Monsters, Women, and Poor Creatures: From Mary Shelley to Yorgos Lanthimos

The "poor things" in the title of the Greek director's film are the women subjected to an eternal, ever-changing, and renewable system of oppression and identity stripping, robbing them of agency and will.

The “poor things” in the title of the Greek director’s film are the women subjected to an eternal, ever-changing, and renewable system of oppression and identity stripping, robbing them of agency and will.

Is it possible or perhaps pertinent to meditate on feminism and female liberation through an absurd and dark comedy, inherently offensive in this era of cancellations, self-censorship, and fear? Is it acceptable in this atmosphere of frenzy, confusion, and tension surrounding the need to fight for social justice to imagine a heroine with a positive, enthusiastic, or even obsessive and challenging attitude towards sex?

Poor Things (warning: there are a ton of spoilers)

The daring proposition of the latest film by Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos and his screenwriter Tony McNamara, Poor Things, is a perverse Victorian science fiction romantic comedy that is both a tribute to Mary Shelley and the seminal work of horror and scientific speculation: Frankenstein. The film is loosely based on the 1992 novel of the same name by the extraordinary Scottish author and artist Alasdair Gray, focusing the perspective on the protagonist’s experience rather than the visions of other characters, as in the book. Lanthimos incorporates elements of horror, romance, and libertine picaresque with a nineteenth-century flavor to tell the story of Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe), who retrieves the corpse of a woman who jumped off London Bridge and decides to revive her through a very original surgical technique. The woman was pregnant, so the doctor replaces her brain (perhaps damaged by the impact or lack of oxygen) with that of the fetus she carries in her womb. In the cinematic tradition of James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931), and with images reminiscent of Maria in Metropolis, by Fritz Lang (1927), Godwin revives the body with electric energy, following the example of Luigi Galvani and his frog legs (1780), as well as Andrew Ure, who made corpses “dance” in 1818. Godwin names the result of this experiment Bella Baxter (Emma Stone), whom he allows to move freely around his mansion (a luxurious house set up in a laboratory, operating room, and morgue), as if she were a child or “a very beautiful retard” and not a prototype to be studied scientifically. Bella begins to discover the world in her glamorous captivity, where she urinates on the floor, plays with food, destroys dishes, hits guests, and mistreats the corpses in the homemade morgue with a scalpel and Baxter’s consent (“Only the dead, Bella”), whom she calls God, short for Godwin, in her still clumsy vocabulary.

Godwin assigns his student Max McCandless (Ramy Youssef) the task of monitoring Bella’s rapid progress and, in a way, taking care of her and guiding her in her learning process. Despite his intention to maintain a scientific distance from his creation, Godwin is a loving and proud father figure, who besides teaching anatomy at the university and developing technological innovations, manufactures goose dogs, ducks with goat bodies, and chickens with bulldog heads as pets. The domestic idyll ends when the mansion is no longer sufficient for Bella, who wishes to go out and discover the world. Her desire is so intense that Godwin must narcotize her with chloroform to prevent her from escaping. In Bella’s mind, there is no room to respect society’s norms of behavior, and when she accidentally discovers the origin of sexual pleasure, there is no limit to her quest. The awakening of her libido takes center stage in her mind, and she seizes every opportunity to “work on herself for happiness,” whether by using fruits or by proposing to McCandless: “Let’s touch our genital parts,” when he proposes marriage. Lanthimos and his cinematographer Robbie Ryan capture Bella’s development process in black and white and gradually shift to color, reflecting her increasing ability to understand the world.

