Frankenpixie Dream Girl: On Yorgos Lanthimos's "Poor Things"

The director’s latest film is both gorgeous and a hoot, but at times its brain seems scarcely developed enough to fill its head.
Philippa Snow

Poor Things (Yorgos Lanthimos, 2023).

Little from Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla (2023) has haunted me quite so much as a line from the half-dreamy, half-perverse meet-cute between its fourteen-year-old heroine and her future husband, Elvis Presley: “Why,” Elvis says, upon learning that the girl he’s planning to romance is still a child, “you’re just a baby.” Strangely, no romantic prospect who sets eyes on Bella Baxter (Emma Stone), the lovable Frankengirlboss at the center of Yorgos Lanthimos’s new film, Poor Things (2023), thinks to say the same thing, in spite of the fact that she begins the movie spitting out her food and wobbling unsteadily on her feet. 

Physically, Bella is—to deploy a phrase I’m certain many female readers will remember hearing in their teens—mature for her age, thanks to her unusual construction: a professor of surgery named Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe), subtly nicknamed “God,” has sewn her together from the body of an adult female suicide and the brain of that woman’s unborn child, producing a happy, curious baby-woman with a perfect face and body and a total lack of sexual self-consciousness. In having three male characters admit to their desire to fuck Bella more or less immediately, Poor Things makes a bleakly funny, baldly provocative point straight out of the gate: that a girl who is hot, always turned on, and as intellectually developed as a toddler would be very, very popular with men. Or, as one of her suitors puts it, scarcely able to contain his glee: “What a very pretty r—rd!”

So far, so bracingly nasty—if the film’s suggestion that a man might so desire a naïve, easily controlled lover that one with a baby’s brain would be ideal is a grim exaggeration of the truth, well, hyperbole is the stuff of satire, and some men are more satyrical than others. It’s a pity, then, that Lanthimos’s latest begins at a point of such high savagery only to gradually devolve into something more like an X-rated fairy tale. God, a brilliant scientist, is shunned by the establishment for both his unconventional methods and his strange, carved-pumpkin face; he makes Bella as a curiosity, and learns to love her like a daughter. One day, he brings home a gentle protégé named Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef), and the introduction of a man into the pair’s topsy-turvy, surgically enhanced Garden of Eden is enough to induce Bella to a sexual awakening. She discovers masturbation, and in lieu of biting into a forbidden apple, she inserts one from the fruit bowl into a forbidden place, instead. (Poor Things takes a great many liberties with its quasi-Victorian setting but, alas for Bella, not enough to provide her with a more comfortably-shaped fruit.) 

Bewitched by her spontaneity and whimsy, McCandles decides he must marry Bella; the fact that she expresses these qualities by doing things like fingering herself in polite company is an amusing riff on the flogged-to-death archetype of the manic pixie dream girl, whose failure to comply with society’s rules does not exempt her from conforming to the beauty standard. As is typical in cinematic romance, a challenger appears: Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo), a lawyer-cum-Casanova-cum-absolute-moron who, visiting God under the auspices of doing some legal work, meets Bella and immediately senses her untapped potential. When the two run off together to spend day and night doing what Bella describes as “furious jumping,” the film transitions from Goreyesque black and white into glorious Technicolor, and we’re meant to see the shift as being indicative of a transformation in our heroine, who develops like a Polaroid as she is shaken by the act of love. (Enlightenment, as it turns out, is only a cock away.) For all of its Wizard of Oz  (1939) visual flair, this polarity—crepuscular gloom for home and childhood, dazzling luridness for erotic maturity—is an unintentional mirror of the film’s refusal to believe in emotional, perhaps even sexual, shades of gray.  

From here, Poor Things follows an eerily similar trajectory to that of Greta Gerwig’s Barbie (2023), being a kind of bildungsroman about a sheltered, man-made heroine venturing out into the intimidating “real” world and discovering what one does with a vagina, if not necessarily in that order. In Lisbon, she learns about dancing and pastel de nata; on a cruise, she quirkily meets an “interesting older lady” and a noble Black philosopher, and begins thinking about politics and socialism and basic existentialism; docking in Alexandria, she learns that poverty exists and has a fleeting breakdown; in Paris, she needs money after giving hers away, and thus ends up embodying another classic filmic cliché, that of the tart with a heart. This is an odyssey of feminine empowerment written by one man (The Favourite [2018] screenwriter Tony McNamara) and directed by another, both of whom are comfortable enough with the material to be a little horny, but not comfortable enough to make it genuinely thorny. It has relatively little salt hidden beneath its kooky sugar, and nothing about this latest film from the director of such cool, peculiar works as Dogtooth (2009) and The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017) is quite as peculiar as the fact that it’s so thoroughly agreeable, so cute.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer (Yorgos Lanthimos, 2017).

Lanthimos’s earlier movies are at times so full of cruelty, psychosexual and otherwise, that his detractors have accused him of being a hollow imitator of the grand master of sadomodernism, Michael Haneke. (There is a scene in Sacred Deer in which an icy bourgeois mother, played by Nicole Kidman, is faced with the terrible dilemma of deciding whether she, her husband or one of her children should be killed: the casual way that Kidman says “we could always have another baby” in response, as if she were suggesting ordering dessert, has stayed with me since the film was first released, to say nothing of the character’s penchant for pretending she is under general anaesthetic during sex.) That this newest outing can be casually compared to Barbie—an extremely entertaining, feminist film that is nevertheless also a two-hour advertisement for a doll—is a volte-face for the director, as if Gaspar Noé had decided to produce a right-on YA film about a plucky, perky teenage girl. 

