The great Alasdair Gray novel on which Yorgos Lanthimos’s film Poor Things is based is clearly dated and located: the 1880s, Glasgow. The film is more oblique, offering a guessing game made up of costumes, travel by coach and horse, and a reference to Oscar Wilde. The last item is more informative than it sounds, more attentive to cinema and refraction, and a nice touch on the part of the screenwriter, Tony McNamara. The Importance of Being Earnest was first performed in 1895, but the characters in Poor Things are talking only about a single word in a well-known scene. A lady asks another character in the Wilde play about his family and he says he doesn’t know who he is by birth. ‘I was … well, found … in a handbag.’ The lady repeats part of the answer as a bewildered question (‘a handbag?’) that became independently famous because of Edith Evans’s pronunciation of the word – for the first time on stage in 1939, and even more famously in the 1952 film adaptation. An anachronism in Poor Things? No, just a swift reminder that imaginary time and space have their own rules.
These rules are even more transparent in the film’s locations: an unnamed Glasgow, Lisbon, a ship sailing the Mediterranean, Alexandria, Paris. None of them looks like a historical scene, and to say they seem to be movie sets would be not only to state the obvious but to underrate the lavishness of their effect. They are somewhere and nowhere, just as the chief characters in the film are someone and no one, haunted either by who they were or what they may be one day: human, for example. The fauna of the film complete this impression: a dog with a swan’s head and neck, a pig with a chicken’s body. There is also an automobile with a horse’s head. These creations are the results of experiments conducted by the film’s mad doctor, Godwin Baxter (played with a very plausible Scottish accent by Willem Dafoe).
But ‘mad doctor’ is not quite right: Baxter isn’t mad so much as just Gothic. His face has rectangular stitches clumsily sewn across it, as if in some sort of surgical jigsaw, and it’s entertaining to read about Dafoe laboriously putting on and taking off this make-up each day on set. The character is funny as well as mildly scary. When one of his students (Max McCandles, played by Ramy Youssef) says he believes in God, Baxter asks: ‘Is that me or the deity?’ Bella, Baxter’s patient and protégée (Emma Stone), calls him God but thinks this syllable is just part of his first name, nothing else.
The whole movie, in its way, is about what Bella thinks, or learns to think. She starts off in a bad place. She doesn’t know many words and expresses herself by smashing crockery and thumping on a piano. In the course of the film she comes to speak eloquently and clearly, but nowhere near correctly. She understands words like ‘empirical’ while remaining baffled by simpler terms. She refers to sex – which she enjoys with anyone willing – as ‘furious jumping’, and never understands that one is not supposed to talk about this kind of thing in polite society, and still less to comment on the taste of the last penis she licked.
Is Bella an unruly kind of feminist? Yes, in a way, but before we make this claim we need to understand what else she is – principally an uninformed child in an adult body. This is not a metaphor. The young woman we saw committing suicide in the opening frames of the film is Bella. She died but was not beyond resurrection once Dr Baxter took up the body. He discovered that Bella was pregnant and decided to go beyond ordinary rescue of one or the other of the two figures. He brought Bella back to life and replaced her brain with that of the child. Hence the broken crockery and the slow, awkward march towards language. Hence too the resemblance to the story of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Because the film was shot in Hungary, the cast and crew apparently spent a lot of time talking about Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), not the same story but not unrelated, and certainly timely in its fictional origin of 1897.
Baxter sees that Bella’s relative innocence (as well as her enjoyment of sex) makes her vulnerable, and asks Max to marry her and accept the idea of their staying close to her creator. Max, very taken with her, cautiously agrees, but the plan is wrecked by Bella’s curiosity, and her inability to see a problem in her running off with another man and coming back later to Max. The other man is a Don Juan called Duncan Wedderburn, a lawyer played with endless flourish by Mark Ruffalo. He takes her to Lisbon, her social life begins, and we hear about the handbag. She has learned a lot, philosophically if not about manners, and is now a passionate believer in human progress. She is still too wild for Wedderburn, who thought he was the wild one, and she drives him crazy, especially when she gives all his money to the poor. Or thinks she has. She handed it over to two ship’s officers so that they could give it to the needy. Human progress has either got beyond this sort of gesture or not arrived there yet.
The ship sequence is a little slow and wandering, but the next section, set in Paris, is sharp and dark and funny. Kicked off the boat in Marseille because they had no money, Bella and Wedderburn manage to get to Paris, where Bella discovers the joys of prostitution but also realises, for the first time, that sex is not always fun. The brothel where she works is run by the incomparable Kathryn Hunter, who played all three witches in Joel Coen’s Macbeth, and who here looks like some sort of elf in Tolkien who has decided to change their line of business. She and Bella and Bella’s friend Toinette (Suzy Bemba) all see themselves as devoted to freedom for women, if only because of their close knowledge of the vanity and deficiencies of men. A later line in the movie catches this situation well. A man says he wants to be master of his own ship, and an enemy says he doesn’t even know how to pronounce the last word.
The ending has some fine surprises that twist the film’s earlier riddles into even stranger shapes. I can say something about the narrative setting without giving too much away. Bella is recalled from Paris by news of Baxter’s terminal illness. She and Max take up the project of marriage again: he is ready to forgive her recent career; she is ready to settle down. They get as far as a church and a priest, Baxter has left his deathbed to give his patient-daughter away, and the ceremony begins. Then they arrive at the bit where the priest asks if anyone knows of an impediment and are interrupted by the impediment himself, a part of the past that Bella does and doesn’t have, namely her husband, the one who drove her previous avatar to suicide. I’ll say only that the disciplined cruelty of this character makes everyone else in the film look like angels, and tests Bella’s philosophy of progress to the extreme. There is also an interesting addition to the local animal life, along the lines of the dog/swan and the pig/chicken.
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