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Film Review: Poor Things

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TW: CSA, suicide

This review contains spoilers. It is also scathing. If Poor Things is one of your all-time favorites, if it touches some deep and important chord for you, if you cannot handle very, very harsh criticism of this movie, DO NOT CONTINUE PAST THIS POINT.

While convalescing from surgery, I decided to check out a film that has been highly recommended to me, for reasons that, in hindsight, remain fucking unknown and have caused me to look inward to question deeply what it is about me that would make someone think I would enjoy this movie. I hope to correct it.

I’m talking about Yorgos Lanthimos’s borderline-pedophilic horror show of female exploitation, Poor Things. The best I can say about this film is that if you’ve ever wondered what it would have been like if Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro made a movie about a masturbating Frankenstein, congratulations, you’ve got your answer.

I’ve read review after review praising the uniqueness of Poor Things’s design; it isn’t. Jeunet and Caro were employing the same atmospheric scores, haunting steampunk visuals, and dizzying camera work three decades ago. Emma Stone won the Academy Award for her tour-de-force performance; where was it? In the awkward walk and jerky movements? In the stiff, generic, pseudo-Shakespearean accent left over from The Favourite?

There’s a lot about Poor Things that I can unfavorably compare to The Favourite. The male-gaze focused obsession with the sexual lives of women. The pleasure both stories seem to take in showing us women with neurodiverse brains operating in exigent situations and passing off their exploitation as a charming amusement. The way the screenplays and direction make grotesqueries of those women, as if they’re being punished for daring to exist on the screen.

The character of Bella is a Frankenstein’s monster-style resurrection piece, with a disgusting twist. The film opens with a suicide, a woman plunging into a river. The woman, we later learn, is pregnant and taking her own life and the life of her unborn child to escape her violent and sadistic husband. A mad scientist, Godwin, played by Willam Defoe, gleefully recovers the still beautiful corpse for his experiments. In the ultimate denial of reproductive freedom and bodily autonomy, Bella’s mother isn’t allowed to choose to end her own life and rid herself of her pregnancy. Godwin steps in to violate her one last time, removing her brain and replacing it with that of her fetus’s.

Godwin himself has never known bodily autonomy, having been cruelly experimented on by his father. He raises Bella like a daughter as he observes her progress and shields her from the world and its dangers. Those dangers include the lecherous lawyer, Duncan Wedderburn, who lures Bella away from an arranged engagement and into a grand tour of steampunk Europe in search of all the pleasures she’s been denied. The sex! The food! The sex! The wine! The sex! More sex!

While the movie is allegedly about Bella’s journey through the world, learning, as she puts it, “parts of myself that are hitherto unknown,” the bulk of these hitherto unknown parts are located between her thighs. At the beginning of the movie, she isn’t toilet trained and speaks only in baby babble, but delights in playing with the flaccid penis of a corpse. She throws a violent tantrum at being denied ice cream, and kills a frog with no understanding of her actions, minutes before we see frequent scenes of her innocent masturbation, including inserting a cucumber into her vagina at the breakfast table.

Once she takes up with Mark Ruffalo’s villainous Wedderburn, there are endless, graphic scenes of intercourse, which Bella describes in her limited language. There is no sex, only “furious jumping.” There is no cunnilingus, just a “tongue trick.” When Bella does finally begin to use correct anatomical and sexual terms, it’s done for shock value, to emphasize that she doesn’t understand shame and unreservedly enjoys sexual pleasure. You know, just in case you were feeling weird about watching a child engage in sex acts.

The middle of the movie drags as Bella works in a brothel, for seemingly no other narrative reason than to show her in a variety of sexual situations, shot entirely in the male gaze. Man after man with bodies undesirable by Hollywood standards (too fat, too thin, too old, with a prosthetic hand) pump away interminable minutes without advancing the story, all so we can see Stone’s breasts bouncing in a variety of positions. In one particularly disgusting scene, Bella has sex with a man in front of his young sons in an educational lesson the viewer is apparently supposed to find charming and funny. The gag, you see, is that Bella is so childlike, she can’t possibly know that she’s engaging in child abuse.

If Bella is so childlike that she can’t understand that what she’s done is wrong, then she is too childlike for us to view her in explicit scenes of intercourse.

After spending the whole of the movie passed from man to man to man (and in a minutes-brief relationship with a woman, which also gets an explicit scene), Bella finally realizes her autonomy when her sexuality is endangered. Returned to the abusive husband that caused her mother to commit suicide, he threatens her with genital mutilation. She agrees with him that her sexuality is distracting her, but ultimately decides to shoot him and replace his brain with a goat’s. Free from the dominating male influences in her life, she sets out on the empowering path of… modeling herself after the man who violated her brain and the corpse of her pregnant mother. A man she has referred to as “God” throughout the film.

