“Poor Things” Explores Freedom, Desire and the Flexibility of Masculinity

Set in a fantastical 19th century Europe, the film follows Bella (Emma Stone) as she embarks on an eye-opening adventure of self-exploration. "Poor Things" also features Willem Dafoe as Bella's doctor father, Ramy Youssef as his assistant and Bella's suitor, and Mark Ruffalo as a lascivious lawyer.

Ramy Youssef in 19th century clothing as his "Poor Things" character, Max McCandles
Ramy Youssef is one of several accalimed actors in this film that is anticipated to sweep next year's Oscars.

"Poor Things" (2023), directed by BAFTA Award-winning filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos, is a dark, thought-provoking, razor-sharp exploration of human behavior through a surreal lens. 

Set in a partially fantastical 19th century Europe, the film follows Bella Baxter (Emma Stone) as she embarks on an eye-opening adventure of self-exploration. The film is based on Alasdair Gray's 1992 novel of the same name. Alongside Stone, the movie features Willem Dafoe as Bella's doctor father, Ramy Youssef as his assistant and Bella's suitor, and Mark Ruffalo as a lascivious lawyer.

Stone’s performance is a standout — as Bella, she portrays a character who evolves from a childlike understanding of the world to self-discovery through a journey that includes sexuality and philosophy. The film has been making big waves on the film festival circuit. The film is already considered to be a forerunner at the 96th Academy Awards next March, and most recently, received the prestigious Golden Lion for Best Film at the 80th Venice International Film Festival.

While Stone’s performance is the cornerstone of the film, her supporting cast of award-winning men is bolstering her and encouraging her to shine. During an interview with Vogue, the range of masculinity showcased within the film was a topic of interest. Interviewer Emma Specter noted that “from Ruffalo’s character to Dafoe’s to Youssef’s,” each of the men represented viscerally different desires and wishes for Bella. Both Lathimos and Stone had something interesting to say about it.

Lathimos responded by saying that the common ground amongst his male characters was a general tendency to try to control Bella. He went on to explain that this is true “even if it’s done in a caring or subtle way, in the way that a parent might [like Dafoe’s character] does, or just being infatuated [with her] in the way that [Youssef’s character] is.” He described Youssef’s character as “a nice man deep down, but still having the characteristics of a man of that era.”

In the film, Youssef’s character Max becomes infatuated with Bella and secures her hand in marriage under one condition: she must never leave Dafoe’s character Godwin's opulent London estate. However, the lawyer tasked with drawing up their contract, Ruffalo’s Duncan Wedderburn, has ulterior motives and entices Bella to run away with him to explore the world.

“You take a wife and place all these conventions and a quite narrow understanding of how life works — and how people should work — onto her,” Lathimos continued, “and people then want to take advantage of her and ultimately fall in love with her. None of them has ever come across a [woman] like that who is so free from convention and has no guilt, no shame, no judgment about herself or other people. There’s this array of different men trying to have [an] impact on her life, and that’s what makes her grow.”

Stone went on to add to the interview, saying that when Lathimos first discussed the book with her, he described her character by saying that, “The more agency Bella gets, the more she learns and grows, the more it drives these men insane. The more she has an opinion and her own wants and needs and all of that, it makes them crazy; they want her to stay this sort of pure thing.”

Lanthimos mentioned in his Venice International Film Festival acceptance speech that it took several years to bring “Poor Things” to fruition, as it required the right timing and readiness from the world and the film industry. Even now, the film is sparking discussions over its inclusion of no-holds-barred sex scenes. But despite the film’s explicit treatment of sexuality, dismemberment and experimentation, this may be his most accessible work yet. "Poor Things" embraces a fantastical perspective on a woman's journey through a man's world. 

"Poor Things" will be in theaters Dec. 8, 2023.

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