Yorgos Lanthimos had yet to direct a film in English when he went to Scotland to meet with Alasdair Gray about his 1992 novel Poor Things. It was probably early 2014, (Lanthimos didn’t specify in an interview with Vogue this May), just five years after his second feature-length film, Dogtooth, stunned Cannes and Los Angeles. Lanthimos recalls having trouble keeping up with the prolific writer and painter, who died in 2019 at age eighty-five—“He was so energetic and excited,” Lanthimos said—as they walked through Glasgow together.
Gray, who had wild silver hair, a strong goatee, and big thick glasses, pointed to buildings he had incorporated into Poor Things, like the University of Glasgow where he once taught. He could have led Lanthimos across the pedestrian suspension bridge from which one of his characters leaps, or down to the Glasgow Humane Society that stands below it, where the bodies of such suicides are collected. Lanthimos may have seen some of the murals Gray had painted around the city, like the celestial ceiling of Òran Mór, an arts and entertainment venue and former church.
Born in Glasgow in 1934, trained as a painter at the Glasgow School of Art, Gray published dozens of books, including novels, plays, and collections of short stories and poetry. His debut novel, Lanark, was favorably compared with A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man when it was published in 1981. He produced a “rhymed paraphrase” of Dante’s Divine Comedy (“I cannot call it a translation, as I do not know Italian,” he told The Paris Review). Gray gained a significant public profile in Scotland in part because the explicit social ambitions of his art resonated widely, as seen in the cover he made for a 2014 issue of the Sunday Herald, where the word Yes! appears in one of his many original typefaces to voice the magazine editors’ position on that year’s independence referendum.
Here was a champion of the modern Scottish renaissance eager to show Lanthimos his beloved city; there was Lanthimos, struck with doubt that he could do good work in any language but Greek, preparing to ask for the right to option a masterpiece. When Gray heard Lanthimos was coming, he sat down to watch Dogtooth, the story of a hyper-paranoiac couple who confine their children to a compound. “I had my friend put on the DVD because I don’t know how to operate these things,” Lanthimos remembers Gray saying, “but I think you’re very talented, young man.” The adaptation was a go, in theory, yet it would take years to come to fruition. Lanthimos’s domestic period reached its zenith with Alps (2011), about an acting troupe that helps families grieve by standing in for the dead. The year of the trip to Glasgow, Colin Farrell inaugurated the director’s international period with The Lobster, which reimagines the debutante ball as a safari, followed in 2017 by The Killing of a Sacred Deer—think House meets Saw, alongside Nicole Kidman and Barry Keoghan. Then came 2018’s historical thriller The Favourite, at the time Lanthimos’s biggest project, in which Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz play nefarious cousins competing to offer sex and advice to Olivia Colman’s deluded Queen Anne. The success of these films confirmed two things for Lanthimos: he could make a quality film in English, and the money would be there to do it right.
Lanthimos’s Poor Things, released this month, stars Stone, Willem Dafoe, and Mark Ruffalo in a raucous work of science fiction. An obsessive scientist-doctor named Godwin Baxter (Dafoe) recovers a corpse from a river, likely the Thames. He finds a barely viable fetus in the dead woman’s womb. Baxter has played Mr. Potato Head with animal limbs before, so he devises an experiment: he transfers the younger brain into the adult body, creating a wholly new individual. Bella Baxter (Stone) learns (or relearns) to walk and talk, calling Baxter “God” for short, without knowing of anyone else by that name. For Bella, Victorian England is a warehouse rave: full of sounds, bodies, and substances to be experienced at once. The challenge for Godwin and Bella—as well as Lanthimos—is to sample it all without losing sight of the radical potential of rebirth.
Bella Baxter, the heroine of Poor Things in both the book and the film, often feels like one of those peculiar characters who appear in philosophy. In “Epiphenomenal Qualia,” for example, the Australian analytic philosopher Frank Jackson tells us about Mary, a brilliant scientist who “for whatever reason” has always lived inside a black and white room, learning everything about the world by watching a black and white television. What will happen, Jackson wonders, when we let her out—what knowledge will she gain when she sees the blue sky?
Then there’s the American philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson’s violinist. One morning you awake in a hospital bed, back to back with a famous violinist. He is ill; the Society of Music Lovers have kidnapped you and brought you here because only your blood can be used to save him. Your circulatory systems are linked. To pull the plug would kill him, and the hospital director says he needs nine months of treatment to recover. Do you owe the violinist your time, your kidneys? Does his right to life outweigh your right to freedom? The title of Thomson’s essay is “A Defense of Abortion.” “No person is morally required to make large sacrifices to sustain the life of another who has no right to demand them,” Thomson argues, “even where the sacrifices do not include life itself.” Thomson goes on to say that no one should be forced to make such a choice, and those who have the power to absolve them of that responsibility are morally obligated to do so.
Alasdair Gray created Bella from spare parts to think about these same questions and more: What does it feel like to learn about yourself, others, and the world you live in? What would it be like to emerge in the culture of your age without any of its typical pretenses? Would it be in your better interest to assimilate or go your own way? What moral responsibility would you bare for those around you, people whom you neither know nor understand? How would these questions complicate conventional wisdom in science, medicine, sexuality, and parenting?
