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“Poor Things” Floats Like a Butterfly and Stings Like a Butterfly

Poor Things is a fantastical comedy with beautiful set design and costumes and an Oscar-winning performance from Emma Stone. So why did it leave me feeling so empty? Despite juggling feminist and socialist ideas, the film is ideologically muddled and often self-contradictory.

Basil Rozlaban

March 16, 2024
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Searchlight Pictures

Warning: This review contains spoilers for Poor Things

The winner of four Oscars at last week’s Academy Awards, Yorgos Lanthimos’ latest effort Poor Things is a fun comedy with great cinematography and gorgeous set design. Its story seems like an attempt to communicate feminist ideas in a fun way. So why did I feel so empty when I left the theater? The more I thought about the film, the harder it was for me to figure out what it wanted to say. To bend a phrase by Mohammed Ali: It floats like a butterfly, but fails to sting like a bee.

The film tells the story of Bella Baxter, a woman brought back from the brink of death by having her brain transplanted with the brain of her unborn baby. Bella is an adult woman with the mind of a child. We see her develop and start exploring the world around her, eventually going on a grand adventure.

Bella Baxter is created by men, and the men in her life attempt to control her at every turn, but she is always able to defy them. The film seems to suggest that her lack of socialization and childlike innocence give her the tools to resist patriarchal control. The men around her are driven mad by her questioning of social norms and relentless stubbornness. The film is repeatedly making the point that patriarchy is a social construct that isn’t necessarily inherent to human society. But it also seems to be suggesting that overcoming the patriarchy is just a matter of having the right mindset. Bella is smart and stubborn, and for her, that seems to be enough to get past the barriers the men in her life put up for her.

Maybe that’s because Bella and the vast majority of the other characters come from upper-class backgrounds. Bella’s detour in Alexandria seems to be her first inkling of her privileged class position. She encounters poverty for the first time and pities the “poor things” she sees there. She is briefly animated to help them, which she does by naively donating a ton of money via a middleman who promptly steals it. Then, seemingly, she forgets about the whole thing. Are we supposed to see this as a satire of liberal charity initiatives or is it meant earnestly?

Later in the film, Bella does sex work in Paris after she and her ex-lover run out of money. She is introduced to socialism via her colleague at the brothel. This leads to Bella fighting for better working conditions at the brothel and she is served a strong dose of capitalist realism by the madam. She then resigns herself to trying to make her brothel experience tolerable, somehow implying, again, that her mindset and skills can make this form of labor feel less exploitative. The most egregious part of this section of the film is when Bella makes a snarky comment that she, as a sex worker, owns her own means of production — although the film has just spent time establishing that she is being exploited by the madam. 

In the end, Bella decides to become a doctor. She lives happily ever after in the mansion she inherits from her “father.” She sips a cold drink in a huge garden, separated by a tall wall from the lower classes and by several thousand kilometers from the “poor things” she encountered on her grand adventure. A better life is made for her former colleague at the brothel, and a cruel punishment is meted out to her aristocratic ex-husband, but has the world really been made a better place? Bella’s socialism seems to have been just another rebellious phase.

Aside from the contradictory grasp it has on feminism and socialism, Poor Things is also quite confused dramatically. It hammers you on the head with what it wants to say, and uses extended montages to riff on ideas without ever developing them further. These montages are often quite funny, but they take the gas out of a film that is often running dangerously low on drama. Bella just sails through anything the film throws at her, we laugh along, and then it ends.

The more I think about it, the more I see Poor Things as an overhyped and ideologically muddled film, tackling issues such as socialism, class, and feminism, and more often than not making a complete mess of them. Recent years have seen plenty of films with interesting premises and stunning cinematography that ride the wave of hype to Oscar glory. It would be nice if some of these films could offer substantial, or even coherent, ideas under the surface. Poor Things is just the latest to fail this basic test.

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