Poor Things' Bella Dances Like Everyone's Watching
by Aliki Bitsakakis
**warning: discussion of suicide**
**spoilers for Yorgos Lanthimos' Poor Things**
I walked out of the theater into the dimly-lit city, the blank sky, walking among those dressed in the same jeans and black coats, and I thought, damn, I already miss Bella.
This film had a profound effect on me, as do all Yorgos Lanthimos films. He uses surrealism to convey hard-hitting truths, while never explicitly telling us how to think or what to believe. He asks questions, challenges our views, and creates pieces that are just as entertaining as they are enlightening.
Adapted from the novel by Alasdair Gray, Poor Things is about a woman named Bella Baxter, who is given another chance, as she is reanimated Frankenstein style by a mad scientist. The truth of her origin, which is revealed to the audience early on but only revealed to Bella near the end of the story, is that Bella was an upper class woman who committed suicide while pregnant. Godwin, the scientist who found her, brought her back to life by putting her unborn child’s brain inside of her. So, we see Bella’s entire life, as she goes from baby to toddler to adolescent to adult. She goes on a journey of self-discovery as she essentially grows up all over again, and discovers the joys and pains of being a woman, and a human being in general.
Bella is everything society fears about a woman. She reveals that a woman with no shame, a woman who has taken full control of her body, a woman who is dedicated to the evolution of her intellect, is to be seen as a freak in a society whose main goal is to silence, suppress, and judge women. Bella represents the sheer power of women, how going against the roles we have established for women is frowned upon, and why it is so important to prioritize our freedom above all else.
Before I begin, I need to mention that I will be talking exclusively about the film adaptation, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos and written by Tony McNamara, not the book written by Alasdair Gray. The story can be attributed to Gray, while the way in which the story is told in film form can be attributed to Lanthimos and McNamara.
Each man that Bella encounters aims to control her in a different way, to a different degree. Beginning with Godwin, who aims to protect her as a parent, going to Max who wishes to have her to himself as a spouse, to Duncan who wants full autonomy over her body and behaviour, finally to her first husband Alfie who is the most controlling and psychotic of the group and would rather poison her into submission than let her have her own thoughts. Showing these varying levels of control reveals what we find socially acceptable, how far female liberation has come, and how difficult it is for women to truly break free of the holds others have on us.
Her “father” controls her to a degree, as all parents do. Godwin never meant any harm (aside from finding a dead woman and creating her into a science experiment?). He is referred to as “God”, bringing a sort of creator essence to his presence. He is the one who gave Bella another chance at life. Did he do so out of scorn? Out of curiosity? Was it a selfish decision? Most people have children, simply because they want to. Maybe that’s Godwin’s justification as well. Nevertheless, his control over Bella is out of fear of the world around her. For the first portion of her life he shelters her, never letting her leave the house or know anything about the outside world. But after accepting that she is growing up and that he will not be able to tame her forever, he opens the doors for Bella to venture through.
As Bella gains the intellect and independence that comes as we grow and age, the men around her lose interest. Specifically, Duncan. Because he loses his grip on her. She becomes too smart and too independent for the men to continue shielding, manipulating, and hoarding her all for themselves. Duncan presents himself to Bella as the person who can save her. He can take her out of the house, show her the outside world, give her the freedom needed for her to blossom. So, they go to Lisbon. There, they have a lot of sex. Like, a lot. The concept of sexual agency is very prominent in this film, and has been criticized by some as a shallow representation of feminist liberation. Sexual agency is not all it takes to be an independent woman. But, it is important, due to what it represents. Having agency over one’s body and making the decisions of what to do with it are absolutely essential in being in charge of one’s self. So much of what is expected of a woman is tied up in how they use their bodies, and specifically, their sexual organs and reproductive systems. Sexual agency is not the final step in feminist liberation, but our prejudices and assumptions about what a woman should be doing with her body are still very present in society. So, sexual agency is an important conversation, and one that still makes many people uncomfortable. Which is probably exactly why Lanthimos made it so prominent in this film. You can’t look away from it. He wants to make us uneasy, simply to then ask us why.
Since Bella is just learning about the world, she does not yet know or understand that it is through her body that those around her will try to control her. She sees no problem in running away with Duncan while she is engaged to Max. She sees no problem in sleeping with other men while she is with Duncan. Part of her sexual transformation is experimenting with different partners, and not taking anything too seriously. It never really seems like Duncan is in love with her as a person. He just wants a woman to attend dinners with him and only respond with rehearsed lines. And Bella is not that person. She does not understand the concept of exclusivity in a relationship, which men like Duncan seem to place on her just to have full ownership of her body. Which is why becoming a prostitute in Paris is the ultimate taboo thing that Bella could possibly do (even though it was through prostitution that she gained financial independence), and it causes Duncan to literally lose his mind. Why? What is it about Bella exerting sexual agency, having multiple partners, and participating in sex work that is so off-putting? The purpose of this character is for us to question why we think the way we do about women. Why are certain things taboo? Why is it absurd for someone to not just become a sex worker, but to want to become a sex worker? Lanthimos asks us questions in order for us to look back at how we think, why we think this way, and how our pattern of thought shapes our worldview. He wants to challenge us when we say we accept women. Do we? Why does Bella participating in sex work make us uncomfortable? Why do we laugh at the way she dances? Do we approve of her table manners? What would we do in these situations? Why does Bella generally as a character make us a little uneasy, make us laugh, make us cringe? Maybe because she literally has no shame. No shame at all. Those sex scenes are so graphic because Bella has no reason to hide from us. The camera doesn’t need to cut away, she doesn’t need to pull up a sheet to cover her chest. She doesn’t care! And that is exactly why she is so disturbing, because we live in a society that shames women at every chance it gets. Shame is a tool used to keep us in line, make it possible to control us, restricting us from doing and saying what we want. What happens when we don’t feel that shame, when we don’t let it cut through and stop us from living our lives? We are Bella. We do what we want. We do what we feel is necessary. And we have fun. So much fun. Duncan couldn’t handle it. Max pretended like he was cool with it. How would you react? These are the questions that Lanthimos asks of us. And he never forces an answer into our lap, he lets us feel his films and decide which parts we agree with, which parts make us uncomfortable, how we feel about our roles in society as a result. It’s easy to judge his movies from the surface, say they’re a little too weird for you. But once you accept the rules of the strange universe he is presenting us with, you are opening yourself to regard life in a different way. Seeing Bella’s sexual agency in full effect is indeed the jarring protest that Lanthimos intended, and absolutely essential in viewing a woman as her own person.
