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POOR THINGS: Rebirth Through the Deaths of Shame and Ego

A review of the Yorgos Lanthimos film.

By Jack Anderson KeanePublished 2 months ago 10 min read
Emma Stone as Bella Baxter, and Ramy Youssef as Max McCandles, in "Poor Things".

"We must experience everything. Not just the good, but degradation, horror, sadness. This makes us whole, Bella, makes us people of substance. Not flighty, untouched children. Then we can know the world. And when we know the world, the world is ours."


Poor Things? How's about Swiss Army Woman?

Of course I jest, but only a smidge, because like many Frankenstein-esque tales of dead bodies reanimated and reborn into life anew, this similarly acts as an askew examination of the absurdities, contradictions, injustices, and prejudices of our world, using the perspective of one who is essentially an adult newborn to peer at life without the baggage of ego, or years of social conditioning.

The story of Bella Baxter's sojourn into the wilds of reality - even if it is a reality as heightened and lavishly production-designed as the one in Poor Things - often put me in mind of concepts and philosophies discussed in Thomas Ligotti's The Conspiracy Against The Human Race, which I'm a little over midway through at the time of writing this.

For context: Ligotti's book is a kind of academically thorough treatise regarding the notions of nihilism and pessimism, and how their unmitigated logical conclusions end up pointing to human consciousness and sentience as a terrible mistake, dooming us to lives as uncanny puppets strung along by a biological need to reproduce, even as we doom further generations to the curse of self-awareness that's only brought the human race nothing but misery. (The book explains this all a lot clearer at length, but as you can tell, it's a very cheery tome. 10/10 would NOT recommend if you're in a bad mental health space!) 

This aspect of the book's thematic dissertation is exemplified in the film by Jerrod Carmichael's character, Harry Astley, when he exposes Bella to his nihilistic worldview by introducing her to other people's unbridled suffering in the world, because he wanted to shatter her innocence and break a piece of her soul, so she could feel the heartbreak and disillusionment of his cynical outlook on life, as bred by his experience of it.

But what Emma Stone's initial blank slate of a character in Poor Things put me most in mind of was Ligotti's discussion about human ego, how it informs our conduct of existence, and what happens when one experiences true ego death. To that end, one real life example he brought up was the story of anti-guru, U.G. Krishnamurti.


Upon recovering from his calamity, he had what he once looked for, and in disgust had given up trying to find. U. G. was no longer the person he once was, for now he was someone whose ego had been erased. In this state, he had all the self-awareness of a tree frog. To his good fortune, he had no problem with his new way of functioning. He did not need to accept it, since by his report he had lost all sense of having an ego that needed to accept or reject anything. How could someone who had ceased to participate in the commerce of selves, who had inadvertently forfeited his personhood, believe or not believe in anything so outlandish as enlightenment...[?]

Another salient example was Ligotti's mention of Tem Horwitz, a man who also claimed a temporary ego erasure after a near death experience. Quoth the book:

In the course of describing his transformation following his death as a result of anaphylactic shock in September 1995, [Tem] Horwitz wrote: “There was no vestige of self-importance left. It felt like death had obliterated my ego, the attachments I had, my history, and who I had been. Death had been very democratic. It had eliminated innumerable distinctions. With one bold stroke my past had been erased. I had no identity in death. It didn’t stay erased—some would say that this was the real tragedy—but it was erased for a time. Gone was my personal history with all of its little vanities. The totality of myself was changed. The ‘me’ was much smaller and much more compact than it had been. All that there was, was right in front of me. I felt incredibly light. Personality was a vanity, an elaborate delusion, a ruse.”

Now, where Poor Things and other such Frankensteinian inflected stories technically divert on this idea is that these characters - be they Emma Stone's Bella Baxter, Daniel Radcliffe's Manny in Swiss Army Man, Patty Mullen’s Elizabeth Shelley in Frankenhooker, or Frankenstein's monster, Adam, in any of the countless direct adaptations of Mary Shelley's novel - haven't exactly experienced ego death, because they've been (re)born sans egos to begin with, so there's no ego that had to die in the first place. Well, metaphorically, anyway. But that's these stories' inherent symbolism, intended or otherwise, isn't it? They're characters who died literally, and whom only then become ego-less beings when resurrected, resulting in completely new identities wholly removed from whoever's minds and souls - perhaps inextricably linked? - that their bodies were once puppeteered by.

An interesting analytic diversion. Fodder for some future food for thought.

And now for something completely different:

There's quite a lot of Monty Python influence in Poor Things than I was expecting. There's the similar vein of that absurdist satirical sense of humour, of course, though that would've come with the territory anyway when both Yorgos Lanthimos and Tony McNamara are involved. But then there's also the visual splendour of the design of this world, the larger settings of its universe resembling painted backdrops and models and miniatures photographed with macro lenses, which often looks like if Terry Gilliam's surreal cut-out animations for all things Python were transmogrified into 3D.

As if that wasn't enough, however, Poor Things hammers home its harkening to Python when it includes a scene that's almost a verbatim reimagining of the "Growth and Learning" sex ed sketch from Monty Python's The Meaning of Life! And funnily enough, this is also the very scene that the BBFC asked the filmmakers to alter, in order to pass Poor Things with an 18 certificate (essentially the UK version of America's NC-17, though a lot less restrictive on a film's box office prospects, because unlike some American theatre chains who refuse to show NC-17 films, Britain's movie theatres never turn down 18-rated films, most of which were R-rated in the US beforehand anyway, and... well, it's complicated and unimportant right now, so I'll cease the digression). Everything else about the film, though, in all its grotesque, foul-mouthed, sex-crazed glory, remains intact.

