Spoilers incoming. Let’s talk about Poor Things.
Engaging with feminist cinema has always been a source of enjoyment and enrichment for me. It involves navigating my personal discomfort, unravelling the layers of women’s narratives and drawing parallels to my own experiences and those of other women which I may not face. I’m drawn to films that present unabashed expressions of women’s experiences: spanning the spectrum from pain, rage, and hurt, to exploitation, harassment, abuse, assault, love, growth, friendship and talent. These narratives, when not created for the purpose of aesthetics or the male gaze, I hope broaden men’s minds, cultivate their empathy, and, in turn, nurture their own understandings of feminism, bit by bit.
Thus, upon hearing about Poor Things showcasing at Hyde Park Picture House, I was intrigued by the promise of a surreal, feminist, dreamlike piece of cinema. Full disclosure: I had absolutely no prior knowledge about the director, screenwriter, or even the involvement of Mark Ruffalo until he graced the screen. I went in completely blind and was completely blown away with its insanity.
Introducing Bella Baxter, played by Emma Stone, who emerges as a late-Victorian scientific creation. Her newborn brain is inserted into her mother’s deceased body, resulting in Bella being, upon our introduction, a toddler within an adult body. She stumbles around clumsily, much like a young child, with a taste for the destruction of ceramics, loud tantrums, and extremely child-like language abilities. Her creator, ‘God’ as she is told to refer to him, (played by Willem Dafoe), enlists Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef) to monitor Bella’s development in both motor ability and language.
A disconcerting aspect surfaces when Max McCandles, the adult man he is, begins to view Bella in a romantic and sexual light, prompting reciprocation from Bella herself. It is crucial to emphasise the incongruity- she remains a toddler in an adult form, which McCandles is keenly aware of. While, of course, appreciating Emma Stone’s splendid adult face and body is surely acceptable, the narrative takes an unsettling turn when ‘God’ and Max Mccandles entertain the notion of marrying the two, establishing a dubious agreement that effectively imprisons her. As an adult woman who will always advocate for the education of enthusiastic consent between adults, I began to feel a little unwell as I realised in this film, Bella Baxter was going to be treated like an adult woman by the men around her.
As the narrative develops, so does Bella’s character, and her growth takes a discomforting turn. It becomes evident I realise, sitting in the cinema, that this film, ostensibly centred around womanhood, of course, is not truly made with women in mind. Bella, in a baffling sequence, masturbates with an apple and experiences an orgasm. Bella masturbates, reaching orgasm, with an apple. While the depiction of masturbation itself isn’t what troubles me, it is the sheer implausibility of an apple, of all things, providing any of the necessary stimulation for female pleasure. The hysterical absurdity of this scene prompts a reflection on male understandings of women’s pleasure and anatomy and how this influences the portrayal of women’s sexuality and anatomy in the media. One can’t help but question whether any effort was made to consult women, or if any consultation was made to verify whether such depictions align with common childhood experiences during the exploration of sexuality? It brings to light the disconnect between male interpretations of womanhood and the lived realities of women. Ultimately, this film, directed and shaped by male perspectives, fails to resonate with true experiences of women. While I’m not in a position to condemn a film simply because it doesn’t align with a perfect feminist vision or cater specifically to my individual life, it’s important to acknowledge its shortcomings. If you are expecting a portrayal of women’s sexual liberation and what this may look like, Poor Things will ultimately fall flat.
The film continues in a similar vein, with Bella curiously absent from any depiction of menstruation or birth control practices. The avoidance of acknowledgement towards fundamental aspects of a woman’s reproductive life leaves me to wonder how much of this immensely graphic demonstration of a child/girl/woman (?!?) encountering pleasure for the first time was just for show, just to draw audiences in, as it fails to have any deeper conversations on what comes with it. Bella navigates intimate encounters without facing the challenges of pregnancy, infection, or miscarriage, seemingly unburdened by the biological complexities that accompany such experience. This is particularly confusing, as it is made clear she had a baby in the past, after all that is the whole premise of the film. She is the baby, so where did this fertility go? The film in this regard presents a perplexing image of a woman engaging in sexual acts with a nonchalant ease, echoing stereotypical portrayals of male sexuality.
What transpires is essentially a woman, whose mental age is that of a child, engaging in transactional sex with grown, disturbingly grotesque men. This film, however, chooses to frame this as a warm-hearted, enlightening, and liberating journey- a purported coming-of-age-masterpiece. The dissonance between this intended empowerment and the unsettling reality on screen prompts an internal questioning of whether I am the one misinterpreting the narrative or if the film itself falls short in its attempt to authentically capture and celebrate women’s experiences. Is this, perhaps, a cinematic venture where my perspective is incompatible with the narrative goals or is the disconnect indicative of a broader ignorance towards women’s sexuality and development in general?
In contemplating my perspective on Poor Things, I am choosing to interpret it through the lens of what seems to be a depiction of men’s often unspoken desires and sexual behaviour. There is a shameless and unapologetic exploration of male lust towards a childlike woman. McCandles exhibits a troubling attraction to Bella before she can even articulate sentences, underscoring a broader issue of the sexualisation of young girls and grooming of children, particularly in light of the emphasis in our society on the concepts of ‘virginity,’ ‘innocence’, ‘purity’, and youthfulness as sexual draws.
Duncan Wedderburn’s desire for Bella takes a turn as she gains independence, forms her own opinions, and becomes less reliant on his influence. Men, in this film, want a child. The pattern of men desiring Bella, who embodies the vulnerability of a child who knows nothing of the world, speaks to me also as the perverse desire for women who are in some way incapacitated or defenceless. See sexual assault rates against women’s bodies in morgues, during periods of vulnerability like sleep or intoxication, and the distressing rates of assault faced by disabled women.
Poor Things fearlessly confronts the uncomfortable reality: the pursuit of control and power by men over women. The film unfolds a stark portrayal where a woman’s agency is repeatedly overridden. Initially, a woman makes the choice to end her own life, only for a man to unilaterally decide to restore it. Once revived, her existence is ‘empirically controlled’. Critical life decisions such as marriage are imposed on her as a child unable to truly consent, and even when she yearns to escape, autonomy remains elusive until a man is willing to accompany her. Her journey back home is further marred by the necessity to fund it through engaging in sex work with men. This unsettling depiction in the form of an infantilised, reanimated corpse acting as some sort of sex-starved nymph figure reliant on men, serves as a stark reflection of taboo desires and power imbalances prevalent in our society.
Therefore, I remain indifferent to whether this interpretation was intentional or not, or if the film was crafted with someone like me in mind. Poor Things is undeniably a captivating cinematic experience that traverses the realms of beauty, charm, disgust, and horror, depending on how you view it. While I wouldn’t advise approaching it as a ‘how-to’ guide for achieving true liberation, given that Bella Baxter is far from liberated, it does offer a whimsical and fantastical exploration of the complexities of life.
For those drawn to the enchanting moments where a woman discovers pleasure and approaches life with childlike wonder, revelling in the exploration of new tastes, the joy of music, the adventure of travel, and the richness of diverse human connections, Poor Things unfolds as a visually stunning portrayal of the beauty inherent in life and the inevitable hardships it entails. However, my enthusiasm is dampened by the fact that this entire narrative is significantly compressed under the lens of the male gaze, leaving me ultimately underwhelmed. The film’s potential to fully embrace the depth and complexity of a woman’s experience of life and pleasure is hindered by this narrow perspective, ultimately leaving me yearning for a more comprehensive exploration of the female story.
Words: Isabelle Parker, she/her