The final man that Bella encounters is her first husband, Alfie. She was married to Alfie, and pregnant with their child, when she killed herself. Alfie appears at her wedding to Max as a hero. He has come to reclaim his bride and bring her home. Bella, and the audience, thinks for a moment that this is the natural end to the story. Now that Bella has gone through her journey, it’s time to settle back down to the life that was stolen for her. But then the answer to why she killed herself while married to Alfie becomes very clear. Alfie is the worst of them all. He’s a terrible person, he treats the staff at his estate with crystal cruelty, and it is implied that in her previous life, Bella was also cruel. This disparity between who Bella used to be and who she is now, is vital to her development. We all have things we regret. We make mistakes. But there is always room to become better. Bella has become better, and she refuses to stand for this from Alfie. Alfie, exerting the most severe control over her that we have seen yet, bars her from leaving the house, and then resorts to poisoning her to dim her brain and keep her under his wing. Alfie would rather harm his wife, kill everything that makes her a person, than have her make her own decisions. As I previously mentioned, the control that the men exert (or try to exert) over Bella comes in levels. Alfie is the big boss at the end of the film, representing the worst of the worst.. There are many people and many men who need full control, who are intimidated by independent thought, and who would resort to extreme measures rather than lose the person they believe they love. Or maybe it is love, and that is Alfie’s justification for behaving this way. Anyway, at this point in the story Bella is too strong and she pacifies Alfie and goes on to create her own life. These levels of control serve as a warning to those watching the film. We can encounter any of these men in real life, and some better or worse. To get through it, you must count on yourself, and prioritize your growth and agency no matter what.
Lastly, Max. Max is one of the constants throughout the film, and he’s the one who is bogged down by expectations as well, but choosing to embrace Bella’s independence rather than try to suppress it. Max is the good guy in the pool of Bella’s romantic prospects. He spends time with her and genuinely falls in love with her. When she returns from her travels, after having spent so much time with the egotistical Duncan, she appreciates Max for being that good guy, and she makes the decision to marry him. However, the most important thing to remember here is that Max fell in love with Bella…when she was a child! He studied Bella when she was mentally a toddler. She couldn’t speak in full sentences, she ran around and fell over as toddlers often do, and she didn’t fully understand what was being asked of her when he declared his love for her. He fell in love with how she looked, and thought her childishness was charming. Bella then goes off with Duncan, develops more, and when she returns, Max still wants to marry her. And they almost do get married, but Alfie interrupts. The story ends with Max still comfortable in Bella’s orbit, while she creates her own life for herself. So what does all this mean? Max struggles with how he thinks he should view Bella, and how he actually views Bella. His character is set up to have a different degree of control over her, the kind of control that one spouse (specifically, a husband in this surreal yet historic piece) has over the other. Max is faced with having to exert that control when Bella declares she wants to go off traveling with Duncan. But he doesn’t control her. He lets her go. Bella’s intellect coinciding with her relationships could be a comment on how society views women who are “too smart” as having more difficulty finding a spouse, as we are expected to be the submissive ones in the relationship. Men certainly have a tougher time sticking by Bella as she flourishes into her full self. But Max doesn’t actually have a problem. His insistence to stick by Bella, even during/after her transformation, may reveal that despite how society has groomed us, we can still make those decisions for ourselves and choose to accept one’s growth or not. Max does, so maybe he’s a good guy after all. He is in this movie as the comparison though, because the next two men did not handle Bella’s agency with so much grace.
Swinging back to Duncan quickly, it’s during her time with Duncan that Bella goes through the most transformation. She begins reading books, which Duncan promptly throws in the ocean. She discovers the injustices of the world when Harry shows her the poverty that exists just outside their luxury cruise ship. As Bella wailed at the sight, I realized what this movie is about: it’s really hard being a person. It’s hard learning about the world, realizing how unfair it is, and somehow still going to work every day. It’s hard having a relationship, being expected to read your partner’s mind, meeting many people and deciding which direction you want your life to go. It’s hard prioritizing yourself and your growth, while not hurting those around you, and making time for your family before they’re gone. Even though it’s hard, Bella finds time to dance like no one’s watching, to eat way too many custard tarts, and to choose what she wants her life to look like. That’s the most important part, isn’t it? We’ll all make mistakes. But they need to be our mistakes. Godwin could not protect Bella from the outside world forever. Max and Duncan both had to accept that Bella is constantly evolving. And her first husband just needs to go to hell.
Poor Things is a surprise. Its regal costumes, swirling skies, and witty one-liners will keep you in your comfy seat. Its revelations about how we shame women into submission, representations of how our world will always be unjust and there’s little we can do about it, displays of every degree of toxic love, will keep the film with you long after you’ve left your comfy seat.