I cannot stress enough: this is a story about a literal infant’s brain inside the body of an adult woman. Bella isn’t childlike. It isn’t a case of an adult so sheltered that she has remained naive, but now she’s coming out of her shell. This isn’t about a disabled woman who has had her right to consent restricted and who is finally finding freedom. She isn’t childlike, she is a child. Yet, she sexually propositions men and women. She craves and enjoys sexual attention, and the audience is meant to accept that it’s simply the puritanical hang ups of polite society standing in the way of Bella attaining this thing she voraciously wants. It was impossible to watch this movie and not think of the millions of children failed by the courts when grown men have insisted that a child “came onto” them, or that they were tempted by allegedly sexually provocative acts. Bella’s inability to accurately describe these acts imitates the vague language used by abusers. The whole thing is like a propaganda film for the pedophiles who argue for the “sexual freedom” of children online.

There are a handful of moments in the movie that aren’t explicitly about Bella’s sexual journey. Upon her first encounter with violence, she throws up. Then, she returns to Wedderburn to sexually proposition him. When she learns about poverty, she hands over huge sums of money to two sailors, believing them when they promise to distribute it to the less fortunate. This causes her and Wedderburn to be kicked off the ship, leading to Bella’s employment in the brothel. Every non-sexual scene of philosophy about the world and its evils and delights is just a transition between explicit depictions and conversations about sex. It doesn’t really matter what Bella learns about the world when the majority of the film is dedicated to insisting that a child would absolutely be sexually promiscuous in a free-thinking society.

If you’d like to watch a Frankenstein fuck, I suggest renting Frankenhooker. It doesn’t try to hide what it’s truly about, and everyone involved is over the age of consent, in body parts and brains.

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13 Comments

  1. Thalassa
    Thalassa

    Erm … ewww.
    This sounds very terrible and something I’d definitely not enjoy.
    Thanks for the warning.

    April 8, 2024
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  2. Carol
    Carol

    There is nothing in this film that makes me want to watch it. There is an activist lawyer in the UK who was appalled by it. What was horrifying was the pushback she got for her opinion and the people who really, really loved it!

    April 9, 2024
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  3. Leslie
    Leslie

    Thank you for the review, including the up front warning. I have no aversion to reading takedowns of things I like so I was still eager to read this.

    I can fully understand why this film would elicit a strong negative response from someone so I am not here to invalidate your interpretation. I am however someone who did enjoy and find value in it.

    I felt uncomfortable initially as the stage was set for Bella to become sexualized by men, and then the film pulled the rug out from under me and took an unexpected turn. I think I essentially read it all as allegory and in so doing did not feel the same way about the literalness of what was happening.

    Part of this was due to the fact that she matures mentally fairly quickly and as she does so, doesn’t exhibit signs of sexual trauma. I recognize that this is a perfect example of where criticism could be placed, but I thought instead that it was deployed to subvert all expectations about female agency, sexual appetite and morals. Normally it is men who are supposed to impose all these characteristics on women and it is women’s duty to conform to the thought patterns taught to us — you should be pursued not be the pursuer, you should be beautiful but not know it, you should feel ashamed of sex except with the one man who is your care taker, etc etc. basically all the 50 shades bullshit that was sadly drunk up by a dispiriting percentage of our population. Bella’’s lack of guilt or need to minister to the male ego created a divide between the men who could handle it and those who couldn’t. It became their problem to deal with instead of hers.

    One reason I could easily read this as allegory is that she would likely have to deal with the male ego much more than she did were this not occurring in a fantastical, almost storybook, world, where single brief conversations can encapsulate entire areas of human experience (Le Petit Prince like). No character is entirely realistic due to the storytelling style. Rather, each character has a specific role to play in building the satire. Everyone is a “type”.

    I think the fanciful production design emphasized this angle for me. I also thought that it did matter that she was physically mature and therefore had sexual desires, while at the same time a child mentally — which definitely led to strong initial discomfort for me! But ultimately it served as a sort of “what if?” mental exercise What started as “ew, she’s a child who happens to be in a woman’s body” shifted to “ah, she’s a woman with one part of her physiology temporarily stunted such that all of this thought experiment becomes possible.” And given her rapid mental evolution, this became my dominant takeaway.

    I felt it all was used to challenge a lot of deeply felt societal male entitlement – a sort of bait and switch. She was the dream woman to the type of man Mark Ruffalo portrayed (and to many men) – she’s sexy and beautiful but with the mind of a child. As she progressed, he went through many phases of disillusionment and was exposed as a complete weakling and self pitying victim. It is this sort of theme where I think the movie succeeded.

    I did read a quote somewhere that the director actually said something along the lines of, “if you experience this story literally, it doesn’t really work.” For whatever that’s worth.