Once Pandora’s box of pleasure is opened, Bella seizes the first opportunity to escape, which comes with the hedonistic lawyer and bon vivant Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo), who seduces her and informs her that “educated society destroys the soul.” Godwin gives his permission and money, as he is unable to repress her. Duncan takes her to Lisbon, Alexandria, and Paris. On the journey, Bella explores the erotic catalog of possibilities of what she calls “furious hopping,” and the only thing that surprises her is that people don’t have sex all the time. In the course of this adventure, aside from abundant sex, Bella matures by confronting ideas, misery, her lover’s jealousy, and ambition. The more independent Bella becomes, the more desperate Duncan becomes. With all his arrogant challenge to educated society, Duncan depends on transgressing social order to create a rebellious character, whereas Bella is entirely immune and resistant to the power of society. The voracious erotic curiosity gives way to a philosophical quest. On the cruise taking them to Alexandria, Bella meets Lady Martha (the great Hanna Schygulla, a favorite actress of Rainer Werner Fassbinder), who is accompanied by a young nihilist, Harry (Jerrod Carmichael). Among their suggested readings is Emerson, who introduces her to critical thinking and individualism. Meanwhile, Harry exposes her to humanity’s incorrigible cruelty. An educated Bella turns out to be more disturbing to misogynistic order than Bella the nymphomaniac. Stone is absolutely fabulous in this role, transitioning from childishness, primordial perversity, and playful chaos to explosively erotic, and then to a captivating composure of maturity.

Left penniless, Bella and Duncan arrive in Paris, where she discovers that sex can be a paid service and soon becomes the favorite in Madame Swiney’s brothel (Kathryn Hunter). There she becomes the lover of Toinette (Suzy Bemba), a socialist prostitute who takes her to party meetings. Duncan is devastated, demonstrating that his libertine spirit hides a stale moralism. Following Bella’s sexual and intellectual awakening comes financial autonomy, class consciousness, and indiscriminate compassion.

In the third act, Bella returns to London because Godwin is dying (the reunion with her father has a very different outcome from Roy Batty’s with Eldon Tyrell in Ridley Scott‘s Blade Runner, 1982), and when she is ready to marry McCandless, Duncan returns to her life accompanied by General Alfie Blessington (Christopher Abbott), who was Bella’s husband and father of the baby she was carrying in her womb when she attempted suicide. The man demands that she return to him, and Bella accepts in order to understand her previous life, when very emblematically she was named Victoria. Her journey between lives represents the death and resurrection of the Victorian woman. Given that Bella is the fusion of Victoria and her daughter, her husband is also her father, heralding a very strange incestuous relationship. Blessington’s solution to his wife’s insubordination is genital mutilation as a form of control therapy.

The first two acts of the film are primarily focused on obsession and fear with the grotesque, with the socially inappropriate, the excesses that shake the Victorian British mentality. Victoria/Bella has an unusual second chance at life, in which she has the possibility to evade the traps of morality and social restrictions. But beyond that, what’s important is that the film is a reflection on what makes us human, on the learned and imposed behaviors that shape acceptable attitudes, those that determine the boundaries between the obligatory, the permissible, and the unacceptable, between society and the “savages,” the dissidents, and the monsters. The repression of impulses and desires is the method of manufacturing appropriate behaviors and emotions. More than the emancipation of a hedonistic and uncontrollable young woman, Bella’s development is about the search for female liberation, and if anything characterizes this Voltairean Candide, it’s that she fears nothing. This tale has particular resonance at a time when censorship and fear of ideas and attitudes have turned much of the educated and conscious population into a useful ally of the most reactionary social sectors. We could even say that the educated society and the ignorant mob will destroy you alike.

The Monstrosity of the Monster

In Shelley’s novel, Dr. Victor Frankenstein constructs a huge body from organs and limbs of corpses, which he describes as follows:

“His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! —Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips.”

Shortly after bringing the creature to life, Frankenstein regrets creating it, refuses even to give it a name, calling it simply the Monster, and abandons it. The newly created being seeks solace among humans, tries to be accepted by society, but its ugliness and size condemn it to loneliness, to rage, and to causing terror. In Lanthimos’s film, the creature is beautiful and the creator is the monster, a severely deformed man, a collage of mistreated humanity, covered in scars caused by the cruel and senseless experiments his father subjected him to in his childhood. Godwin’s father, Victor Frankenstein, and Victoria’s husband represent cruel fatherhood and misogyny. As a result of paternal manipulations, Godwin is impotent, and perhaps because of the loss of his masculinity, he does not attempt to erase or replace the woman from the reproductive process nor does he want to strengthen patriarchy.

Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, maiden name of Mary Shelley, carries in her name the memory of her mother, the philosopher and advocate of women’s rights, Mary Wollstonecraft, who, apart from her best-known work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), wrote about the obligations of motherhood and the education of children, although she could not apply her recommendations to herself, as she died eleven days after giving birth, because the doctor who attended the birth infected her when he inserted his dirty hands to remove the placenta. Years earlier, Wollstonecraft, who did not believe in the institution of marriage, had a relationship with the American diplomat, adventurer, and speculator Gilbert Imlay, who was married. They were together in France during the years of the Terror, after the Revolution. She went from enthusiasm to disillusionment upon seeing the excesses of the Jacobins, in addition to the fact that the revolutionaries denied suffrage to women and in general were as misogynistic as their rivals. Mary fell in love with Imlay, and he aroused in her an unusual interest in sex. She became pregnant in 1795, and when she gave birth to her first daughter, Fanny, he left her. She tried to commit suicide and tried everything to keep him but it was useless. From the following year, Wollstonecraft began a relationship with William Godwin, the author, journalist, philosopher, and pioneer of anarchist theories. They had a love affair, and when she became pregnant, they decided to marry. After Wollstonecraft’s death, Godwin named the baby Mary in her honor, raised her, provided her with an informal education, which sparked her curiosity about numerous subjects, and also offered her his library and the company of intellectuals who visited them.

However, Godwin remarried, and Mary’s relationship with her stepmother was terrible, so they sent her to Scotland. There, like the Monster in her novel, she began to feel rejected and abandoned by her father. In 1814, when she was sixteen, Mary met the philosopher and romantic author Percy Bysshe Shelley, who was twenty, married, and his wife was pregnant. Percy was one of Godwin’s favorite disciples, whom he considered his intellectual father. His biological father had rejected him because of his transgressive ideas and for having been expelled from Oxford after the publication of The Necessity of Atheism in 1811. The romance between Percy and Mary was intense and filled with dramatic moments, readings, and a declaration of love at Mary Wollstonecraft’s grave. They eventually fled from Godwin. Unlike what happened to Bella, the father disowned his daughter. In their flight, they took Mary’s stepsister, Claire Clairmont. Bella, Wollstonecraft, and Mary expanded their horizons in their travels through Europe, where they had similar liberating experiences in terms of sexuality and ideology in different but equally repressive periods for women. But the only one who did not return pregnant was Bella.

Mary Shelley managed to live from her writing, something extremely unusual for a woman at that time. Her relationship with her father was always one of admiration and resentment; she desperately sought paternal recognition, and although she admired her mother’s talent and writings, they were also the work of a ghost and represented a painful wound in her life. Perhaps that’s why she didn’t write about feminism, and although she lived a particular feminism, it was clear to her that those ideas could not cure her sentimental misfortune, especially Percy’s infidelities. Mary and Percy married in 1816, when Harriet, Percy’s wife, committed suicide. Both Bella and Mary Shelley agree to marry despite their ideas, knowing that this contract cannot limit them. That summer, Percy and Mary spent time with Lord Byron near Geneva; Mary’s stepsister became pregnant by Byron, and Mary had the idea for the novel that would make her immortal. Two years before writing Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, Mary lost her first baby, who was born prematurely, and she didn’t have time to give him a name. She became pregnant again when she started writing the book and had another baby when she finished it. Those two children also died, and Percy Florence Shelley, her fourth child, was the only one to survive infancy. Frankenstein was written amidst the illusions of pregnancies and the agony of early death.

Mary Shelley anonymously published the book in 1818, with an introduction by Percy, who also did not sign it. It was dedicated to Godwin and was a success largely due to being a source of scandal, but there were many who recognized its fascinating imagination and dark poetry. Many thought it had been written by Percy. Years later, Mary still had reservations about acknowledging her authorship, so she wrote that she had dreamt the story and had merely transcribed it. Despite her independence and rejection of educated society, she was evasive about the origin of the novel, perhaps somewhat fearful of the repercussions it could have for a woman to confess that this exploration of the depths of morbidity and horror was the product of her imagination. It has been said that the novel itself was a Frankensteinian concoction made up of several parts: at once an epistolary novel, an autobiography, an allegory, and a gothic tale. For many years, numerous critics pointed out that Mary Shelley was simply a conduit, a collector of others’ ideas and styles (from her father, her husband, and even from Byron), that she was a fortunate author for having been surrounded by talented writers and at the same time unfortunate because that company overshadowed her. Fortunately, her genius is no longer questioned now.

