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Poor Things ★★★★

Availability: In theaters nationally; past history suggests streaming availability soon in the lead-up to the March Oscars, probably on Prime Video or AppleTV and eventually on Hulu (purchased by Searchlight Pictures—with Hulu, part of the Disney conglomerate); see JustWatch here for future streaming availability.


The Education of Bella Baxter


When we first encounter Bella (Emma Stone), she’s a young child in a woman’s body: naïve, ignorant, willful, stubborn, lacking in empathy, socially inept—spitting out food she doesn’t like, in public—her speech barely intelligible. As we’ll learn early on, Bella is the creation of Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe), a not-quite-mad late-19th-century scientist and surgeon. Bella’s body is that of Victoria Blessington, who attempted suicide from a London bridge; her brain is that of the fetus Victoria was carrying.


Willem Dafoe is the not-quite-mad-late-19th-century scientist and surgeon.


Given this setup, and the physician’s first name, one might anticipate a film that interrogates the ethics of Godwin’s project while probing the scientific hubris at the heart of it, not unlike the original "Frankenstein" (1931, after the 1818 novel by Mary Shelley), "The Shape of Water" (2017), or "Get Out!", Jordan Peele’s 2017 feature debut. But those issues have little resonance for Director Yorgos Lanthimos in his latest film, which has been nominated for 11 Oscars (including for Best Picture, and for Lanthimos, Stone, and Mark Ruffalo). Godwin matter-of-factly explains what he did, and why, given the circumstances, it was entirely reasonable. In addition, he has a backstory, although it’s insufficient to make one entirely comfortable with his surgical experiments. And that’s that—until, much later, there are two more brain transplants, one of them, at least, beyond ethical and serving as a punch line for what at that point has become, fortunately only in small measure, a story of female revenge.

 

"Poor Things" is not Godwin’s story but Bella’s, as she emerges from her laboratory origins and encounters the efforts of men to control the women in their lives.

 

"Poor Things" is not Godwin’s story but Bella’s, as she emerges from her laboratory origins and encounters a real world of manners, men, sex and sexuality, love, social class and poverty and, above all, the efforts of men to control the women in their lives. In sum, the education of Bella Baxter (named by and for her creator). Having insisted on her autonomy and without opposition from Godwin, Bella runs from his efforts to contain, control—and protect—his creation, heading off with Duncan Wedderburn (Ruffalo), a sexually-driven debauched rake whom Bella, who has recently discovered the pleasures of sex ("furious jumping"), can’t resist.


Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo) is a rake.

He falls hard for Bella (Emma Stone), who has just discovered sex.


It’s in a phantasmagorical Lisbon that Bella, suddenly and miraculously possessed of a clarity of speech and a rational mind that Descartes would admire (a speeded up "My Fair Lady" [1964] comes to mind) learns some of the social virtues as well as the limits and peculiarities of male sexual desire. A comic scene of Wedderburn trying to turn Bella’s impulsive dance moves into something respectable gives visual form to the difficulties of a male controlling this female.

 

Paris finds Bella working as a prostitute, discovering feminism.

 

On a cruise ship with Wedderburn (another effort to confine the intrepid explorer), Bella encounters Martha, a practical older woman who understands that sex isn’t everything ("between the ears" is more important than "between the legs"). Martha (Hanna Schygulla) is one of several characters who offer Bella, who knows nothing beyond Godwin’s house and laboratory, models of how to understand the world and possible ways to live in it. The city of Alexandria is another classroom, this time for a lesson about the poor (and for Bella’s development of empathy). Paris—with Wedderburn now defeated and angry—finds Bella working as a prostitute, discovering feminism (in part through the Madam), and taking a rather undefined lesbian lover (Suzy Bemba), who’s still around in the film’s final scene.





Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo) tries to maneuver Bella's (Emma Stone) outlandish dance moves into something acceptable to high society.








 

Bella’s problem is that she likes and prefers men but can’t find one who suits her and will tolerate her ambitions—for some women, the feminist dilemma.

 

Bella’s difficulties with men (and with the idea of love) are marked at the extremes by her relationships with two of them—Alfie Blessington (Christopher Abbott), her husband in her life as Victoria before the leap from the bridge, and Godwin’s amiable and caring student-assistant, Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef), who is smitten with Bella from the beginning, and whom she (almost) marries. For Alfie, who is cruel, ruthless, and reckless to the point of absurdity, even the transformed Bella is too powerful and too liberated; he sees her sexuality as the core of the problem—and aims to fix it.  He’s one more man who wants to put a woman in her place. At the other end of the spectrum, nice guy Max is too accommodating, too ordinary, and too sexless to fulfill Bella’s needs ("you can put away your tongue"). Bella’s problem is that she likes and prefers men but can’t find one who suits her and will tolerate her ambitions—for some women, the feminist dilemma.






The Madam (Kathryn Hunter as Swiney) in the Paris whorehouse gives Bella a few lessons in handling men's sexual desires and egos.





Liberated-woman-threatens-most-men is hardly a new idea, having been explored in such screen classics as "The Quiet Man" (1952, John Wayne abuses Maureen O’Hara) and "The African Queen" (1951), and the remedy—containment and control—was anticipated by Shakespeare in "The Taming of the Shrew."

 

The first 45 minutes can seem baffling.

 

The feminist thesis of “Poor Things” is straightforward, without subtlety. Yet the principal characters are not what they first seem, and they and the film’s visuals are complex. The first 45 minutes can seem baffling. What makes this film powerful and special are the sumptuous, fantastical settings (all filmed on a Budapest sound stage) that accompany many scenes and every location (fans of Lanthimos’s "The Favourite" [2018] will recognize the unusual lenses and even the waterfowl), and that lend the production the aura of an other-worldly fairy tale; the costuming, especially Bella’s extreme billowy-sleeve dresses, that seem to imagine her as little girl on the one hand, big-shouldered 40’s woman on the other; a remarkable performance by Emma Stone, who is credible as the peculiar-looking petulant child and the thoughtful, attractive adult; and above all, that unshakeable understanding that we’re watching the evolution of a person who is at once mother, and daughter.


 Above, the phantasmagorical Lisbon. The film was shot on a Budapest sound stage.

 

Date: 2023

Director: Yorgos Lanthimos

Starring: Emma Stone, Willem Dafoe, Mark Ruffalo, Ramy Yousef, Hanna Schygulla, Christopher Abbott, Suzy Bemba, Kathryn Hunter

Country: Ireland, United Kingdom (nominated for Best British Film for the BAFTAs), United States

Languages: English, French, Portuguese (no subtitles or translations for French and Portuguese)

Runtime: 141 minutes

Oscar Nominations 2024: 11 (Best Picture, Best Director (Yorgos Lanthimos), Best Actress (Emma Stone), Best Supporting Actor (Mark Ruffalo), Cinematography (Robbie Ryan), Costume Design (Holly Waddington), Film Editing (Yorgos Mavropsaridis), Makeup and Hair Styling (Nadia Stacey, Mark Coulier, Josh Weston), Music (Jerskin Fendrix), Production Design (Production Design: James Price and Shona Heath; Set Decoration: Zsuzsa Mihalek), Adapted Screenplay (Tony McNamara)

Other Awards: 79 wins, including the 2023 Venice Film Festival’s top honor, the Golden Lion, and 358 nominations, including 11 BAFTAs

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