Director Yorgos Lanthimos' Poor Things starring Emma Stone, Mark Ruffalo, and Willem Dafoe is earning near-unanimous critical praise and award nominations. Does anyone in Hollywood consider a movie that sexualizes a character with the literal mind of a child somewhat problematic or, at worst, reprehensible?
The official description for Poor Things reads: “Filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos and star and producer Emma Stone invite you to take part in the fantastical evolution of Bella Baxter (Emma Stone), a young woman brought back to life from the brink of death by the brilliant, daring scientist Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe). Under Baxter’s protection, Bella is eager to learn. Hungry for the worldliness she is lacking, Bella runs off with Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo), a slick and debauched lawyer, on a whirlwind adventure across the continents. Free from the prejudices of her times, Bella grows steadfast in her purpose to stand for equality and liberation.”
On the surface, this reads like a feminist twist on the Frankenstein story, but one important detail is omitted from that description. The woman renamed Bella Baxter is not “brought back to life from the brink of death” exactly. Instead, the woman's brain is removed and replaced with the brain of her unborn child, so the woman she was before technically dies. With the mind of a child, wide-eyed Bella is all id — she rants, raves, break things, speaks in baby language, and touches everything. This includes her own body as she explores herself sexually, but also the adult men in her life, like Mark Ruffalo's Duncan Wedderburn character.
Critics and those who dole out awards heaped praise on Stone for her brave performance and, yes, her character's rapid progression from a child-woman to a brothel worker is impressive from an acting perspective, but what are we actually celebrating here? Instead of the men in the movie viewing Bella as a medical curiosity or some kind of freak of nature, they instead are turned on by Bella's sexual naivety. She talks dirty — in an innocent, childlike fashion — because she essentially IS a child. Duncan can barely contain his attraction to this child-woman, and every other man she encounters is smitten by her innocence and desires her. At the Academy Awards, maybe Woody Allen can present the Oscar to the director in a gross passing-the-torch moment.
Poor Things Just Got Nominated for a Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy Golden Globe
Poor Things earned seven Golden Globe nominations, including Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy. Although most people would flinch in horror if a movie depicted a fiftysomething man taking a child on a cruise for uninterrupted sexual escapades, apparently it's a real knee-slapper if you take that same child's brain and put it in the body of Emma Stone. With the American Film Institute and National Board of Review both listing Poor Things as one of the best films of 2023, Poor Things will undoubtedly get showered with Oscar nominations as well.
About her should-be controversial character, Stone said:
“I was so excited and scared for all the right reasons. Bella doesn’t have any shame or trauma, or even a backstory. She's not raised by a society that is putting these confines on women. That can be incredibly freeing, and there is really no research you can do for something like this. Bella draws things from the men she meets, from the women she meets, from the environment she's in, from what she's eating. She's like a sponge.”
Yes, Bella is a “sponge” because a child's mind is like a sponge and is often described as such. Director Lanthimos added: “I just found Bella fascinating. We put her in all these different situations, basically with other humans around her, older humans – men – men with power, and the relationships between them. Everything was altered through her presence and her reaction to it all.”
Stanley Kubrick's Lolita polarized critics for its theme of child sexual abuse in 1962, but the Academy still nominated it for the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar. With Poor Things, a similar discussion should be taking place about the “comedic” attributes of child sexual abuse, but it seems like if you put the child's mind in Emma Stone, it's now… funny? Which, if you think about it, is actually scary.
Poor Things is now playing in select theaters.