    I’m linking a couple reviews that I think say better some of the things I’m trying to articulate here. The first is far from glowing, but rather critiques aspects of the film that did not rise to the level they could have, while generally not having a major issue with the premise. My experience is close-ish to this reviewer’s insofar that I didn’t think it was perfect in how it handled all the themes it introduced, but I feel it was a good movie. The second is from a college newspaper and despite a couple clues that the writer is a bit inexperienced, does a nice job of laying out the ways in which this film could be seen as successful.

    None of this is meant to criticize your interpretation or necessarily even change your mind. You had the experience you had and that is authentic. But it sounds like you’re really troubled by this film — like 50 shades troubled — and I’m hoping these reads will make you feel a tiny bit less that way. I know the pain of watching absolute garbage misogynistic “art” get lauded, and, at those times, I feel like I’m taking crazy pills.

    At the very least, I think they had a clear point of view and intentions, rather than the usual oblivious regurgitation of harmful themes. I get that it totally failed for you though and appreciate your views. I have always loved this blog and I think you make the world a better place by putting your honest thoughts out there, always intelligent and articulate, usually funny, occasionally a bit devastating— that’s good art in my opinion. Thanks for all you do

    https://www.theringer.com/platform/amp/movies/2023/12/7/23991965/poor-things-movie-review-emma-stone

    https://berkeleybeacon.com/poor-things-nature-v-nurture-rendered-through-sex-surrealism-and-sci-fi/

    April 9, 2024
    |Reply
    • Jon
      Jon

      I also appreciate this ‘defense’. It is probably the most coherent I have read so far. I have found much of the director’s other work to be bamboozling and expect that if I ever watch this it will be no exception. However, I think I should read the book first.

      I think when it comes to the ‘it shouldn’t be understood literally argument’ that there are some contexts where it is true, some where it is problematic and some where it is used to excuse terrible things.

      April 14, 2024
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    • AltoFronto
      AltoFronto

      Excellent, I’m glad at least some of this came through in the film version, as someone who thoroughly enjoyed the thought-provoking “what ifs” raised by the book – and the subversion of all expectations about female agency, sexual appetite and morals.

      And you’re absolutely right about Wedders. Ironically, he gets *exactly* the woman that he wants in Bella – one with a voracious sexual appetite who won’t mind his gambling, and in the end, he unravels himself by trying to constantly maintain the upper hand over her and ‘tire her out’. He can’t cope with her, because he can’t accept her on her own terms as his equal, or ever be grateful and satisfied with what he has.
      He himself is in a permanent state of immaturity, and she eventually outgrows him, leaving him half-mad with outrage and self-delusion, and refusing to take any personal responsibility.
      Oddly, in his letter, he makes a passing reference to a sexual experience with a servant when he was a very young child – and his subsequent struggles to accept his sexual interests. Bella doesn’t impute any meaning onto her sexual interest in men (and women), she just enjoys it for its own sake. She never has her sense of identity corrupted by the judgement of others.

      This book is so much about Ego development as it is about feminism, unreliable narratives, historical ways of justifying social evils, “The Way Things Are”, medical ethics, the meaning and role of sex, sexuality and marriage, and the impossibility of truly understanding the mind of another.

      May 20, 2024
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  4. Jon
    Jon

    I have read multiple reviews from different perspectives and with different conclusions but remained uncomfortable that I had so far seen few or none that had discussed this film as the ultimate in ‘born sexy yesterday’ and its implications. I appreciate the thorough evisceration you have done on this account. I may well seek to collect further opinions but this is going to be one of the more prominent in that final collection.

    April 9, 2024
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  5. Stormy
    Stormy

    I’m not a movie person and I rarely see them (because the nearest movie theater is a day trip for me) and was only vaguely aware of Poor Things. Then Oscar season came around and it got a bunch of nods and I thought “Really? That?”

    Now that I know what the movie is about, I continue to think “Really? That?”

    Imagine having all of human experience to portray through Bella’s eyes and focusing that hard on sex.

    April 10, 2024
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  6. Eclairmaiden
    Eclairmaiden

    A few years ago I watched a movie called In Fabric, and I’ve since believed there could be no movie that’s more disgusting (sexually or otherwise) than that.

    Now I know there’s something even worse out there.

    Thanks for the warning.

    April 10, 2024
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    • Tez Miller
      Tez Miller

      At least “In Fabric” was marketed as horror (according to Wikipedia). I’ve only seen “Poor Things” marketed as “Oscar nominee”, which gives prospective viewers no genre info.

      April 11, 2024
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  7. Magician's Friend
    Magician's Friend

    This is the first time I haven’t been able to get through a piece you wrote. Usually the power and wit of your writing carries me through the dreck you’re recapping, but the descriptions of this movie’s “plot” sickened me so fast I bailed.

