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The Berkeley Beacon

Emerson College’s only independent, student-run newspaper since 1947

The Berkeley Beacon

Emerson College’s only independent, student-run newspaper since 1947

The Berkeley Beacon

“Poor Things”: Nature v. Nurture rendered through sex, surrealism, and sci-fi

Searchlight Pictures

This article contains spoilers and trigger warnings. 

Graphic sex, mutilation of corpses, attempted clitoridectomy—these are all things you can expect in “Poor Things,” the latest surreal odyssey from Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos. Ironically, it’s also his most wholesome and uplifting film yet. 

Set in a strange and fantastical world of elaborate neon costumes, florid dialogue, and technicolor sunsets, “Poor Things” mixes lush Victorian sensibilities with Frankenstein-esque gothic science fiction. Aided by fantastic production design, innovative directorial flourishes, and career-defining versatile performances from Emma Stone and Mark Ruffalo, the film is utterly transportive and gleefully weird. It will be released widely in the United States on Dec. 22.

“Poor Things” tells the story of Bella Baxter (Emma Stone), a Victorian woman who has been reanimated with the brain of her unborn child by mad scientist Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe) after she committed suicide. With a mature body but the mental facilities and innocence of a child, Bella begins to explore the world in a quest to make it a better place. Soon confronted with sex, capitalism, and the patriarchy, Bella attempts to transcend a society that tries to use her for pleasure and profit. 

Lanthimos and cinematographer Robbie Ryan, who worked together previously on “The Favourite,” team up again to bring the ornately strange world of “Poor Things” to life. In “The Favourite,” they first played around with bold stylistic uses of fish-eye lenses and ostentatious crash zooms. These techniques in many ways broke the immersion of a story meant to be grounded in 18th-century period piece aesthetics. In “Poor Things” however, they commit to this style even further and it pays off, creating film language that becomes as bizarre and surreal as the film itself. 

“Poor Things” doesn’t look like any other movie released this year, nor does it try to behave like one. 

While 2023 has seen a rise in criticism and skepticism toward nudity and sex in movies for being exploitative and unnecessary, “Poor Things” willfully runs as far as possible in the opposite direction. Lanthimos sees many of the Puritan values of the Victorian era echoed in today’s society and this discourse. “Poor Things” becomes his rebellion against them.

Though it boasts some of the frankest depictions of on-screen sex in recent memory, it would be hard for anyone to call “Poor Things” gratuitous. The depictions of sex in the film are decidedly non-erotic and not indulgent.

In the film, sex serves a greater thematic purpose rather than an aesthetic one, and to remove it would be to undo the movie entirely. Having been developed in a lab away from prudish Victorian society, Bella Baxter becomes shameless in her sexuality, and the film manifests this with its similarly unrestrained depictions of it. 

Her discovery of sex is coded as a transcendent and self-actualizing moment as the film’s color palette shifts from a repressive black and white to a colorful rainbow palette after Bella’s first sexual experience. The cumulative effect is overall shocking, but arresting as the bold change in style grabs the audience’s attention and does not let go.

Made from the Frankensteined fragments of two human bodies, it is the acceptance of her body through sex that allows Bella to transcend from an experiment to a full-fledged human being. This is the thing that Frankenstein’s monster, which “Poor Things” is largely satirizing, never did. He looked at himself and saw only the horror. Conversely, Bella manages to find beauty in herself despite the freakishness of her nature. Here, her monster becomes human.

When Bella leaves the lab and begins to explore the real world, she quickly upsets the patriarchal world order as the men around her have never met a woman so comfortable and unfettered in her sexuality. 

Mark Ruffalo in particular occupies this space well in his role as the eccentric, mustachioed, self-proclaimed “sex god” lawyer Duncan Wedderburn. The film sees him playing against type in a gloriously overcommitted performance, and it quickly becomes one of the most entertaining aspects of the film. 

At first, Wedderburn and the others try to exploit Bella for their gain, but they all soon fall in love with her as she becomes the object of their fantasy. In the twisted minds of a perverted society that objectifies and infantilizes women, Bella is the ideal. No other woman is so readily willing to engage in sexual acts, for they, unlike Bella, understand the implications of them better. Likewise, given Bella’s stunted maturation, none seem as easy to control. Or, at least, that’s what these men think at first.

In many ways, “Poor Things” is a critique of the male ego and the cultural sexualization of infantilization in women. Men in the film are enamored with Bella because of her childlike behavior rather than despite it. Wedderburn, for instance, remarks that he misses the baby-like babbling way Bella used to talk as she begins to read and develop a more educated vocabulary.

This echoes the typical sci-fi romance troupe known as “Born Sexy Yesterday,” whereby, in some machination of science fiction, a fully grown woman is imbued with the mind and innocence of a child, allowing men to live out pedophilic power fantasies over women who are not intellectually or experientially their equal. The troupe is also usually an excuse for filmmakers to film these women with the male gaze. 

“Poor Things” is a very effective subversion of this troupe. As Bella experiences more of the world, she becomes intellectually liberated in addition to sexually liberated, maturing so her brain catches up with her body, and neither the characters nor the film are ever successful in exploiting her. 

In the end, “Poor Things” manages to be an uplifting film, as the one thing that Bella doesn’t lose on her journey is her pure heart and desire for self-fulfillment. Even as the world is revealed to her as an ugly place full of inequity and pain, she chooses to have hope and work toward a better future, which is a surprisingly heartening conclusion for a film with so many dark elements.

For that matter, “Poor Things” is the first film from Lanthimos that ends positively and satisfactorily. 

Well, not entirely. 

The film does have a “happy ending,” but it’s a haunting one that leaves the viewer gratified and terrified at the same time. However, those familiar with his work will know it is rare for Lanthimos to end on a note as cheerful even as this. 

The director specializes in modernizing the Greek tragedy and exploring the darker elements of the human psyche, like hubris and cunning. In tragedian fashion, these darker elements usually win the day. There is profound horror and darkness in “Poor Things” as well, but in Bella Baxter, it seems Lanthimos has finally found a protagonist of such moral fiber that she can navigate his bleak worldview and still come out on top.

Like its inspirations, Pygmalion and Frankenstein, “Poor Things” offers commentary on nature versus nurture. Through Bella, a character given a second chance at life, Lanthimos posits that life is what you make of it, and experiences don’t necessarily dictate who you will become. The purity of one’s heart can win out over the bleakness of their circumstances.

Despite being a Frankenstein’s monster of her own, Bella finds fulfillment and purpose in her life through the beauty of sex. Likewise, the film seems to suggest that society, though currently rendered in a similarly brutish and ugly state of poverty and violence, has the power to bring about beauty and fulfillment in the world.

As for the men in the film, their various attempts to control Bella and tie her down to traditional performances of monogamy and fidelity fall flat on their faces. The petty jealousy, ego, and desire for control of these highly educated Victorian elites ultimately reveal them to be the actual children.

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About the Contributor
Bryan Hecht
Bryan Hecht, News Co-Editor
Bryan Hecht (he/him) is a freshman journalism major from Havertown, Pennsylvania. He currently serves as an assistant editor of The Berkeley Beacon News section. Bryan also contributes to WEBN Political Pulse and hopes one day to work in broadcast news media. As a member of the Emerson Cross Country team, Bryan can likely be found on a run around the Boston area when he's not writing for the Beacon.

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