"Poor Things" - a woman's journey to herself through surreal landscapes

As soon as you start watching "Poor Things", it's as if you're looking into another world. A world so bright and surreal, with colours turned to the max, where steampunk meets art nouveau at the end of the 19th century. And a woman trying to keep her identity and develop into an interesting person in a place where she is constantly being suppressed.

Let's understand how to understand this undoubtedly masterpiece, what the author wanted to say, what is the meaning of the ending and the film itself, and what techniques of storytelling and screenwriting the director used.

Beware, there will be spoilers!
"Poor Things" is a 2023 science fiction, black comedy film directed by Yorgos Lanthimos from a screenplay by Tony McNamara and starring Emma Stone, Mark Ruffalo, Willem Dafoe, Christopher Abbott, Rami Youssef and Jerrod Carmichael. The film is an adaptation of Alasdair Gray's 1992 book of the same name.


Mild-mannered medical student Max is drawn to a special assignment by his mysterious surgical instructor, Dr Godwin Baxter: to observe Bella, a strange, childlike young woman in Baxter's care. Max eventually learns that Bella is an experiment created from the body of a pregnant woman who committed suicide and the brain of her unborn child. Despite this, he is smitten by her beauty and agrees to Dr Baxter's proposal to marry her, although Bella's consciousness (and desire for sexual pleasure) grows and she becomes upset with her creator's insistence that she never leave his house.

Wily lawyer Duncan Wedderburn is intrigued by the idea of a woman so charming that a prenuptial agreement stipulating that she must be hidden from the world is required, and after meeting the now very sexually curious Bella, he whisks her away on a grand tour of Europe. But it's not just Bella's libido that grows and matures, and having become an inquisitive, altruistic and intelligent girl, she quickly outgrows the superficial and chauvinistic Wedderburn and sets out to find her own destiny.
The film borrows many elements from the Gothic genre, including the reanimation of a man through mad science, a mysterious suicide, a burglar with bad intentions towards the heroine, and the fact that the heroine spends time imprisoned in a gloomy old manor by a sinister nobleman, but turns into a much more credible and lighter story of becoming a woman.

Visual solutions

The first thing that immediately catches the eye is the film's stunning visuals. The European cities are clearly created in steampunk style, and the bizarre buildings in them - in art-nouveau style, retrofuturism and eclecticism of postmodernity are also traced.

The film has very beautiful landscapes, done in a retro steampunk style, with strange coloured alien skies - it's a real Scenery Porn. It's like you're watching a beautiful dream for 2 hours.
All of this, along with the airships flying around the cities, hints that we're not quite in the Victorian era of the late 19th century, but rather in an alternate history where experiments with brain transplants and other body parts are common, though not widely used. While the rest of the world has steampunk-style technology, Doctor Baxter seems more interested in dissecting human cadavers and surgically creating mixed creatures.

What makes the film an alternate universe rather than a mere anachronism is that one of Duncan and Bella's fellow diners in Lisbon refers to The Importance of Being Serious as "Wilde's new play" that has just opened in London, which moves the plot specifically to 1895.
Bella's costumes are also amazing. They are looser than other girls' dresses, because nobody taught Bella to wear corsets, and in general, all her naivety is a consequence of her ignorance. And puffy sleeves are a calling card. Although Bella's behaviour certainly shocks others, her unconventional fashion sense and unstyled hair don't seem to have any effect on how she is perceived.
The first chapter of the film, as well as the surreal interludes (credits between chapters) are shot in black and white, which probably shows both the storytelling elements of the story and hints at Bella's very immaturity and limitations at the beginning.

A very common technique used is fisheye, which is shooting through a round lens, which adds a "peeking" effect, as if we were spying on the characters in the story.

The point of the film

The whole film is basically a coming of age story, a very strange tale of someone growing up, discovering their independence and sexuality and becoming a complete person. It's also a discourse on what a woman should really be like - why everyone loves her when she's just a cute little kid, how much unconventional behaviour is frowned upon, and why a man should like a woman less if she reads books. It's a discourse on how we all need the courage to be ourselves, even if everyone else says something different.

Also sewn into the film is the idea of parenting yourself, how to be a parent to yourself. After all, Bella is both child and mother at the same time. One can think about the philosophical concept of finding one's parent within oneself.
All of this draws parallels to another very notable feminist film, 2023's Barbie, there, after all, the same themes are brought up. Bella is more of a "Weird Barbie" though.

