There’s a scene in Poor Things that, for me, serves as a key to unlocking the mystery behind what the film is trying to get at. That is, if it’s trying to get at anything at all.
About halfway through the film, Bella (Emma Stone), who up until this point has been on a luxurious vacation without a single worry in the world beyond how she is going to pleasure herself from one moment to the next, is forced to see that not everyone in the world has it nearly as good as she does. That human suffering exists due to the way society is structured, and, unfortunately, we are somewhat powerless to do anything about it. Bella feels empathy for the people forced to live in abject poverty, but that empathy is limited — her reaction is simply to throw money at the situation and then move forward the best she can. You could argue it’s her naïveté that doesn’t allow her to fully grasp her role and the roles of the people around her in the fates of the lives of the refugees in this scene, but maybe that’s not exactly it.
After all, how should we expect an adult baby whose life has been charmed and imbued with the power and privilege that comes from being “born” into vast generational wealth react to this situation? Of course, Bella’s particular brand of cluelessness is different from what we’d see in real life. After all, she’s the reanimated corpse of a woman who attempted to kill herself with the brain of the baby she was carrying implanted to replace her own. But what we see happen to Bella over the course of Poor Things’ almost two and a half hour runtime points to something very real about our culture. Director Yorgos Lanthimos (The Favourite) and writer Tony McNamara (along with the writer of the novel the screenplay is adapted from, Alasdair Gray) have created a monster in Bella, for sure, but it’s a monster we’re all more familiar with than some might think. And although the male characters in the film believe what makes Bella monstrous is that she’s an adult baby with her childlike wonder fully intact who wants to be free, the real horror of Poor Things is the fact that no matter how hard she tries to buck against the circumstances of her “birth,” she ultimately chooses not to fully break the cycle that made her life possible — even though she knows she could if she wanted to.
A Victorian farce, Poor Things begins from the perspective of Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef), a young medical student (?) who is immediately taken by the knowledge and practice of his strange and unorthodox professor, Dr. Godwin “God” Baxter (Willem Dafoe). God hires Max to help him and his maid, Mrs. Prim (Vicki Pepperdine), take care of Bella as she evolves and, God hopes, matures. At first, Max has no idea that Bella, much like God himself, is an experiment in the capabilities and limitations of the human body. Time moves quickly in Poor Things, so it’s difficult to know exactly how long Max is with Bella and God, but as he continues spending time with them and tracking Bella’s intellectual progress, he witnesses a variety of interesting behaviors from Bella. At first, she can barely speak or take care of herself; she mispronounces words she knows and pees whenever and wherever the sensation comes to her. Headstrong and resolute in her desires from the beginning, she throws tantrums about what she can and can’t do and gets incensed when she doesn’t get her way. Max begins to believe something else is going on with Bella, but it isn’t confirmed to him until God admits the truth of what he’d done.
Despite this and Bella’s behavior, Max is immediately taken with Bella’s beauty, but being the “good guy” he is, he resolves to wait until she is more cognizant of herself and the world around her before he makes a move. When it seems like she’s able to consent, Max asks her to marry him. Even though she agrees, she develops a yearning to escape both God and Max’s control of her destiny. This yearning grows when she discovers masturbation, a moment that helps her realize bodily pleasure is within her power to create and control. The arrival of a smarmy, lascivious lawyer, Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo), who God hired to draw up the contract for Max and Bella’s marriage, provides a way out of God’s mansions for Bella, and she takes it. This leads Bella on a journey of discovery, not necessarily of herself, but of what is possible when you’re free to make decisions about how you’ll spend your day. In Lisbon, Bella and Duncan eat, drink, and fuck their way through the trip. The more Bella is exposed to and engages with these various acts of pleasure, the more defiant she becomes to Duncan’s requests and demands. In an act of desperation, Duncan essentially imprisons her on a cruise through the Mediterranean Sea in the hopes he’ll finally have her under his control, but that backfires, too. On the cruise, she begins reading books, making friends and having lengthy conversations with them, and she learns quickly that pleasure isn’t just confined to what she puts into or on her body.
Duncan begins to drink and gamble heavily while Bella’s enlightenment continues, and their time on the boat culminates in a moment of money mishandling by Bella that gets them kicked off and stuck in Paris with nothing. To make money, Bella begins sex work in a move that seems rather abrupt but actually makes sense as the film moves forward — Bella wants to spend as much time as she can engaging in the activities she actually wants to do and the least time doing work. Sex work is labor, and the film makes that explicit, but in Bella’s case, this labor gives her the ability to work on her own schedule and spend the rest of the time doing whatever the hell she wants. At the brothel, she befriends and hooks up with another sex worker, Toinette (Suzy Bemba), who introduces her to socialist theory and brings her to labor organizing meetings. But just as her life in Paris seems like it’s about to take a radical turn, she’s called back to God’s mansion, her old life, and a series of events ensues that don’t exactly bring her back to where she started but fairly close.
