Young Critics Review: Poor Things
"We are our own means of production!" This is what Bella Baxter (Emma Stone) sharply retorts at her ex-lover chastising her newfound employment at a brothel. When Marx wrote The Communist Manifesto, it is unlikely he was thinking about sex work, let alone women’s liberation. But Bella is no ordinary working girl. Her body is brought back to life in a lab by the emotionally detached and dedicated surgeon, Dr Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe), whom Bella aptly refers to as ‘God’. Raised in a historically ambiguous setting, Bella’s milieu feels simultaneously anarchic and futuristic. Nevertheless, it is still one in which a woman’s fate is largely determined by the men in her life.
We are first introduced to Bella as a fully grown woman with the mental faculties of a child. Peering at her from strange angles through a fisheye lens, we see Bella the way she sees the world: disproportionate and defamiliarized. Her idiosyncratic way of speaking - a combination of God’s highly developed lexicon and her primitive syntax - accompanies her awkward and brusque gait. When she moves across a room, it is as if she were having a seizure in slow motion. She pisses on the floor, spits out food she doesn’t like and forcefully asserts her unrepressed desires. Despite this impetuous and infantile behavior, God’s research assistant, Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef), quickly becomes infatuated with her beauty.
Poor Things begins in black and white but Bella’s first orgasm, or what she proudly exclaims as “Bella discover happy when she want!”, unleashes the rest of the film’s highly saturated and vivid color palette. As spasmodic sounds of climax erupt from her convulsing mouth, the camera zooms into her ecstatic face, signaling the beginning of her emancipation. After this sexual self-discovery, she unabashedly asserts her desires, proposing her and Max “touch each other’s genital pieces”. Upon receiving God’s blessing, they become engaged on the condition that Max live with them in his castle. Max enthusiastically agrees to this arrangement but before their nuptials are consummated, the debaucherous and gallivanting womaniser, Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo), seduces her to embark on a “grand adventure” together.
Abandoning her fiancé and surrogate father in favor of travelling across Europe with her new lover, Bella and Duncan’s sexual romp, replete with what Bella innocently terms “furious jumping”, eventually proves insufficient for her voracious appetite. As her curiosity for the pleasures of life increases, so does her capacity for existential angst, leaving her feeling disheartened by the arbitrary inequality surrounding her. Faced with the world’s contradictions and cruelty, Bella reads books to fill the growing void within her. Much to the chagrin of her insecure lover, who feels threatened by her intellectual pursuits and belittled by her indifferent promiscuity. Ironically, it is Duncan that is cast in a more traditionally feminine light. Ruffalo’s hysterical performance is punctuated with outrageous outbursts, lamenting their tempestuous affair and renouncing his philandering past. Suddenly, he declares he wants Bella to be his wife, which is to say, he wants her to be his private property. Although his misogyny is more overt, it is just another variation of God’s paternalism. Both male figures ultimately want her submission and compliance.
Bella, on the other hand, is incapable of feeling jealousy because she has no sense of possessiveness or ownership. As a result, other people’s expectations of her do not shape her decisions. This is what makes Bella so refreshing - she is impervious to condemnation and shame about her sexuality. Although this is not intentionally political, her self-assuredness is inevitably subversive in a patriarchal climate so intent on constraining her agency. When she gives away all of Duncan’s money to people in poverty, she becomes a sex worker to support them both, which Duncan proclaims is “the worst thing a woman can do”. Despite her unconventional origins as a kind of female Frankenstein, it is only in commodifying her sexuality to become financially independent from him, that she is denounced as a “demon, whore, monster”.
Bella’s labor as a sex worker, like any form of labor under capitalism, can be demeaning and exhausting, but this ultimately never undermines her worth as a person. Being a sex worker is separate from her personhood, which contains multitudes and remains impenetrably complex. Her foray into sex work is neither sex-positive nor sex-negative, but rather sex-neutral. There is a clear division between sex as pleasure and labor, but neither warrant any judgement or moralizing. Bella is a woman who consistently resists being defined by the will of others. However, her efforts to challenge her patriarchal conception by carving her own path end up resembling God’s trajectory. We are left with a scene of Bella studying for a medical exam. In this inversion of the monster trope, the monster becomes the doctor. But should the goal of liberation be to become your oppressor?
Christy Tan writes poems, reviews and essays for various Australian publications. She was a recent alumna of Melbourne International Film Festival’s 2023 Critics Campus and currently lives in Melbourne on unceded Wurundjeri land.