What if Dr Frankenstein’s creation had been a woman, not a man?
This is the set-up for Yorgos Lanthimos’s much buzzed-about and Oscar-predicted fantasy Poor Things, which stars Emma Stone as the creature and Willem Dafoe as Godwin Baxter, the mad scientist who made her. She calls him ‘God’, he’s called her ‘Bella’. The names are significant: God has created a beauty.
Baxter is a famous anatomist and surgeon who gives demonstrations to medical students when not experimenting with animals to make the weird hybrids that wander in and out of his gothic mansion. It’s at one such demonstration that he recruits an assistant, Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef). He explains to Max that he found Bella’s corpse in the Thames, an apparent suicide. She was pregnant at the time so he took her body home, removed her brain and replaced it with that of her still-living infant. Max’s job is to monitor Bella’s development from the infantile tearaway who pisses herself and plays disgustingly with her food, to the mature woman who can walk and talk properly and has, um, normal sexual appetites.
It’s set in a fantasy version of late 19th century London, a time and place that gave rise to the modern steam punk style, of which Lanthimos and his designers make extravagant use.
That’s the problem with this movie. Style overrides everything. Make that style, grossness and lots of sex.
There is plenty of grossness, as when we see Godwin slicing into flesh and manhandling bodily organs to the accompaniment of horrible gloppy noises. There is gross violence too, such as when Bella grabs a knife and repeatedly stabs a fresh corpse in the eyes, blood splashing everywhere. I had to look away, and when I looked back it was still happening. Yecch. Too much.
There is a surfeit of sex. Bella eventually discovers masturbation and wants to do it all the time. Baxter wants Max to marry Bella, believing this will make her more governable. Max is (inexplicably in my view) kind of in love with Bella and is willing, but she runs off with suave wealthy lawyer Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo) who has got wind of Bella’s beauty and sexual appetite and promises her greater pleasures than the solitary one.
He takes her off to enjoy the high life on board a luxury liner and in a succession of great cities – Lisbon, Alexandria, Paris – all of them hyper-stylised in the same fantastical, colour-saturated way.
He makes good on his promise. Bella develops a major enthusiasm for what she calls ‘furious jumping’ and wonders why people don’t do it all the time.
But the honeymoon doesn’t last, as Bella discovers her inner feminist and social activist. She also develops a tenderness at odds with her earlier gleeful eyeball-stabbing.
Consistency isn’t the movie’s strong suit. Bella initially refers to herself by her own name or just ‘me’, as in ‘Bella want’, or ‘me want’, but not consistently. Sometimes it’s ‘I want’, and then she’ll revert to ‘me want’.
Poor Things has been described as a parable of female empowerment and self-knowledge. It would have us believe that an adult woman who enters the world as a blank slate without having absorbed normal social mores while growing up, would turn into a horny, free spirited sexual adventuress who prefers to take her physical pleasure without emotional attachment. This is presented as a Good Thing, but isn’t it the quality in men that women have most complained about over the millennia?
‘Turning the tables’, said a friend of mine who liked the film. Maybe, but does it ring true?
The movie reeks of post #MeToo casual misandry, and I found it tiresome.
Only the men seem to have failings. The one who created her – Godwin – is impotent and disfigured, thanks to abuse by his own mad scientist father, wouldn’t you know.
The one who loves her respectfully – Max – she rejects because he is ‘boring’.
She ultimately dumps the one who’s good in bed and spends all his money on her because he becomes fond of her and possessive. Are they saying women aren’t by nature sexually jealous, like men, or wouldn’t be unless ‘society’ made them that way?
He – Wedderburn, the Mark Ruffalo character – is also damned because he gets angry with her for giving away all his money to ‘the poor’. I would have been too! These poor suffering starving people include babies and children. Suddenly she feels deep compassion and empathy, whereas only a few scenes earlier she wanted to punch a baby whose crying in a restaurant annoyed her. She only fails because Mark Ruffalo restrains her.
At one stage Bella becomes a prostitute to support herself. This is presented as a cool alternative to financial dependence on a man. Naturally the male customers are either dirty, fat, smelly or brutish. She suggests to the madame it would be better if the women chose the customers rather than the other way round. This is presented as an ‘out-of-the-mouths-of babes’ good idea, but without any follow-up on how this might work in practice. If prostitutes rejected all repulsive men, would there be any paying customers left?
There is one true male baddie – the horrible husband who drove Bella #1 to suicide, and who would destroy her capacity for sexual pleasure by removing her clitoris if he could. He’s a ridiculous, cartoon villain.
Needless to say, all the women are strong and good. The best sex Bella experiences is with a black lesbian. Puh-leese.
My friend who liked Poor Things says I took it too seriously, and that I should have been more attuned to its whimsicality. It is supposedly a comedic fantasy after all. Well, I didn’t get any laughs out of it but some people at my screening did. Whenever Baxter’s weird hybrid animals came into view – a chicken with a pig’s head, a dog with the neck and head of a swan – the audience duly chuckled. Fair enough; these were okay visual gags. Otherwise the laughs came from the gross-out humour of squelchy bloody guts, or from sudden f- and c-bombs dropped at regular intervals for shock value when nothing much else was happening. Cheap laughs.
After the movie I was waiting outside the cinema for my companion when a man who’d watched it alone came out behind me and paused a moment. He was short, white, middle-aged and balding. I bet he hated it, I thought. So I asked him: ‘what did you think?’ ‘I loved it’, he said. ‘I like that kind of fantasy thing’.
Sigh. Maybe it was just me after all.