Poor Things: A Coming-of-Age Science Experiment

by Neil Bui

I could not ask for a more engrossing film than Poor Things to kick off my watch list for 2024. Director Yorgos Lanthimos (Dogtooth, The Lobster) takes his distinctive storytelling abilities and uses it to take audiences to a strange but familiar world that with a story begins in Victorian London but where animals of different species sewn together to form chimeras of sorts walk around without anyone batting an eye.

Everyone’s favorite Green Goblin actor Willem Dafoe plays the disfigured surgeon Godwin Baxter, who is referred to as God for short. His matter-of-fact delivery for the most unsettling lines in the scene had me cracking up even at times when I was the only one laughing. Emma Stone plays his adoptive daughter slash science experiment Bella, who begins with a child-like demeanor despite being a grown woman. As the film’s story progresses, it becomes clear that Bella’s mental capacity is quickly developing, which in a sense frames the film as a journey towards her adulthood with the desire for freedom and autonomy that is common for rebellious teenagers and young adults.

Bella’s sexual exploration is a recurring plot point for the film as she is naturally curious, but without the shame or hesitancy one may have typically developed growing up in society at the time. What results is a sexually liberated Bella who is unapologetic but at the same time not of ill intent either.

Ramy Youssef plays medical student Max McCandles who becomes an assistant to Godwin at the beginning of the film and tasked with observing Bella as well as documenting her development. Max ends up asking for Bella’s hand in marriage, which sets off her adventures around the world as she meets Mark Ruffalo’s character Duncan Wedderburn, a lawyer tasked with drafting a marriage agreement that is in line with Godwin’s expectations and demands.

Duncan starts off purely interested in Bella for physical reasons but overtime begins to declare his so called love for her, which she does not respond to, eventually leading him to having a mental breakdown, that also results in a comedic moments such as shouting “do not look at me, demon” when facing Bella towards the end of the film.

By the end of the film, Bella has not completed a journey of exploration and enlightenment, but also learns of her life before living with Godwin, and makes decisions for herself about the direction of her life. Along the way, she discovers philosophy, the horrors of poverty, sex work, socialism, all which help shape her in forming a fully realized human being.

The sexual content of the film does come across as liberating initially but upon reading through reviews of Poor Things on Letterboxd, I began to recognize that when it comes to a truly feminist depiction of sexual liberation, the film does fall short in ways that I would chalk up to a male-driven perspective that could have been better informed.

However, it would be a disservice to Emma Stone’s performance as she not only fully embodied character’s quirks and development from the film’s start to finish, but she masterfully delivers the moments of comedy in such a way it adds to the film without taking away from it.

Poor Things is out now in theaters.

Where to watch Poor Things

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