Note, by the way, how her costumes change as the character develops and matures. At first they are simple, plain shirts, then - very bright epatastic images, and at the end - more restrained and monochrome. And Bella's hair is below her knees by the end.
At first Bella is a Manic Pixie Dream Girl for Duncan, but she experiences a turning point in Alexandria when Harry shows her poor people living and dying in poverty, including children, and now she sees how cruel the world can be. Her carefree image is completely shattered by the time Bella grows up and realises she's too good for Duncan, and he goes crazy for her to the point where he's institutionalised. Given the way he's been acting, he probably deserves it. This is an allegory for many female-male relationships in our world.

The film itself is a great metaphor for a woman's life and the amount of complexities, judgements and stereotypes she has to deal with.


There are, of course, many, and the first one that catches the eye is "Frankenstein", for this is also the story of how man created the creature. Doctor Baxter's appearance makes this reference most obvious.
The visuals of the film are reminiscent of the surrealism of Alice in Wonderland.

Duncan's dramatic exclamation of "Bellaaaa!" as she stands over him on the balcony is likely a reference to Stanley doing the same for Stella in "A Streetcar Named Desire".
There are also shades of "Pygmalion" and "My Fair Lady", as Bella's lack of "proper" social skills may seem like a more extreme version of Eliza Doolittle.

The transition from black and white to colour is reminiscent of "The Wizard of Oz" in that it occurs when Bella first leaves London for her European journey, almost as if she is entering the land of Oz.
What about Victoria?
Bella's mother, Victoria, committed suicide at the very beginning of this story, and we see her for literally a couple of seconds, consequently not having time to get to know the character. When Bella meets her father and Victoria's husband (in whose body Bella is now), Alfie Blessington, he tells Bella that his wife committed suicide because she hated her unborn child and shared Alfie's delight in daily cruelty to servants.

However, when we briefly see Victoria in the flashback to the moment of her suicide, she looks at the water under the bridge with tears in her eyes and then takes a deep breath and jumps into the water. Was Alfie telling the truth? Or did Victoria commit suicide to escape Alfie's abuse and spare their child from him? A scene where Bella asks the maid Alison if she "was nice" clears things up a bit, the maid only laughs, implying that Alfie was telling the truth to some extent.
Another baffling moment - Alfie Blessington plans to forcibly impregnate Bella after she has her clitoris removed. In all the months Bella has been travelling around Europe, she has never once menstruated, and while working at Madame Sweeney's brothel she had unprotected sex with dozens of men and didn't get pregnant. It is likely that Bella cannot have children at all, presumably because of the surgery Godwin performed on her body.

A few words about Bella's creator

From the point of view of the universe, we are interested in Godwin Baxter, whom Bella calls God, which is appropriate, because he created her. The doctor's father performed all sorts of perverse "experiments" on him, as a result of which he was covered with scars.

Instead of his stomach, he eats with an advanced machine system, and his initial problem with sex with Bella is not so much his aversion to pseudo-incest, but the fact that he would need "all the electrical power of London" for sexual intercourse, since he was being experimented on by his own father. (Afterwards, however, his "paternal feelings" awoke in him and he began to see her as too much of a daughter.)
Doctor Baxter allows Bella to play with the corpses he no longer uses while she is in the early stages of development. This leads to Bella repeatedly punching the corpses in the face until there is no trace of them left, with the innocent glee of a toddler smashing a cupcake. It's visually disturbing, but played purely for laughs.

By the way, did you notice that Bella Baxter is an alliterative name that starts with the same letter?
"Poor Things" is a feminist fantasy. The film is about a Victorian infant resurrected in her mother's body who, against all patriarchal odds, learns about the world, self-actualises and gains autonomy. By the end of the story, she is studying to be a doctor, marries a man who loves and supports her while respecting her bodily autonomy, makes sure that her mother's abusive ex-husband can never again harm her or anyone else, and another woman, created in the same way as her, thrives under her care.

This is a movie that has a lot of visual mysteries, a unique universe and an absolutely beautiful heroine, brilliantly played by Emma Stone. Regardless of how many Oscars it has, this film is definitely recommended to all lovers of beautiful, quality and modern cinema. After all, a little bit of Bella Baxter lives in every woman, doesn't she?