Gratuitous Grotesqueness in ‘Poor Things’

Yorgos Lanthimos’s new film, Poor Things, has been receiving a lot of attention. Most recently, it won two Golden Globes—Best Motion Picture Musical/Comedy, and the lead, Emma Stone won in the category of Best Actress. It is a radical film aesthetically and formally, but its themes and tropes are long worn out, especially its approach to feminism.

Emma Stone plays Bella Baxter, a British Victorian woman trapped in a child’s brain. She didn’t get to that point by accident—her “father” is Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Defoe), whom she calls “god” most of the time. Dr. Baxter is a version of Dr. Frankenstein, whose blatant disregard for medical ethics have created this strange creature called Bella. It turns out Bella’s body is that of Victoria Blessington, a woman who jumps off a bridge at the beginning of the film. Unhappily, Victoria was pregnant at the time of her death, and since nobody claims her body, Baxter takes it to his surgery, and performs what to him seems to be the most logical thing in the world—taking the brain of Victoria’s unborn baby and putting it in the grown woman’s head.

Bella becomes an experiment that Baxter carefully observes throughout the years. Her body appears to remain the same; she does not age, but her brain is growing and trying to catch up with her body. As expected, life in Baxter’s mansion is strange and most definitely grotesque.

Baxter expects that Bella will remain in the house forever, under his careful observation. But Bella begins to develop curiosity about the outside world. It intensifies when one of Baxter’s medical students, Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef), volunteers to help Baxter with Bella.

Bella is curious about Max but she can only react to him in animalistic ways. Her life changes completely when she decides to leave the Baxter mansion with Baxter’s lawyer, Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo) on a journey of pleasure. Wedderburn does not count on the fact that Bella will crave another level of freedom once she finds herself on a glorious trip around the world with him.

Bella is only driven by pleasure, and that is also the failure of Lanthimos’ film. Although the film utilizes both the theme of a Victorian “Mad Woman in the Attic” and that of a mad scientist obsessed with human reanimation, Lanthimos does not explore either with any depth in Poor Things. Instead of examining questions about what drives Baxter’s madness and what the film may be saying about a woman’s place in 19th century England, the filmends up only hovering above the surface of any deeper meaning.

If Bella is supposed to experience the totality of the human condition once she leaves Baxter’s grotesque mansion, then she barely scratches its surface. Her awakening to the human experience, predictably, begins with sexual pleasure. But rather than taking  a logical path, whereby we might expect that Bella will then discover reason and possibly even, faith, the film swirls around the basest aspects of sex. Her obsession with sex is quite unerotic, and it becomes a series of one mechanical act after another. Lanthimos indulges too much in the novelty of the blend of Victorian sensibilities and post-modern, gratuitous grotesqueness, so the film becomes an occasion for further alienating the audience.

Bella is constantly yearning for freedom, yet she has no concept of what human freedom even means. There are points in the film that seem to point in the direction of a deeper understanding of human nature. On her travels, Bella learns from others that the world has nothing to offer but sorrow. One companion tells her that neither socialism nor capitalism can offer exit out of suffering. This was a perfect opportunity for Bella’s character to observe and think about the complexity of the society, or at least consider something other than base pleasure. But it doesn’t happen.

On another occasion, Bella witnesses the mass death of poor and hungry people. She begins to feel guilty for enjoying life and having plenty of money. This, too, was a marvelous opportunity to witness whether moral obligation will trump sexual pleasure. Yet, Lanthimos does not take up the opportunity to explore these questions or any other very human problems.

If the film’s meaning was meant to present the position that a woman’s awakening is connected with her sexuality and that sexuality is merely sexual pleasure, then it was a success. But that shallow presentation renders Bella an incomplete human being. The film falls short because it goes through the familiar Freudian Rolodex of female psycho-sexual issues that can only be solved by turning to other women (Bella’s pinnacle of sexual pleasure is reached with another woman) or to Marxist expression of politics and economy. To that extent, the film does have some limited value: it can viewed as an illustration of the thought of such thinkers as Jacques Lacan, Wilhelm Reich, and Herbert Marcuse, however neither the film nor these thinkers can provide a full picture of what it means to be a human being.

By the end, Poor Things becomes just another feminist revenge story to which creativity comes to die. Bella is still a commodity, a body and mind without dignity. Her master may not be Baxter anymore, but she has allowed the very patriarchal society she abhors to determine her own path of self-commodification.

What was not explored in the film is the fact that there is no such thing as pure freedom. There will always be a call of moral obligation, and Bella has essentially achieved nothing nor even grappled with that question. Then again, how can we expect her to be fully human when the “god” who created her was an imperfect scientist who had no regard for human dignity because it was not his invention? She was damned from the very beginning.  

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