The Monster of Frankenstein is left alone, naked, hungry, devoid of language, and abandoned at birth. “Poor, defenseless, and miserable,” it learns to walk by imitating and to speak by listening to the villagers from its hiding place. In this way, it learns that the history of humanity is a dreadful succession of injustices, where some accumulate wealth and the majority suffer in misery. The Monster finds a leather bag with some clothes and objects, but its most valuable contents are three books that will determine its ideology: Paradise Lost [Milton], Parallel Lives [Plutarch], and The Sorrows of Young Werther [Goethe]… Bella, on the other hand, when treated with respect and affection, becomes a generous, intelligent, and aware woman who will follow in her creator’s footsteps to become a doctor.

For decades, Frankenstein has been the favorite cautionary tale about the excesses of science and the dangers of meddling with nature. It is the “catechism for robot designers and inventors of artificial intelligences,” as Jill Lepore writes. Thus, Victor Frankenstein’s remorse has been compared to Robert Oppenheimer’s after seeing the power of the atomic bomb they developed in the Manhattan Project. Whenever a technological advance takes place that could endanger humanity, whether in robotics, genetics, biotechnology, or artificial intelligence, the Frankensteinian threat is inevitably mentioned. While this is a timely comparison in many cases, what is much less pointed out or completely omitted is that the female element of the story, that alchemical-technological childbirth of a monster, represents the desire and terror that sex and pregnancy meant for the author.

The Monster was once interpreted as a metaphor for the French Revolution, as a combination of different forces and currents that, when united with a common goal, initially promised purity, justice, and change but eventually ended up tearing apart (decapitating) its followers, ideologues, and leaders. Although in reality, this being was a reflection of Godwin’s anarchist ideas and his disdain for the feudal order, which used and exploited the masses, as Dr. Frankenstein used stolen bodies for his experiment. At the same time, the abandoned Monster who becomes a murderer is a reflection of Wollstonecraft’s social ideas, who believed that abuse engendered the criminal. But the question that remains open is: what is Victor Frankenstein’s crime: to have violated the natural order by creating life or to have betrayed his creature by abandoning it?

Bella, like Frankenstein’s Monster, are cyborgs, biologically manipulated and technologically reanimated organisms with consciousness and the ability to wonder what they are, why they were created, and what sense their lives have. The Monster is a reflection of the male ideal of power and strength (why else make it large and muscular), while Bella is the female equivalent in terms: an attractive woman, without visible scars, and, like most science fiction fembots, has a sexual appetite that she uses to her advantage, whether it’s Ava the android from the movie Ex Machina by Alex Garland (2015), or Pris, the pleasure model replicant, in Blade Runner. Artificial and modified beings carry ideological signs carved into their skin. And Alfie Blessington’s idea of sexually mutilating his wife is one of the most real manifestations of the notion of modifying the body to change behaviors and minds.

The poor things of the title are obviously the women subjected to an eternal, changing, and renewable system of oppression and stripping of identity, agency, and will. Bella will shamelessly traverse a world where no one tries to stop or repress her, where there is no room for venereal diseases or pregnancy or the brutality of sexual labor exploitation. And while that is unlikely, so are the Art Nouveau-Belle Époque-steampunk machines that make up the technological landscape of that turn of the century or Baxter’s pigs with chicken bodies.

Poor Things, in case it needs explaining, is a fable in which the sumptuousness of Bella’s exquisite and impossible dresses establishes an erotic and ironic dialogue that should be sufficient to make it clear that it is not a realistic work, which detracts nothing from its forcefulness as a feminist proposal and as an update of Mary Shelley’s imagery. This is a delirious and joyful story that is particularly timely in a time like the one we live in, where the gains of women’s struggles have lost ground in several countries (particularly the United States), and the theocratic fascism threatens to return.

Naief Yehya

CTXT, February 9, 2024 [Translation by Chris Montanelli]


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