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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Saturday, April 20, 2024

‘Poor Things’ is beautifully disturbing

The new Yorgos Lanthimos film overemphasizes the obscene.

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Warning: This article contains spoilers for “Poor Things” (2023).

“Poor Things” (2023) has received rave reviews since its initial release at the Venice Film Festival in September 2023. The movie was released in the United States in December, and it aired in the U.K. and Ireland in January 2024. Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, the film aims to shock audiences while simultaneously painting a comedic image of self-discovery.

Set in Victorian London, “Poor Things” tells the story of Bella Baxter (Emma Stone) — formerly known as Victoria Blessington — a young woman who dies by suicide while pregnant with her unborn child. She is found shortly after her death by an unconventional scientist, Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe). Baxter discovers that the deceased is pregnant and decides to take her to his lab. Here, he removes Bella’s brain and replaces it with that of her unborn child, bringing her back to life as an infant in a woman’s body. As a renowned scientist, Baxter spends much of his time instructing students on medical practices. Here, he meets Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef), an eager medical student. Baxter assigns Max the role of Bella’s caretaker. While looking after Bella, Max falls in love and proposes to her with Baxter’s blessing. Bella accepts, but shortly after she meets lawyer Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo), who promises to show her the world. As Bella’s brain is rapidly developing, she is endlessly curious about what lies outside of her home and runs off with Duncan to explore.

Bella travels the world with Duncan, discovering poverty, suffering and philosophy along the way. Upon her discovery of poverty, Bella decides to give all of Duncan’s money away in an effort to help, which results in the two having no money to continue their trip. Bella then takes up work at a brothel in Paris, infuriating Duncan and causing him to spiral into madness. Towards the end of the film, Baxter becomes ill. He asks Max to find Bella and bring her home before he dies. Max does so, and is finally able to follow through with his plan to marry Bella. The wedding is interrupted by a disgraced Duncan and General Alfie Blessington (Christopher Abbott), Bella’s husband from her previous life. Blessington objects to the marriage between Max and Bella and states that he has come to take her home. Having no recollection of her former life, Bella decides to leave Max at the altar and return home with Blessington. She soon discovers that he is a cruel man whose utmost desire is to control her. She is ultimately able to escape Blessington and return to a dying Baxter. “Poor Things” ends with the death of Baxter. A now mature Bella decides to continue his work and live in London with Max and Blessington (now with a goat’s brain).

Though the film is no doubt impressive, there are some major caveats. The film contains several graphic sex scenes — mainly between Bella and Duncan — that do very little to forward the plot. At best, these scenes toe the line between mainstream theater and softcore porn; at worst, they are a crude depiction of what is perhaps a strange societal obsession with the sexuality of young women. Certain aspects of the film seemed Lolita-esque: The main character is a child-like, naive woman navigating a journey of self-discovery. While “Poor Things” differs from “Lolita” in the sense that the lead character is not actually a juvenile female, the dynamics of her relationship with Duncan leave a bit of a sour taste in viewers’ mouths. It is difficult to say exactly what Bella’s mental age is when she runs off with Duncan, but there is no doubt that, mentally, she is not a fully mature adult. Bella continues to struggle with concepts pertaining to morality and societal norms. Her childlike state is conveyed through her use of simple vocabulary and confusing speech patterns.

The 92% rating the film received on Rotten Tomatoes is not without reason: Emma Stone is phenomenal as Bella Baxter, Mark Ruffalo conveys Duncan's heartbreak-fueled descent into madness perfectly, and every supporting role is carefully thought-out. The cinematographic choices are purposeful and beautiful. Lanthimos is obviously a phenomenal filmmaker, but to those familiar with his other works, it comes as no surprise that he would overemphasize the obscene. In his attempt to shock audiences, he places far too much of a focus on Bella’s sexual discovery and immoral sexual behaviors. Ultimately, “Poor Things” would have been a more enjoyable watch if just a bit more of Bella’s self-discovery had been left to the imagination.

Summary Although well-acted, the disturbing sexual components of “Poor Things” make it difficult to enjoy without hesitation.
2.5 Stars