Post- Magazine

making a monster [A&C]

because sometimes a family is a mad scientist, his intern, and a woman reanimated as her own child

I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect going to the Avon to watch Yorgos Lanthimos’ latest revelation, Poor Things. For the uninitiated, Poor Things is an anachronistic, futuristic, Frankenstein-inspired tale of a physician, Godwin Baxter, who reanimates the body of a pregnant suicide victim with the brain of her unborn fetus and renames her Bella Baxter.

Poor Things is a mesmerizing exploration of the cruelty of creation and parenthood and it drips with so much humanity, it’s at times difficult to witness. My initial feelings of disgust gave way to wonder, electrifying fear, and anticipation for Bella’s future. Some have described Poor Things as a female—or even feminist—version of Frankenstein, even though Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein already has overtly feminist themes. I recently reread Frankenstein for a class I’m vagabonding this semester (shout-out ENGL511K Terrible Births: The Novel Out of Romanticism), so it was at the forefront of my mind as I reflected on Poor Things. 

Shelley herself was surrounded by the violence and tragedy of childbirth. She lost her daughter in infancy. Her own mother, influential feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft, died while giving birth to her. In Shelley’s text, the birth of Frankenstein’s creature is also a tragedy. Frankenstein is torn apart by his disgust over his unnatural parenthood, and his creature is rejected from the moment of his birth. However, Frankenstein’s creature manages to forge an identity for himself by reading prolifically from works like Paradise Lost and The Sorrows of Young Werther. Frankenstein has been characterized in many ways; most commonly as Gothic, sometimes Romantic, but I think bildungsroman (or coming-of-age) is one of the most accurate ways to describe both Frankenstein and Poor Things. Poor Things builds upon the themes of unnatural births, adolescence, and the faces of monstrosity, and runs away adeptly with many more. 

Mentally, Bella Baxter rapidly develops through infancy, childhood, adolescence, and womanhood in a fully adult body. She’s bright, eccentric, spontaneous, and hungry for the world. She takes some grotesqueries for granted, like the death and dismemberment that accompanies surgery, having known nothing different under Godwin’s care. Others, like poverty and the inhumane conditions of slums, are shocking and drive her wild with devastation. Her intellectual and moral development, like all of ours, is shaped by her environment, her caretakers, and the books she pores over to educate herself. The movie seems to ask unsubtly: “Don’t we all at some point in adolescence feel like a child in an adult’s body, learning about how cruel and sharp the world really is?” Bella’s coming-of-age is brilliant and human and real as she becomes a fiercely independent and free-thinking, autonomous woman of the world. 


At the same time, it is viscerally uncomfortable and disturbing to watch various men take advantage of Bella’s naivety and sexual desires. This is particularly true for the womanizing Duncan Wedderburn, an attorney who persuades Bella­—then with the mental age of perhaps a 12-year-old­—to elope with him and travel the world, where they have rambunctious sex (or “furious jumping,” as Bella calls it) in every hotel, boat, plane, train, and automobile they happen upon.

Unsurprisingly, there’s criticism about the movie being “male-gazey” or a gross vision of male fantasy. One of many Letterboxd reviewers expressing a similar sentiment writes, “It’s not about mothers and daughters though, because it was directed by a man with a screenplay by a man that’s based on a book by a man.” Frankly, I think discourse over whether men are capable of creating compelling stories about women is uninteresting. That said, I don’t believe that the movie is particularly feminist or anti-feminist. There’s much evidence in Lanthimos’ body of work that he is less interested in improving his feminism and more so in treating his women—like all his characters—as tools used to poke and prod at both the grotesque and beautiful underpinnings of the human condition. Sometimes these portrayals can also be empowering, but it’s difficult to believe that it’s intentional. After we watched Poor Things, my friend, who also enjoyed the movie, remarked that despite Bella’s sexual liberation, the movie seems to miss the mark on female sexuality. Instead, she said, Bella discovers sex and understands it “like a man.”

Where Poor Things really shines is in exploring monstrosity, the cruelty of creation, the burdens and obligations of parent and child dynamics, and what we all owe to one another. There’s something captivatingly simple about this. Parents hurt and irreversibly shape their children in numerous ways—and frequently that coexists with the internal dissonance of loving one’s parents in spite of everything. Creating life is always violent; the mechanics of creation in Frankenstein and Poor Things are simply dialed up to the max. Frankenstein’s creature is an unnatural, tragic birth. So is Bella Baxter. That doesn’t mean they don’t deserve the nurturing and kindness any child deserves to receive from their creator.

Monstrosity in the film is also deliciously complex. In Shelley’s Frankenstein, Victor Frankenstein had a loving home and family. He was a brilliant and beloved scientist driven by hubris to create a monstrous new life that he then promptly abandoned. The realization “Frankenstein actually is the monster” has been worn out from discussion in every high school English class. In Poor Things, Godwin is the carved-up brute while his creation is an ever-radiant Emma Stone. His father, a renowned and eccentric surgeon himself, experimented on Godwin throughout his youth. His father canonically pinned his thumbs in an experiment to slow bone growth and branded his genitals with hot irons in the name of science. At one point, Godwin explains that he has to make his own gastric juices because his father took out his oxyntic and pyloric glands. Max McCandles, his protégé and Bella’s eventual husband, asks, “Why in God’s name would he do that?” Godwin responds drily, “To discover what no one knew. Turns out we need them. Ideally.”

Temperament-wise, Godwin is surprisingly gentle and paternal, even as he’s shunned by the world for his monstrosity and ashamed of his own ugliness. He has more in common with Frankenstein’s creature than with Victor Frankenstein himself. His loneliness and desperation for a companion (whether or not he recognizes it as his motivation for creating another terrible birth) parallels that of Frankenstein’s creature’s desperation for a female companion of his own kind to provide him the comradery the rest of the world refuses him. In many ways, Godwin and Bella’s relationship is a gut-wrenching depiction of inherited trauma and hurt. As Godwin’s father experimented on him, Godwin experiments on Bella. The Baxter men are supposed to be calculating, emotionless, and brilliant. However, the difference is that as Godwin spends more time with Bella, he realizes that she is both like a daughter to him and her own independent person. He reads bedtime stories to her and sews emergency money into her dress. When Bella outgrows him and elopes with Duncan, Godwin—devastated—says to McCandles, “I…she is a being of free will.

Bella sees the world, develops intellectually, and decides to become a surgeon herself. As Godwin dies of cancer, she returns home to visit him. She confronts him about all the lies she realized he told her about her origins to cover up his experimentations. In her absence, Godwin and McCandles have reanimated another woman with the brain of her baby because, well, they missed Bella. Bella is sickened and calls them both “monsters.” She eventually softens and forgives Godwin, and before he dies, she tells him, “I am finding being alive fascinating so I will forgive you the act, but always hate the lies and trapping that followed.” Godwin smiles, leaves her his surgical practice, and dies. 

At this pivotal point in the movie, I was terrified that Bella would put Godwin’s brain inside a new body in order to give him a torturous version of immortality. She has all the surgical tools and expertise as well as the fresh dead body of her ex-husband (long story). It is the kind of experimentation that a younger Godwin would have done—and had done to Bella—with no hesitation, under the belief that giving life is always the best scientific course of action. She doesn’t do it. Instead, she lets him go. She disrupts the cycle of intergenerational trauma and, with the full capacity of her personhood, forges her own path forward.

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