At the end of the film, Bella is much more intelligent, more capable of making rational decisions, and better adjusted to the world she was “born” into. And that’s not a value judgment, just a matter of fact explanation of what’s happening in the film. After God dies, Bella takes it upon herself to continue his practice. She stays with Max, though their relationship isn’t explicitly defined, and she moves Toinette into the mansion with them. Mrs. Prim is still there, but in the final moments of the film, she’s being served a cocktail on a tray, which feels like a nod to the fact that Bella views her as more of an equal than God did when he was alive.
Throughout most of her journey, Bella ignores the confines and expectations of the society around her to indulge in her every whim. She has sex when, where, and with who she wants. She eats and drinks what she wants. She says what she wants. She dances and moves through the world in ways that are not expected or accepted by the “polite society” around her. When she finally does decide to get a job, she picks one that is most explicitly reviled by the people she knows (Duncan serves as the conduit here, trying to shame her and Toinette for being sex workers by using “whores” as an insult). She even begins to study socialist literature and connect with other people who share her beliefs. Before the return to God’s mansion, everything about who Bella has become points towards a new possibility: one in which the privileged child of an aging aristocrat decides to forgo her inheritance and the expectation of who she should be to become a true comrade.
But that doesn’t happen.
Instead, she returns to God’s mansion, takes up his practice, and becomes him (a version of him who is interested in medicine and how it can serve humanity, not just the science and progression of it, but a version of him nonetheless). She spent all that learning what life is really about — yes, life is about the pleasures of our bodies, the pleasures of our minds, the pleasures and struggles of human connection, and the pleasures and struggles of fighting for and standing up for one another — only to come back and assimilate right into the fold of the bourgeoisie society she was trying to escape. There isn’t much difference between who Bella is and who she would’ve been if she never decided to join Duncan on his trip. The only difference now is that she knows better. She knows a different life is possible, a different world is possible, but the trappings of the system get to her, and she fools herself into believing that knowing better is enough, that she can use the enlightenment she gained to help others in a way God was never interested in.
It might not seem like it at first, but it’s such a cynical ending to a film that spends the better part of 90 minutes showing us the radical possibilities that exist within us if we would just forget all the bullshit we’ve been indoctrinated to believe and let ourselves be free for a while. But it makes sense for Lanthimos and McNamara to bring us back to reality. Shortly after Bella witnesses the pain and suffering of the refugees in Alexandria, the character who brought her there in the first place, Harry (Jerrod Carmichael), tells her, “Don’t accept the lie, of religion, socialism, capitalism, we are a fucked species. Know it. Hope is smashable. Realism is not.” Of course, Bella disagrees with him because she believes (and I would argue, she knows) he’s wrong, but it gives way to the inevitability of the rest of the film.
The truth is, there are a lot of people like Bella walking around — people who have the power and ability to blow up our systems and redistribute that power and their wealth — who get a taste of what life could be like if they truly dedicated themselves to changing the structures of our society and then ingratiate themselves to many of those structures when they feel like that battle is just too difficult. Much of the conversation about this film is in relation to Bella’s liberation as a woman in a patriarchal society, and I can see why we’d latch on to that idea. She does seem more liberated than she was in God’s mansion for much of those 90 minutes, but she never really is and, from what I can see, she seemed to understand that. How could she — or anyone — be truly liberated in a society governed through the boundaries placed on us and our potential by racial capitalism? From the very beginning, Bella’s freedom was dependent on her ability to pay for it and to keep paying for it. That other people were financing her freedom for a time doesn’t take that away. In this way, she’s never fully outside of the system, but at least in Paris, she was closer or getting closer to what that could look like for her (and for Toinette). When the possibility of a life of defiance becomes more strenuous for Bella and the comforts of a life of compliance begins to look more attractive to her, she finds small ways to keep some of that defiance with her without ever fully shaking or challenging the confines of the system she was born into.
Harry’s cynicism is reminiscent of the cynicism that runs through a lot of Lanthimos’s work. But Poor Things shows, perhaps a little less clearly and a little more hysterically, that like Harry, this cynicism is likely not an actual characteristic he possesses. Rather, it’s an attempt to wake us up, to clue us into the behaviors and violences we replicate over and over again, even when we think we aren’t. And on that front alone, Poor Things is a success. Bella is a monster, no doubt, but she’s one of the most common ones we know. So common, we almost forget how monstrous they really are.