Credit: Searchlight Pictures

A woman reborn: Poor Things and female liberation

By Divya Venkattu

Bella Baxter is unlike any other female character before her.

The silver screen has seen a whole bandwidth of female performances – from the charming girl-next-door to the damsel-in-distress, to girl bosses and women-in-action performing stunts. Bella Baxter, the lead character of Yorgos Lanthimos’s film Poor Things, does not fit into any particular category. She is, much like the movie itself, wonderfully original, quirky and delightful to watch. Bella is born, or rather created, in the confines of Godwin Baxter’s laboratory. She has a woman’s body and a baby’s brain after Godwin transplants the baby’s brain into the mother. The movie is an interesting exploration of what it’s like to possess a woman’s body without the mind or the societal conditioning that comes along with it. 

Although Bella is an invention, an oddity, she elicits a reaction quite opposite to what monsters usually elicit. And for this, she can thank her appearance, her exquisite beauty, her pale, soft skin and large, wondrous eyes, and her silky, long, black hair. Despite her outward appearance which draws people in, Bella is still ‘abnormal’ and this is obvious in her gait, her stance and poorly-formed words. And so, she is approached with caution. But Bella herself throws caution to the wind, for the world is new to her and everything dazzles before her eyes. She is curious, literally having the brain of a baby, and she is adventurous. She quickly tires of the constricting walls of Godwin’s house. Everything about her is measured carefully by Max McCandles, ‘the village doctor’ who assists Godwin. From her cognitive development to the inches of hair she grows in a week, everything about Bella is recorded. Although she is free to roam within Godwin’s home, she is never not under watchful eyes. 

And so it seems to inhabit a woman’s body, regardless of outward beauty, means to never be able to escape the roving eyes of society. You are watched, always, even when it makes you feel queasy, even when you are in dire need of some private space.

Bella begins her discovery of pleasure right inside the house. One odd morning at breakfast, she figures she can stimulate herself sexually and this brings her immense joy. Bella giddily shares her discovery with others, much to their horror. She lacks the social conditioning that sexual desires must be curbed, especially when it’s that of a woman. She is told by others that it is not “polite” or it is not something done in ‘polite society’. Just as Bella discovers her sexuality, Godwin Baxter is visited by Duncan Wedderburn to sort out a legally binding contract that would ensure Bella never leaves Godwin and Max’s care. Duncan is shown to be a sort of promiscuous adventurer, who is smitten with Bella and asks her to travel with him. Bella, enthralled at the idea of experiencing the outside world, takes up his offer. After an initial refusal, at Bella’s insistence, Godwin lets her go with Duncan. 

It is with Duncan that Bella’s sexual odyssey takes off. Bella enjoys sex and pleasure, without any accompanying guilt and shame. She wasn’t conditioned to feel either ashamed of her own body or of her need for pleasure. She wasn’t taught the rules of love and sex, and so she acts intuitively, based on her whims and fancies, much to Wedderburn’s annoyance. She fails to understand why people don’t just have sex all the time. Although Duncan starts by warning Bella not to expect a relationship from him, he gets emotionally invested in her. Wedderburn then becomes a pathetic shadow of a man, furiously jealous of Bella’s other partners and hysterical when she does not understand his rage. Wedderburn was an excellent portrayal of male insecurities, which often start with feigned nonchalance but warp into jealousy, anger and the need for ownership. Wedderburn is convinced that this is love, and when Bella informs him that their time together has come to an end, he is in anguish, calling her a demon sent by Godwin to wreck his soul. 

Bella is initially enamoured upon discovering all the goodness the world has to offer, sex and pleasure, travelling to exotic locales and tasting mouth-watering delicacies. Bella’s approach is unbridled to both sex and food. She has whatever she enjoys. There is a scene where Bella spits out food that she doesn’t like while she is seated with Duncan and others from high society. Duncan is astonished and admonishes her unruly behaviour. She is aghast and explains that the food was disgusting. Bella has an utter lack of concern for what others might think of her actions and words, which is joyous to watch as a woman. It is also a luxury not afforded to many, or perhaps any of us, who live and die following rules which weren’t made by us. Bella does not try to break free of the shackles of society, but is rather unaware of any shackles, and is hence, fully and freely herself. 

Bella has fascinating encounters in the outside world. Whether it is Martha and Harry Astley, who she meets on a ship, or Madame Swiney who runs a brothel in Paris which Bella eventually works at, they enlighten her on the ways of the world. She understands that one needs money to survive, but she also understands that “money is its own form of sickness”. Bella’s spirit is broken, numbed and revived. She is trapped time and again by different men, who want to own and control her. And she repeatedly and successfully escapes. 

Poor Things is a cinematic masterpiece, aesthetically pleasing, with magnificent performances by the cast. Emma Stone owns the screen with a spell-binding performance. What really captured me was Bella coming into her own. Her unabashed expressions of sexuality, her thirst for knowledge and her determination to improve the world are marvellous. Bella Baxter is a woman reborn, and her story is one of self-liberation and gaining complete authority over her own body and mind. We finally have a tale where the damsel saves herself, thank heavens!  


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