realised, surreal nineteenth-century Europe, finds Lucy Nichols

The last six months have blessed us with two weird and wacky films essentially about female self-actualisation. One of those is Barbie (Gerwig), starring Margot Robbie and delighting audiences with a weak plot, lots of pink, and liberal feminism.

The other, far superior, but much less child-friendly film is Poor Things, Yorgos Lanthimos’s latest feature film starring Emma Stone, Willem Dafoe, and Mark Ruffalo. It is a triumph, adapted from the novel of the same name by Alasdair Gray and clearly based on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Brought to life with the magnificent cinematography of Robbie Ryan, Poor Things features a very unusual score, slightly confusing setting, and beautiful costume – which has been on exhibit at the Barbican since December.

The plot follows Bella Baxter’s (Emma Stone) journey of self-discovery as she moves out of the home she grew up in to travel the world with the moneyed womaniser Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo). Poor Things deals with major themes: women’s liberation; sex; property and ownership; freedom; God; and the self. Lanthimos’s genius is that he allows you to ruminate on these themes without preaching at you.

Watching Poor Things, the viewer is allowed to escape to a world of fantasy, experiments, and extremes. The setting is very interesting. The action takes place in a fictionalised Victorian Europe, a world of extreme beauty, ugliness, wealth, poverty, colour and darkness.

Furthermore, this is not your average coming-of-age story. Bella Baxter is no ordinary girl, but an experiment created by the mad scientist Dr Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe). She starts the film unable to speak, eat or control her bladder: a toddler in the body of a fully grown woman, totally reliant on her creator.

The home she grows up in, barred from ever going outside, is full of curiosities: animals that have been cut up and sewn on to other animals, looming walls, surreal architecture and more. This is all the work of Godwin Baxter, who Bella refers to as ‘God’ throughout the film.

More than a paternal figure, he is her creator, captor, owner, and mentor. Himself the victim of cruel experimentation, I understand him to be Frankenstein’s Monster, though this is only hinted at in the film.

He came to life in an environment just like Bella’s. Though he does not carry out the cruel and painful experiments he was subject to on Bella, she remains his property, his to experiment on should he choose to.

They have a loving relationship, but Godwin stifles Bella, who struggles with being a captive. In a not-very-subtle, but still clever, move, the first part of the film is shot in a grainy black and white. It isn’t until Bella escapes Godwin that we switch into colour. The film is shot on a variety of innovative lenses, including the black and white 35mm and divulsions into fisheye lenses (thank you Robbie Ryan). This all creates a sense of wonder: the non-traditional cinematography allows us to view the world of Bella Baxter almost with the same awe as Bella views it herself.

As Bella matures rather rapidly, she develops a voice and discovers her own sexuality, which comes to be the major motivation for many of her decisions going forward. Baxter travels from London to Lisbon, then on to Alexandria and finally to Paris, where she ends up desolate and forced to survive by any means.

Godwin Baxter is replaced by Duncan Wedderburn; Bella is transformed from daughter/creation/experiment to the concubine of Duncan Wedderburn. In both cases, she is the property of a man.

While on her travels, she discovers more and more about the world. She makes new friends, who take turns to teach her about the world. She learns about class, sexuality, maternal love and more from a nihilist, a socialist and a brothel owner respectively. This all comes to a head at the end of the film, which comes to a satisfying conclusion after a dramatic climax.

Emma Stone is wonderful, and well deserving of the accolades coming her way this awards season. Other standout performances from Willen Dafoe, Mark Ruffalo and Ramy Youssef, make this film more than worth seeing.

Before you go

If you liked this article, please consider getting involved. Counterfire is a revolutionary socialist organisation working to build the movements of resistance and socialist ideas. Please join us and help make change happen.

Tagged under: