Yorgos Lanthimos’ Poor Things (2023) starts with one vivid, chilling shot of a woman falling off a bridge; presumably death by suicide. Next, the world is black and white and we are introduced to Bella Baxter (played by Emma Stone). Bella begins as a funny and charming infant in the body of an adult woman. She has not yet begun to speak, and relates to her surroundings through sound, touch, and repetitive motion, as children do. We watch as Bella stumbles around her large home with stiff legs and haphazard arms, outstretched, in fruitless attempts at steadying herself. We are in London, in a vaguely steampunk Victorian era, and Bella’s father figure, Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe)—or God, as Bella calls him—is an experimental surgeon; a fact easily gathered by the audience due to the dogs with duck heads, and chickens with pig heads, trotting around the house; unconventional pets, but pets nonetheless.
Godwin employs an admiring medical student, Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef), as an assistant to track Bella’s cognitive growth and development. God tells Max only that Bella had suffered a brain injury that is now repaired. But Max grows curious and pesters God until he is told the truth; a pregnant woman committed suicide, and Godwin found the body, removed the still-living fetus’ brain, and transplanted it into the mother’s head. This is how Bella was born.
Throughout the beginning of the film, Bella grows at a remarkable rate, her vocabulary increases rapidly, her thoughts gain originality, and her curiosity becomes utterly insatiable. She discovers pleasure for the first time, shamelessly, and is scolded on the basis of violating the rules of “polite society,” but she doesn’t seem to internalize any shame. Godwin encourages Max to propose to Bella, since the two seem to have a connection, and he happily obliges. Bella agrees, but she becomes more and more determined to leave the confines of the house, which God won’t allow.
Bella throws fits and tantrums, and finally resolves to run off to Lisbon with a sleazy lawyer, Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo). Whether the black and white is meant to symbolize a pre-independent, pre-adventure, or pre-copulatory world for Bella is unclear, but in Lisbon we get our first shot of color since the original suicide scene. And it’s sex. Leaving Godwin and Max behind, Bella and Duncan encroach on a wild and winding adventure, with lots and lots of sex, emotions, wealth and destitution, and a good amount of arguing.
Poor Things, based on Alasdair Gray’s 1992 novel by the same name, is a cinematic masterpiece, a visually decadent dessert, and a plotline for the ages. The recent film has a full, phenomenal cast, but Emma Stone’s acting takes it over the top. Stone is able to portray an infant, a child, and an adult, as well as almost every emotion one can imagine, and then tops it all off with an immaculate English accent.
Yorgos Lanthimos’ cinematographic choices are, in a way, reminiscent of the 1920 German silent film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. For those who don’t know, Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a heavily stylized horror, expressionist film about deranged hypnotist Dr. Caligari, who commits murders by hypnotizing a somnambulist, Cesare. Much of Caligari is shot with extreme artificial vignettes, giving the illusion that viewers are watching through a circular cutout, or misshapen peephole. Poor Things has a similar effect, as Lanthimos uses a fisheye lens for many scenes which emphasizes the vast, distorted landscapes of the world beyond Godwin Baxter’s walls, with buildings that seem to tilt inwards on viewers, and scenery that goes on forever. Lanthimos also uses the peephole/circular cutout look of Caligari at times, narrowing the view to a central point. This is perhaps a nod to Bella’s inability to see the “whole picture” in every situation. Although in many ways, I found Bella to be much wiser and more perceptive than any other character I’ve seen on screen.
I believe that most children are born with Bella Baxter’s beautiful blend of empathy, curiosity, and selfishness. Selfishness is a necessary ingredient for survival that women are raised to discard. In our society, as young girls grow, the lines between youth and womanhood blur. There is no list or rulebook to tell us what we owe to the world and why we owe it, whether the reason we must be submissive and obedient is due to our age or our sex. We are told to keep the empathy, swap selfishness for politeness, and suppress the curiosity.
Misogyny sneaks in quietly, early on, when children are still young, small, and feeble. But Bella was born into the body of an adult woman. Why should she feel inferior to those around her? She has the same height, strength, ability to learn, and desire to feel as everyone else. She is treated like an adult by those who don’t know her, without coddling or dismissal, and so never has a reason to doubt her own worth or authority. Her confidence and shame-free excitement are infectious to watch.
It is my hope that, no matter where we are in our individual growth and development, we can learn from Bella Baxter, embody some of her values and ways of being, and open our minds to the possibility that her seemingly naive questions are valid and worth asking. I am of the mind that anyone who has managed to hold on to their initial blend of empathy, curiosity, and selfishness, has a lot of wisdom to share.
Poor Things—currently 93% on Rotten Tomatoes. Not yet available to stream, find it at a theater near you!