Ideas pertaining to ethical dilemmas and feminism being presented in books, film, and television is nothing new. But what makes them fascinating is the way in which they are presented and the stories that are told to encourage audiences into thinking outside the box. For instance, Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” is a well-known story involving the reanimation of a living being. It ultimately results in the creature’s creator being viewed as the monster for engaging in such unethical experiments and pretending to be “god”. On the side of feminism and referencing a newer film is Greta Gerwig’s 2023 film Barbie. The film depicts a doll’s self-discovery story and an almost “coming-of-age” journey as she progresses further into understanding what it means to be a woman. If you were to combine feminist thinking and the question of ethics, the end result would be Poor Things, the Oscar-nominated film from director Yorgos Lanthimos.
Poor Things is based on the 1992 novel of the same name written by Alasdair Gray, and stars Emma Stone, Willem Dafoe, Mark Ruffalo, and Ramy Youssef. The film tells the story of Bella Baxter, a woman who is reanimated after a tragic incident by an unusual scientist, Godwin Baxter. While Godwin prefers to keep her in his care at all times, Bella cannot be restrained and insists on exploring past the home she’s always known. From there, we are invited to witness Bella’s journey of discovering her humanity, femininity, sexuality, and purpose as she also seeks to satisfy her immense thirst for knowledge and understanding of the world, pushing the boundaries of what’s acceptable and what she chooses to do.
When it comes to a film like Poor Things and the particular story that is told, it can be a successful hit with plenty of praise and excitement to go around as it presents something new. Or alternatively, it can go completely wrong and no one will ever want to reference it in discussion unless the discussion revolves around films that didn’t handle certain topics with any bit of nuance and grace. Thankfully, and after much deliberation, Poor Things turned out to be the former with a few criticisms and questions that may just have to go unanswered. Without a doubt, this film is just one of many ways to depict a woman’s journey in life and is one of many starting points for a conversation regarding feminism. There is no correct way to begin the conversation about these subjects, and perhaps that is a major part of what gives this movie an advantage.
Lanthimos’ decision to navigate the gritty world of a woman’s choice and ability to give and take away consent, or rather lack thereof, is strangely more admirable than questionable. Oftentimes, men who attempt to relay feminist ideas and stories naturally tend to do so from a very male standpoint that doesn’t quite represent certain universal aspects of the experiences of women. Speaking to every woman’s experience entirely is a difficult task on its own when you remember that we are not all one and the same, we are not a monolith the same way men are not. But universal feelings like the conflict between being who we want to be versus being who others want us to be, the struggle of owning our femininity, the decision to choose being nonexistent at some point in our lives, can all be completely ignored. Furthermore, female-centered stories written by men often run the high risk of forgetting the existence of queer women and women of color.
But you might be asking: How does Lanthimos manage to depict a story with such grace and in what ways does he tend to falter, if he does at all? So, let’s break this down. Poor Things is incredibly engaging to the point that even with its runtime, it never feels like it could have ended earlier than it actually did. If we think about the buzz and conversation that has been surrounding the film, it’s really not difficult to understand why that is and why it has sparked so much curiosity from audiences. It approaches the topic of female liberation and bodily autonomy specifically in a way that hasn’t been seen a lot in the media we generally consume.
Much of the feminist media we tend to get is hyper focused on women taking a much more masculine approach to situations, stripping away that which makes us a woman, and taking on this overdone “girl boss” direction. But Poor Things doesn’t do any of those things. Bella is wildly infantilized at first and we see her mind progress from that of a baby to that of a teenage girl, and all the way up until she has mentally grown into a full grown woman. What accelerates her mental growth is the simple act of Bella exploring herself while also being exposed to the world outside where she’s kept. And with that comes the discussion of ethical behavior, societal expectations, and autonomy over one’s life and person. There is a deep exploration of the truth behind Bella and the life she led prior to her reanimation that puts into question whether it is ethical to play god, to take someone whose life is over and allow them a second chance at something new. And without thinking about it, the answer is still “no”.
Lanthimos gives us plenty of time to spend with Bella as she mirrors the way many women can reflect on their journey of self-discovery, whether of the body and mind, or simply of the world that’s out waiting for them to experience and enjoy. And perhaps that is the key component of what can connect women to a film like Poor Things. However, that doesn’t mean that the film is perfect. In fact, I can’t help but wonder how different this film would be had this been written and directed by a woman, or if it had taken into consideration the experiences of non-white or non-cishet women. There is also far more to learn, understand, and experience as a woman than just one’s journey of uncovering our sexuality, and so the hyper focus on just this aspect of Bella can feel either uncomfortable or redundant at times. That’s not to say that it serves no purpose but it certainly does. But it makes you wonder how many times a point can be made before we move onto the next topic.
Visually and technically, Poor Things is gorgeous and stunning. The costuming is elegant as it attempts to capture what audiences would perceive as Victorian era while the set design is magical and enticing. Even though the film takes place in London alongside other landmark European spots, the film is far more colorful than reality as it transports you to a world that feels more like a dream. This is only perfectly paired with Jerskin Fendrix’s score which is childlike and fantastical, further making it feel like we’ve walked into a world unlike our own despite it being exactly like the world we live in.
And if there’s a standout performance that deserves recognition and applause, it’s that of Emma Stone who manages to capture the very youth that is demonstrated through Bella’s character. For a vast majority of the film, it never feels as if we are watching Emma Stone, but rather we are simply watching Bella Baxter on a grand adventure. Stone’s ability to transition her performance gradually over the course of the film is a testament to her talent, leaving no room for surprise that this role is what earned her an Oscar nomination this year. Mark Ruffalo fluidly steps into his role as a womanizer who has no intent of allowing Bella to flourish into the woman who is becoming. Meanwhile, Ramy Youssef is the perfect opposite to Ruffalo whose kindness shines through, making us hope for more of Youssef in film. And finally, Willem Dafoe as Godwin stays consistent in his bizarre choice of roles, maintaining just the right amount of weirdness to remind us who his character is to Bella.
Poor Things is certainly not a film for everyone nor is it for someone who is trying to engulf themselves with film for the first time. The story is complex and riddled with philosophical discussions pertaining to humanity and the female experience which contributes to the allure and intrigue behind this vivid and adventurous film. Much of it is held up by Emma Stone’s spectacular performance and her ability to convey the growth we generally all experience at some point in our lives. However, Poor Things does miss some perspective that is outside the box of what we see on the outside of a character like Bella Baxter. And at times, it can feel too gratuitous to the point where it isn’t really that necessary. But regardless, the film is an excellent work of art and will no doubt be talked about for years to come, whether in controversy or praise.
Poor Things receives 4 out of 5 Samosas.
Poor Things is currently playing in theaters.
Runtime: 2h 21m
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