Alasdair Gray’s weirder, chewier 1992 novel, on which the film is based, is also a feminist bildungsroman written by a man, but it has its complications and its contradictions, and it has the guts to muddle pain and pleasure far more boldly than in Lanthimos’s adaptation, in a manner that feels truer to their commingling in actual life. Gray’s Bella, who also loves fucking, is a robust woman with a strong Manchester accent; rather than an “interesting older lady,” she meets a male white supremacist on her cruise, and is exposed not merely to philosophy and socialism, but to evil. Although much of the text is presented as a memoir by McCandles, a long middle section consists of Bella’s letters, giving us the opportunity to look inside her head, rather than observing her as a pretty, wacky curiosity. “I am a plain, sensible woman,” she grumbles, in a later section that purports to be her irritable correction of her husband’s version of events, “not the naïve Lucrezia Borgia and La Belle Dame Sans Merci described in the text.” By contrast, the Bella of the movie faces problems like a high-functioning robot, rather than a person with a baby’s brain: curious but unmoved, she seems less as though she has not yet been programmed by society than as though her motherboard is on the fritz. From the off, we know all of her misadventures will eventually come to lose their “mis,” righting themselves into instructive, breezy passages of forward-thinking libertinism, our heroine adapting so smoothly and easily to adversity that it is as if she were never struggling in the first place. 

Part of this feeling of perpetual safety on the audience’s part is down to Emma Stone’s performance, which draws on the actress’s own weapons-grade charisma to produce a character so candy-hearted that her triumph seems assured. Stone is a gifted physical comedian, and her Bambi eyes and slightly gawky body lend themselves to pratfalls and reaction shots. Her most interesting work of late, however, has been in Showtime’s The Curse (2023-2024): as Whitney Siegel, a bohemian gentrifier with a show on HGTV, she is quietly terrifying, flipping her likability like a renovated house until it feels borderline dangerous, like a lure to capture prey. Bella and Whitney are both, in a sense, female monsters—one just happens to have been made in a lab, and the other has been shaped by entitlement and cash. The difference is that in the latter role, Stone is allowed to be repugnant, furious, sometimes cruel. Those enormous eyes are even better at telegraphing ugliness and rage than they are at making her look like a vewy sexy baby in a couture christening gown. Whitney, after all, does not only have an adult woman’s body, but an adult woman’s mind, and the minds of adults are often strange and frightening, full of jagged edges and bizarre compulsions and X-rated fantasies that might not transfer quite as alluringly to the screen. 

The Curse (Nathan Fielder and Benny Safdie, 2023-2024).

Critically speaking, Poor Things has a robust built-in mechanism of self-defense vis-à-vis sex: it is written as if to ensure the presence of the phrase “sex positive” in its reviews, and as such, questioning its giddy depiction of fucking for fun and profit can make one appear conservative or dour—or, worse, like a member of the dreaded anti-horny lobby. After all, as an act, sex is marvelous fun, and Bella has a marvelous time throughout, and the audience is treated to at least two marvelous montages of Stone, a very beautiful and very thin white actress, engaged in some marvelously liberating onscreen fucking in a minimum of three positions. Still, other than a brief scene of lesbian cunnilingus and a shot of Bella in a ball-gag looking terribly bored, all that furious jumping remains staunchly heterosexual and vanilla, and if Bella, with her supposed disdain for other people’s rules and limitations, ever develops a kink herself, we do not see it. (Some four-letter words, it seems, remain beyond the pale, even for Tony McNamara.) By 2024, it also seems to me that we have moved on from the “Women Now Empowered By Everything A Woman Does” school of feminism, and as such there may be room for a more nuanced depiction of both sex and sex work than Poor Things is qualified—or willing—to provide. “I knew [sex work] was as good and as terrible as other, lower-wage work I’d done,” the writer and former adult performer Lorelei Lee wrote in 2019, in a brilliant, even-handed, and instructive essay about sex work and empowerment feminism for n+1. “I knew, too, how quickly people stopped listening when they began to feel pity. So I pretended. I pretended all of it was a kind of adventure.” 

Lanthimos’s movie makes it all seem like a big adventure, too, and one has to wonder whether its reluctance to show Bella truly hurt has something to do with a similar fear of losing our attention. Truthfully, I cannot recall a scene in which I was not technically enjoying myself, even when I had the sense that I was chewing something like a fondant fancy, pastel-bright and full of empty calories. For all of the swearing and the nudity and the clever little quasi-Victorian grotesqueries of its design, there is a strange resistance in Poor Things to the darker side of the erotic, and although violence and sex are ever-present, there is no acknowledgement that the two things ever combine. In the novel, Bella asks her madam what the most “important things are.” “Love and money,” says the madam. “What else is there?” “Cruelty,” Bella answers plainly. Per Gray’s telling, when she leaves the brothel, it is because she refuses an invasive gynecological examination; remembering her time there, she observes that it taught her “how weak and lonely women are used.” 

Like Bella herself, the movie of Poor Things is both gorgeous and a hoot, but at times its brain seems scarcely large enough to fill its Frankenhead, and its ideas about good, evil, sex, and capitalism prove to be about as complex as those one might reasonably expect to hear being espoused by a precocious teenage girl, per Bella’s mental development by the end of the film. Even the genuinely bracing ugliness of its original conceit—that of the dream girl who is also mentally an infant, then a schoolgirl—seems to melt away into acceptance, as if the entire film has lost its nerve. This is, in other words, not a work for freaks, but one for tourists in the world of freakdom, and as such it leaves one wondering whether Yorgos Lanthimos has finally defected from Team Pervert. It is certainly, as Dr. Frankenstein so famously cries out in the 1931 film, alive, but being alive and being adequately thoughtful about the nature of living are two very different things.  

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