Poor Things (Yorgos Lanthimos, US/UK/Ireland) 

By Deragh Campbell

With her 1818 novel Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus, Mary Shelley not only authored a story that passed into myth, but also invented a new type of monster that exists independent of that story. It is the Monster—and a familiar but shifting set of surrounding circumstances—that has been numerously adapted over several decades, creating wildly varying resemblances between the original text and its propagations. The most absolute tenet of Frankenstein’s Monster is that he is an assemblage of parts of dead bodies that is reanimated into life, though in Shelley’s original text the act is achieved by isolating the moment where decomposing flesh gives nourishment to a seed. When Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein immediately rejects his creation, it is not the revelation of a violent or uncontrollable nature that repels him, but the horror of biological creation itself. As Frankenstein and his Monster seek each other’s destruction “to the ends of the earth,” this ultimately becomes an expedition of the annihilation of the self.

In this way, the premise of Poor Things—both in Alasdair Gray’s novel and the screenplay adapted by Tony McNamara—arrives as a potentially poignant advancement of Frankenstein’s Monster. Bella Baxter (Emma Stone) is created when Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe) recovers the recently dead corpse of a pregnant woman who committed suicide, removes her unborn child, and places its brain in the woman’s skull, reanimating the body to life. The unconsenting mother and aborted child thus become a single identity, one swallowing the other in a kind of self-contained self-obliteration. This narrative conceit satirizes that women in Victorian England (and beyond) were denied access to abortion and bodily autonomy by exceeding it and renews the creation of the monster as a violent transgression. However, Yorgos Lanthimos’ film never quite honours the perversion of its premise. As Bella negotiates her own departure from her creator’s house, her journey becomes the much more saleable enterprise of self-realization and personal liberty rather than a confrontation with her origins, and how the freedom she seeks was violated at its foundation. 

The name “Frankenstein” has a famously flexible usage—it is the name of the Monster’s creator, Dr. Victor Frankenstein, but it’s also been given, whether mistakenly or not, as the name of the Monster. There is a kind of linking of monsters where the creator and creation are embedded together. With lead roles also in The Favourite (2018), his short film Bleat (2022), and his upcoming feature, it might be said that Emma Stone has become Yorgos Lanthimos’ Frankenstein. A perfect actor/monster, with talent and without ideology, Stone gives herself completely to Lanthimos’ world and the character of Bella Baxter (when she reaches for a cucumber to masturbate with, you can hear echoes of her interviews where she said of Lanthimos, “I just trusted him completely”). Emma Stone’s fans enter the film through their investment in her and her immersion becomes their immersion. Unlike the complex self-reflexivity of Harmony Korine’s casting of former Disney Channel stars in Spring Breakers (2012),wherein the actors’ cultural status highlighted the movie as a plane for commercial exchange, in Poor Things the commercialism is subsumed into the fabric of the film.

The intrinsic calculation of Stone’s participation aside, there is a playfulness, a joy of assemblage, in much of the rest of the film’s casting: Ramy Youssef, whose HBO show Ramy is one of the most vital on television; Hanna Schygulla, best known for her Fassbinder collaborations; Willem Dafoe, who can make even the most commercial of enterprises into exercises in radical engagement. And there is maybe an intentional joke in the casting of Margaret Qualley, who recently played fetish objects for Quentin Tarantino and Claire Denis, as a kind of Bella 2.0, whose reanimation seems only partially successful.

There is a meaningful coincidence in the fact that Boris Karloff became a founding member of the Screen Actors Guild following a 25-hour shooting day on James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931)—placing the most famous screen incarnation of the Monster at the forefront of the fight to protect actors’ bodies and images—while Poor Things premiered at Venice this past summer without its cast present, due to the prolongation of the SAG-AFTRA strike over the Frankensteinian issue of AI. One of the deal points the guild won in the final agreement with the studios was that a production must maintain consent and specify the use of a digital replica from an actor (or their estate). But, more interestingly, actors are also entitled to compensation at their usual rate for the number of hours of work that was replaced by the use of a replica. If actors are already increasingly compensated for their accrued market value for their labour, this is a step toward an actor’s image operating totally independently of them, even after death, thus opening up the possibility of infinite profit. 

One of the aspects of the Shelley novel that is extrapolated through many of its cinematic iterations is its positing of wealth begetting bloodlust, the need to exceed what money can buy extending to a desire for intimate acquaintance with violence and death. This is illustrated most nakedly in Paul Morrissey’s Flesh for Frankenstein (1973), wherein Udo Kier’s doctor cum land baron penetrates the incision in his pre-reanimated female creature, saying to his assistant, “To know death, Otto, you have to fuck life in the gallbladder.” But even as Bella acquires more worldly knowledge as she continues on her journey, she remains an innocent, a witness to the ills of the world rather than a perpetrator: after being introduced to the finer things by her bourgeois lover Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo), she is enlightened by a fellow yacht passenger that her comfort is built upon the suffering of others, and her face becomes a mask of anguish. By identifying with the suffering of Bella/Stone, the audience is granted a feeling of distanced pity for the oppressed—a distance Poor Things isn’t interested in collapsing. 

Lanthimos made a kind of Frankenstein film before with Dogtooth (2009), which now feels almost like a stenciled blueprint for Poor Things in its tale of a group of siblings are confined to their family home and led to believe in a world their father has defined for them, entrapped by a set of diegetic rules and the director’s authoritarian concept both. The satirical fissure in this structure comes when the oldest sister obtains a videotape of Rocky IV (1985), and, by emulating the American hero, is able to break free of this oppressive system (even though, like Rocky, she doesn’t really win: after bludgeoning herself in the face, she stows away in her father’s car trunk, and, having achieved freedom, presumably dies from a lack of oxygen). But neither Stone’s Bella nor Lanthimos himself break out of the world the director has created in Poor Things; they’re too comfortable there. After Bella confronts Dr. Baxter about her origins, she chastises him for his lies and he dies in her forgiving arms—a sentimental twist on Shelley that absolves “God” of his sins. Bella and her group of “misfits” inherit his estate and live there in a social utopia (one that oddly resembles the benign plastic universe of Barbie), undisturbed by the violence that brought them there. In the final shots, they’re shown toasting their own good fortune—an invitation to the audience to do the same. 

dcampbell@cinema-scope.com Campbell Deragh