Poor Things Review: Emma Stone is Raunchy, Wacky and Hilarious

Director Yorgos Lanthimos teams up with Stone to make his best film yet. Poor Things has been nominated in 11 categories at the Oscars.
Poor Things Review: Emma Stone is Raunchy, Wacky and Hilarious
Poor Things Review: Emma Stone is Raunchy, Wacky and Hilarious

Cast: Emma Stone, Mark Ruffalo, Willem Dafoe, Ramy Youssef

Director: Yorgos Lanthimos

Writer: Tony McNamara

Runtime: 2 hours 20 minutes

Available on: Disney+Hotstar

Poor Things is a tweaked Frankenstein film with a feminist agenda, set in the steampunk Victorian era where our heroine, Bella Baxter (Emma Stone), never wears a corset. The film’s costume designer, Holly Waddington, wants you to know that. Emma Stone, who also co-produced it, wants you to know that. Director Yorgos Lanthimos wants you to know that (this is Stone’s and Lanthimos’ second collaboration after The Favourite). The only person who does wear a corset is the deliciously wicked Duncan Wedderburn, played by Mark Ruffalo. They made Ruffalo wear ass pads and thigh pads too, and it made him feel like a rooster.

Emma Stone as Bella Baxter in Poor Things.
Emma Stone as Bella Baxter in Poor Things.

Mary Shelley might have written Frankenstein when she was a teenager, but, regrettably, it has none of the smutty charm of Poor Things, where Bella’s preoccupation is sex “furious jumping”; oral sex “tongue play” and the softest portion of her skin which is near her pubic area. Frankenstein’s monster, who speaks in meticulously stitched sentences, wishes he could match Bella’s torrid rebukes who tells her lover he is “sweary” and “weepy” when they have lost all their fortune, and it is understandable because like a whiny little scoundrel that he is — as utterly iniquitous, and unhelpful as they come — all her lover does is blame, complain and slut shame.

A Special Woman

Based on Alasdair Gray’s Scottish novel, with the screenplay written by Tony McNamara (he also wrote screenplay for The Favourite),  the film pursues a key switch of recounting things from Bella’s perspective, rather than the men who come across her person. It is an obvious bid at a progressive twist. Bella Baxter is an adult woman with the brain of a foetus — her own unborn child. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe) — a surgeon with distorted facial features — found her in an almost-dead state in the river, and simply could not resist the temptation of carrying out an experiment on the pregnant woman who took her own life. There are unresolved daddy issues here, we would learn, when Godwin would casually divulge the callousness with which his father used him as a subject for his experiments to Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef) — our knight in shining armour. Sort of. That sort of sunniness when it comes to men is antithetical to this film’s energy. Delightfully so.

Godwin Baxter put the foetus of an unborn child in an almost-dead woman and named her Bella.
Godwin Baxter put the foetus of an unborn child in an almost-dead woman and named her Bella.

Bella is developing intelligence at a frightening capacity, at least going by the reactions of the men around her, who woefully construe her initial lack of comprehension as the quality they want in an ideal woman. McCandles is comparatively sweeter of the lot. He does want to have sexual relations with her, not immediately, but only after they are wed. That is what happens in “polite society”, and not the self-pleasuring he catches Bella doing with a cucumber at the dining table. Bella is open to his marital advances, but is undeterred in her sexual curiosity. When the lecherous Duncan Wedderburn wants to whisk her away to Lisbon, she decides to pause the nuptials whose clauses are suspiciously similar to “imprisonment”, and leave with Duncan to do some “furious jumping”. 

Not the Average Male Fantasy

What delight it is to see Duncan pout through the trip as he is helpless against Bella’s sexual and intellectual curiosity, who with her pre-adolescent impulse, has a poor grasp on the concept of shame, and the gendered cliches he uses to put her in place. “I have become the very thing I hate, the grasping succubus of a lover,” he says at one point when he is vying for her attention, as her focus is scattered outside of the bedroom, since Duncan is a bit of a pompous, sexist pill. He smuggles her onto a cruise when her innocuous sexual exploration seems to be spilling out-of-bounds for him. This evokes “anger” in Bella, to which our Duncan responds: “It was for love. A romantic jape. Don’t be such a cunt about it.”

Mark Ruffalo as Duncan in Poor Things.
Mark Ruffalo as Duncan in Poor Things.

Stone as Bella is a curious mix of unhinged and controlled. She never lets the infancy of the character become a caricature, nor does she texture her speech with that day-to-day ease of communication when she matures (does anyone in this film other than McCandles do that?), lest we forget that language for Bella is not just a pedestrian quest to do everyday things, but that she is “special”. And not just due to the peculiarity of her situation, but also because we are to believe that there is something innately, individualistically endearing about her. Through the length of the film, Bella’s richer relationships are only with men, and her evolving has to do with responding to their fantasies. The film’s initial concept starts thinning after a certain point.

Big, Baby Steps

It is refreshing to see Bella hop from one destination to another and find herself capable of engaging with sophisticated ideas, and her libidinal needs, but there is something very off about the sex here. There is no period blood in this film. Ever. It is an odd detail to never address, considering a maturity doesn’t come from any number of choiceful words this film uses for physical intimacy. 

There is also the ickiness of the fact that mentally speaking, Bella is…a child. While she is able to challenge to Duncan to the point he doesn’t want to look her in the eye because he dramatically declares her to be a devil, it doesn’t erase the fact that this is a woman who is in the process of learning fifteen words per day, and still expanding her capacity to think. And then there is another rasping flaw: If we are truly to believe that Bella’s curiosity about the world is rapacious, then why does she only turn those ideas inwards? The issue here isn’t that this is narcissistic, but that this can be unimaginative. 

And then there is Paris.

While the issue of sex work has even feminists divided, the film unequivocally presents the narrative of empowerment because Bella is choosing to indulge in the transaction on her own terms. Never mind that this is one of the fewer venues available for her to scrape by after Duncan snatches the money Godwin gave her. It is glaring that the economic context around it — men clearly seem to have purchasing power — is glossed over to prop up Bella’s agency as an individual. You dilute the stakes when you conveniently obliterate material context. 

But I wouldn’t worry about this detail chafing to a disproportionate degree, because even at its weakest, Poor Things is a riot. Bella’s sincerity, contrasted with coded misogyny around her, makes up for a gratifying concoction, and this is arguably Lanthimos’ best film till date.

Related Stories

No stories found.