I walked out of Poor Things delighted by its ending—and wistful about my own life’s start. Oh, to have entered adulthood free of all conditioning! To have blurted my thoughts as they popped into my head; followed my desires heedless of others’ cautions; acted on impulse, without shame or guilt or fear….
A recipe for disaster, no doubt. Even Bella (in her genius performance by Emma Stone) runs into situations one would prefer to avoid. Still, the possibility is seductive. What would I have done differently? Had more adventures. Lovingly but firmly cast aside my mother’s wishes and left home early. Felt no obligation to love someone exclusively—even after I was engaged to them!—if it meant denying myself a chance to learn the world.
Such a life would have been exhausting. Thrilling. Terrifying. The wisdom of the film (spoilers ahead) is that it shows us how Bella quiets as her brain catches up to her body. Ideas begin to intrigue her. The wild energy subsides. Then compassion enters, and it shoves thoughtfulness aside. Confronted by other people’s suffering, Bella reacts with a child’s impulsive generosity, bent toward an adult purpose.
We are all a mix of all of this: our body’s instincts, our conscience’s cautions, our heart’s warm impulses, our mind’s desperate attempts to control, fathom, rein in, orchestrate. Watching how blank-slate innocence looks in a grown woman, my occasional recoil proved I was still gripped hard by societal inhibitions (Oh my God she can’t spit her food out at the table!), and the laughter that followed fast reminded me how I longed to shed them (“Why keep it in my mouth if it is revolting?”). When she said, after a first kiss, “We will need less of your tongue in the future. But overall, most agreeable,” I wished I had summoned similar nerve on so many occasions. When she announced, over a baby’s wails, “I must go punch that baby,” the line was a direct quote from the screenwriter’s two-year-old—yet a sentiment I have felt on many a long flight.
I never punched the baby. We lose both the violence and the candor as we age. I liked the idea of Bella outgrowing the violence and keeping the unabashed honesty, but it would have (the nervous part of me insisted) destroyed her in real life. Imagine telling your fiancé you want to go fuck somebody else for a while first: “I will see you after grand adventure.” I guess this is the freedom consensual nonmonogamy is aiming for? But first you must all agree that physical intimacy is mere sport. There is no tenderness in Bella’s grand adventure; we are left to hope that will come later.
Listen to me! I was born too serious, and here I still am, gnawing away at a tangent and, in my earnestness, missing the point.
I was relieved and sad when Bella grew serious, too. “Ideas are banging around in Bella’s head and heart like lights in a storm,” she warned her lover, who responded that she was losing some of her adorable ways. We love the company of children (and childlike adults) because they are not plagued by large helpless worries, only by monsters who can be swept from under the bed. Devoid of agenda or conviction, they are tractable. Huggable. Adorable.
Once we begin to think about more than ourselves and more than the present moment, we trade that cuteness for a prickly strength. Even wild Bella, uninhibited and free of a past, with no one to lecture her about a woman’s proper role, was still cute—and therefore vulnerable—while she had a child’s mind. She could be made the creature of others, their amusing plaything or project. But the more she knew and thought about the world, the less possible it became for anyone to dominate her.
That is the feminist lesson of the film. But for me, Poor Things raised a different question: can we ever have it all? Can we, now that we have been civilized by our elders and taught to use our minds, draw on years of experience with a mind as fresh as a child’s? Can we trash all the accumulated biases and fears and get back in touch with pure instinct? Is it still in there?
“I am finding being alive fascinating,” Bella announces. I hope I can still say that when I am eighty. I want to grow less serious. More open, more candid, more alive to joy. But I notice that, like my body, routine and precedent weigh a bit heavier every year. They bring a sweet safety, and I am coming to cherish their ritualized comfort. These Hobbit tendencies alarm the former me.
Sartre measured our freedom by how little baggage we carried. How do I make myself set both custom and cynicism aside, at random and frequent intervals, to make room for spontaneity? How do I let my— I am about to use the phrase “inner child,” please forgive me. It feels inevitable in this context. That dangerous child, locked up in the tower lest she topple reason’s throne…. How do I set her free? How do I let her voice remind me what I still need to go explore and discover in the world?
Fabulous as the film is, the book on which Poor Things is based goes far deeper, with greater eloquence. “Only bad religions depend on mysteries, just as bad governments depend on secret police,” Alasdair Gray writes. “Truth, beauty and goodness are not mysterious, they are the commonest, most obvious, most essential facts of life, like sunlight, air and bread. Only folk whose heads are muddled by expensive educations think truth, beauty, goodness are rare private properties. Nature is more liberal. The universe keeps nothing essential from us — it is all present, all gift.”
A child grabs for any present, thrilled to rip off the bows and wrappings and pull it from its box. All grown up, I complicate the process and let it intimidate me.
“There is a world to enjoy, traverse, circumnavigate,” Bella said brightly. “Let us do this.”
With Poor Things, Yorgos Lanthimos has given us a film that is funny, sharp, poignant, imaginative, and visually stunning. I wonder if he knew his baby-woman would also summon a New Year’s resolution for the other end of life.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.