Monday 19 February 2024

Poor Things | review by Stephen Theaker

A woman tries to commit suicide, throwing herself off a bridge. We later find out that she was pregnant, with a husband who would have driven anyone to despair. Her body is recovered by Dr Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe), God for short. While watching, given that Godwin was Mary Shelley's maiden name, I assumed him to be Frankenstein's monster, now a mad scientist himself, but if so or not, he had a father who performed similarly ghastly experiments on him. Now he continues the family tradition, performing ghastly miracles such as binding the head of a pig to the body of a chicken, or reanimating the body of a suicidal woman by using the brain of her unborn baby.

This gives us Bella Baxter, played by Emma Stone, whose performance, from first faltering steps to self-assured woman, is both original and brilliant. After the stick she got for appearing in two (excellent) Woody Allen films, and being unfairly maligned for playing a character of mixed ethnicity in Aloha, no one would have blamed Emma Stone for playing it safe and staying well away from a film where she plays a sexually active woman with (at least at first) a child's brain. Instead, this film stands as a perfect example of star power at its best, her enthusiastic participation, not to mention that of Willem Dafoe and Mark Ruffalo, allowing the film to be made with the budget it needed, without being hopelessly compromised.

Though Bella rather resembles a bride of Frankenstein, she is more of a daughter to Godwin. Like so many parents, he just wants her to marry a nice young doctor, Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef), as long as they live at home with him. Unfortunately, their romance, if that's what anyone would call it, is interrupted by Duncan Wedderburn, a louche solicitor played by Mark Ruffalo, who begins by sexually assaulting Bella in her room and then finds to his surprise that she is perfectly happy to be spirited away to foreign shores by him. It is a great pleasure to watch Bella twist the screws on this scoundrel, treating him as an entirely disposable source of pleasure, just as he has always treated women.

Sophie Walker, former leader of the Women's Equality Party, was baffled that anyone would consider this a feminist film, and it's easy to see her point, given, as she said, the role that exploitation and, later in the film, prostitution plays in Bella's journey. Also, Emma Stone spends an unusual amount of the film completely naked for a mainstream Hollywood actress, even if the sex scenes are far from sexy, and don't flatter the male gaze; they are rather mechanical, Bella working her way through a series of sexual experiences as a process of scientific discovery.

I do think a feminist reading is possible, though, in that Bella gives us a naive view of human relationships. She has not been socialised to take a secondary role to the men she meets, to serve their needs, and she feels no compulsion to put their feelings ahead of their own. She defamiliarises male-female relationships for us. She sees it all as if she were an alien, rather like Scarlett Johansson's character in Under the Skin, new to our ways, and judges them harshly. She calls men out for mistreating her, making sure that if they proceed, they are doing so in full awareness of their exploitative actions, no bad faith allowed.

Though I might defend it in that regard, I'm not an unalloyed fan of the film. While it does explain a few times that, intellectually, she is growing quickly after being reborn, the ickiness of all the men having sex with her never stopped being an issue for me. As a science fiction fan, you often encounter stories with such supposed loopholes in the age of consent, and it's always off-putting if not downright disgusting. Here it clearly serves an important purpose, giving us that naive view mentioned above, but it was still off-putting.

In a funny way, despite all the sex, the film reminded me of the film and television adaptations of A Series of Unfortunate Events, thanks to its storybook styling and a plot that throws its naive protagonist into the hands of one oddball after another. But while I loved the steady eye of the camera in the Netflix version of A Series of Unfortunate Events, I found the way that Poor Things swapped between portrait, wide-angle and fisheye lenses, and vignettes, zooms and regular shots, in the same scenes rather annoying, especially on a second viewing.

But don't get me wrong. Despite those grumbles, I enjoyed it very much. I found it very funny, especially Godwin's astonishing bubble burps, and every actor involved gives an unforgettable performance despite being deep into uncharted territory. The costume, music and hair all match the film's ambition, as do the sets, physical and otherwise: you wouldn't think this film had much in common with The Mandalorian, but the ocean on which Bella's cruise ship travels is a large digital backdrop. The story is fascinating and imaginative and surprising, with serious points to make about women's rights among the humour and horror. Any man should come away from it with much to think about. Stephen Theaker ****

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