    Ugh and ugh and again ugh. Hope watching this putrid piece of pusillanimous poo didn’t set your recovery back.

    April 11, 2024
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  8. S.Kat
    S.Kat

    I tried watching it and stopped after, I don’t know anymore, 25 minutes?
    I saw patterns I had seen before in “liberating” feministic media and I just knew that this was a road I werent willing to walk on.

    I have also seen the favourite (fully), but I found it lacking. This mans movies just dont agree with me.

    I can see the appeal when critics talk about the movies and I have read some interesting reviews to poor things, which made me question my own impressions, but nothing can make me touch this movie again. And if there are good intentions in this work like some people claim, then I hope the audience takes them to heart. But honestly I do see it do more damage than good.

    April 13, 2024
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  9. Victoria
    Victoria

    I’m so glad you wrote this. I had read a couple of glowing reviews in the Guardian and it was on my must-watch list. I mentioned this to a friend at a dinner party (with whom I normally swap recommendations for books and films) a couple of weeks ago and she said that the dinner party wasn’t the place to talk about it, but she didn’t think I’d like it.

    And now I can see why. No longer on my list.

    April 16, 2024
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  10. AltoFronto
    AltoFronto

    This is upsetting to read, since I missed the film when it was in cinemas and really enjoyed the audiobook.
    The thing about the difficult themes as you describe them in the movie is that this is *not* how they are portrayed in the book.

    The book has a frame narrative – it’s set up as a piece of immersive fiction, an account written by McCandless, about his friendship with Godwin and meeting his eventual wife, Bella – in a single volume discovered amongst lawyers’ papers after the death of all the characters. It’s prefaced by the speculations of a historian, and followed up by a letter in which the (adult, practicing doctor, and medical reformer) Bella dismisses her husband’s writing as a particularly shit Victorian Gothic Pastiche, and accuses him of having been jealous of both her and Godwin. She refutes his account and gives a very ordinary narrative of her life.

    The key thing I took away from the book Poor Things, by Alisdair Gray, is that it’s about Myth-making. The book itself takes on a mythic quality by having been found in such mysterious circumstances. McCandless describes both Godwin and Bella as being monstrous and fantastical. Bella’s letters to ‘God’ describing her naive but essentially warm-hearted view of her adventures, Duncan Wedderburn’s letters to Godwin, describing Bella as a whore and a demon, and all the other accounts of Bella given by her father, first husband, and others… are all filtered through McCandless, who is proven to be an unreliable narrator.
    It becomes about the different identities, motives & delusions that all the characters project onto each other, especially Bella.
    She comes across as naive, childlike, wise, perceptive, but never, ever, a victim while she is a developing brain in an adult’s body – it was only as a fully grown woman under an abusive husband that she was made to hate her own sexual desires so badly that she sought to undergo a clitoridectomy.
    The child Bella *knows herself*, is completely free from shame, un-tainted by the various twisted Victorian moral attitudes espoused by the various men she meets along her travels (such as Malthusianism)…

    It’s a weird thing to describe, but by having a character who is so completely guileless, she is a perfect foil to exposes the self-deceptions and arrogant paternalism of all the other characters, and acts as a really incisive lens through which to view the prevailing social attitudes of the Victorian era. But it turns out even she is as much a figment of McCandless’ ego as anything else.

    It’s a book about not taking accounts at face value.

    It sounds like the people who turned the book into the film have essentially done the *exact* thing to Bella that the book never explicitly condemns, but consistently undermines: Trying to control the mind and will of a human woman through confected narratives that project various motives onto her behaviour – this time, through applying the modern lens of titillating ‘underage’ porn, I’m guessing.
    I think this is pretty much the same thing that has happened with the popular understanding of Nabakov’s ‘Lolita’ – anyone who buys into the unreliable narrator’s account of her sexuality completely misses the point and fails to see the girl as she truly is.

    It’s hard to describe, but I actually identify really strongly with the Bella Baxter as written in her letters to God – she’s just a human free of Earthly context, existing in the world to enjoy the sensual pleasures life has to offer, and not to be constrained by various moral distortions – when viewed through a spiritual lens, she actually represents a kind of Blake-ian Romantic Idyll that we all should aspire to.

    I promise, that is not any kind of apologia for the act of child abuse, which is a form of exploitation and control – In the book, it is very clear that Bella is incapable of being exploited, by the way she blithely handles “Wedders” and every other situation she encounters, and then in the subsequent letter, that the ‘real’ Bella is actually a little bit selfish and calculating in how she views her relationships to Godwin, Wedderburn and McCandless.

    Please don’t let this author’s work be boiled down to a cheap exploitation film.

    May 20, 2024
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