Speaking of the sex:

Poor Things must send the "sex scenes are inherently unnecessary and should be done away with" crowd into a collective conniption.

Take it from me, a guy who used to have no choice but to watch all four seasons of the Starz Spartacus series, and seven out of the eight seasons of Game of Thrones (just to name two out of unfortunately countless examples of other sex-filled films and TV shows), with my mother, while constantly having to lower my glasses and look away awkwardly from all the copious scenes of sex and nudity:


But once we remove that prospect from the equation, we're now in a safe space to say that the sexuality imbuing Poor Things to its (apple-as-sex-toy) core is a fundamentally important factor to the film's messaging. This isn't something you can half-ass with a hypothetical watered-down PG-13/12A version that would criminally rob the film of its uncompromising potency and shamelessness. Lanthimos, McNamara, and Emma Stone - as actor and producer - all understood the assignment, and that the only way you appropriately tackle this material is to, in the paraphrased words of Ron Swanson, "whole-ass this one thing".

So while this certainly isn't on the level of Caligula or something to that effect, Poor Things nonetheless asks that you get on board with its frankness in depicting human bodies, human desire, and human pleasure in all its forms, including the sexual sort. Only then can it meaningfully delve into what it's like for Bella Baxter to be a character not only born free from ego, but also free from shame, be it imposed on her by others, or by herself. In this dreamlike, fairy tale-esque world, Emma Stone's Bella is unrestrained from feeling ashamed of her body, ashamed of her cravings for sexual pleasure for its own sake, or ashamed of being around people whom others may deem as beneath them, be it because of their looks, their race, their age, their class, or their occupation. And as her intelligence swiftly grows alongside her experience of the world, so too does her empathy, resilience, and autonomous self-reliance.

I've seen criticisms levelled at the film's characterisation of Bella, and its overall aspirations towards feminist storytelling, as this being nothing much more than an assortment of some of the oldest hackneyed ideas in the book. A male-gaze-y power fantasy masquerading as feminist agitprop, the claims of sex positivity nothing more than a ruse, an alibi to cover for the male filmmakers' kinks that they can covertly get their rocks off to (i.e. the likes of Joss Whedon or Sam Levinson). A prestige rehash of the pernicious "born sexy yesterday" trope (à la Leeloo in The Fifth Element). Or, even more cynically, that this is just Emma Stone gunning for an Oscar by going full R-word (per the parlance of Robert Downey Jr's character in Tropic Thunder).

I can understand where these critiques are coming from, even as I disagree with them for (in my opinion) looking at the film more simplistically than it deserves, and not giving it enough credit for what it's trying to do, and what I think it succeeds in doing.

For a start, let's counterpoint the male gaze/male fantasy perspective with that classic Margaret Atwood quote from The Robber Bride:

"Male fantasies, male fantasies, is everything run by male fantasies? Up on a pedestal or down on your knees, it's all a male fantasy: that you're strong enough to take what they dish out, or else too weak to do anything about it. Even pretending you aren't catering to male fantasies is a male fantasy: pretending you're unseen, pretending you have a life of your own, that you can wash your feet and comb your hair unconscious of the ever-present watcher peering through the keyhole, peering through the keyhole in your own head, if nowhere else. You are a woman with a man inside watching a woman. You are your own voyeur."

Let's also not neglect to remember that Emma Stone's role as producer on the film meant that she had greater control over what she would and wouldn't do and/or show of herself while portraying this character, which would've been bolstered by the presence of intimacy coordinators mapping all of those scenes out for everyone's comfort, and that she had complete collaborative trust in Yorgos, because together they were both on the same page about how to bring Alasdair Gray's original novel to cinematic life.

As for the "born sexy yesterday" trope, a substantial portion of the thematic meat in Poor Things is explicitly dedicated to being an interrogation and deconstruction of that very thing. When Bella begins life with a newborn's brain inside an adult woman's body, her mind growing exponentially but still inherently immature, attention is repeatedly brought to bear on how creepy it is that so many grown men around Bella become infatuated with her, lusting after her body while emboldened by her childlike-to-teenlike naïveté that they can mould to their own ends. These are not good men - with some patently worse than others, but all of them far from ideal - and the film makes sure you notice how controlling, manipulative, and cruel they are, because they're men exploiting a woman they know is experientially and intellectually underdeveloped, which is something that appeals to them, and their predatory egos.

Yet for as dark as the film gets in exploring these uncomfortable facets of the human condition, there is so much more light and hope to be found here than in any other of Yorgos' past works, which are often just as mordantly funny, but usually end up leaving you wallowing in hopeless darkness and quiet despair.

Poor Things finally, fabulously, bucks that trend, resulting in this being Yorgos Lanthimos' most accessible, joyous, warm, and abundantly satisfying movie to date, all without ever losing his stylistic or morbidly witty edge.


About the Creator

Jack Anderson Keane

An idiot pretending not to be an idiot.

You can also find me on Twitter (for memes), Instagram (for the pictures), Letterboxd (for film reviews), Medium (for a Vocal alternative), Goodreads (for book reviews), and Spotify (for my music).

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