The full title of the novel is Poor Things: Episodes from the Early Life of Archibald McCandless, M.D., Scottish Public Health Officer, with a fictionalized Gray credited only as its editor. The book is divided into four parts: an introduction by Gray; an autobiography by Archibald McCandless, which excerpts letters from Baxter and the lawyer Duncan Wedderburn; an alternative account of all recorded events by Bella; and historical and critical notes from Gray. McCandless describes a difficult upbringing in a poor Scottish family which got harder when he enrolled in medical school, where he was ostracized for his provincial Galloway brogue and shabby clothes. He meets Baxter, an eccentric, reclusive post-graduate who sometimes lectures at the university but mostly uses its facilities to conduct private cadaver experiments. “Morbid anatomy is essential to training and research,” Baxter tells McCandless, “but leads many doctors into thinking that life is an agitation in something essentially dead.” He goes on:
They treat patients’ bodies as if the minds, the lives were of no account. . . . But a portrait painter does not learn his art by scraping layers of varnish from a Rembrandt, then slicing off the impasto, dissolving the ground, and finally separating the fibers of the canvas.
So, too, Baxter thinks, should a surgeon look past the tissue below his knife to the full person on whom he operates. The two form a friendship mostly sustained by long walks around Glasgow. One day Baxter brings McCandless to his home, where the younger man sees two rabbits, one black on top and white on bottom, the other white on top and black on bottom, and McCandless realizes with equal horror and excitement that their torsos have been swapped. Baxter, however, is full of remorse; the rabbits used to make love, but now they can’t be bothered. When McCandless returns a few days later, Baxter has reversed the operation. McCandless is still wrapping his head around the medical mastery needed to perform these sequential operations without losing a long-eared patient; if all surgeons were to adopt Baxter’s methods, McCandless thinks surgery would become an “immediate, living art.” But Baxter is more concerned with the morality, the greater meaning of what he’s done to these creatures.
In refreshed spirits, Baxter invites McCandless over again. McCandless hears someone at the pianola playing “The Bonnie Banks o’Loch Lomond” (which you’ve likely heard if you’ve ever been accosted by bagpipes) “so loud and fast that the tune”—in which a Scottish prisoner of war wonders if his soul will return home after he’s executed in England—”was wildly cheerful.” A beautiful young woman with dark hair and bright eyes stands up from the bench unsteadily to greet the men, and immediately McCandless is overwhelmed, then captivated. So strong are his feelings for this Bella, who can barely walk or talk, that when Baxter tells him the story of how her body was recovered from the river, how he chose to respect her choice to take her life by not returning her to it, how he replaced her brain with that of her fetus, McCandless, after a brief panic attack and a sip of port, accepts her anyway. He buys Baxter’s argument that suicide results from poverty, prejudice, and inequality. Inside McCandless deep emotions swell as he feels that “Baxter, his household, Miss Bell, yes and me, and Glasgow, and rural Galloway, and all Scotland were equally unlikely and absurd.” Why not love it all?
But his yearning is soon interrupted as the Baxters leave on a trip to show Bella the world. Fifteen months later, after meeting men from Trieste to San Francisco, Bella realizes that she is in love with McCandless, “my wee Candle,” after all. They talk with greater depth than before. Bella had a governess in San Francisco who taught her poetry, lines of which—“You grew up on a farm! Was your dad a frugal swain tending his flocks on the Grampian hills or a plowman homeward plotting his weary way?”—she adopts as quickly as any child does a new word. They decide to marry.
The couple share their plans with Baxter, who lets out a scream so loud that Bella faints. Baxter, a large, disproportionate, ugly man, whose body was maimed by a father who treated it like his personal laboratory, hoped, like Mary Shelley’s creature, that a bespoke woman could be manufactured to meet his every need. It is a great loss, he tells McCandless, that Bella sees him as her father, not her lover, but one he can get over in time. He asks McCandless to stay away for two weeks. While he waits, however, McCandless receives a note from Bella explaining that while she was still very much committed to marrying him, for now she’s run off with a handsome lawyer named Duncan Wedderburn, a cad who she thinks could show her what it’s like to be abandoned.
So begins Bella’s real development, a process we observe through her frequent letters home to the two moping men. Here Gray seems to distill the sum of enlightenment—both the philosophical movement that spanned Europe from the late seventeenth century to the early nineteenth, as well as a single woman’s experience approaching wisdom—for the sport of it. Bella’s first postcards contain mere strings of consonants—“DNT WRRY”—but soon, as Wedderburn expands her sense of human relationships and Shakespeare gives her the vocabulary to explain her changing views, long verses in iambic pentameter arrive.
When Wedderburn falls ill—in part because Bella repeatedly rejects his marriage proposals—she books them passage on a Mediterranean cruise. There she meets Dr. Hooker, an American, and the English Harry Astley, who teach her about politics. “I have read The Last Days of Pompeii and Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Wuthering Heights,” Bella writes, “so I know that history is full of nastiness, but history is all past, so nowadays nobody is cruel to each other, just stupid sometimes when they get into betting-shops.” Bella listens to Hooker and Astley talk about their business interests and compare British and American colonialism, both noble pursuits, they believe, to civilize the developing world. Bella doesn’t understand.
When the ship arrives in Alexandria, she disembarks with the men. Earlier, Wedderburn discovers the scar from her postmortem caesarian section and suspects she’s hiding a child from him. Bella becomes obsessed with the idea that she has a child somewhere in Latin America, where Baxter had told her she had been in an accident that stole her memory and killed her parents. Astley and Hooker show Bella a game popular with tourists, in which money is thrown off of a balcony, and as Bella watches it hit the ground, she sees maimed, nude, starving women and children scramble. She locks eyes with one little girl and becomes convinced it is her daughter. Her maternal instincts kick in and she rushes down to help until she is dragged away by Astley. The moment elegantly blends the private and the public from the jurisdiction of Bella’s own womb; it also serves as Bella’s political awakening. In her letters home her style mimics the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume: “WOMEN OF LEISURE—Napoleon regarded women as the relaxation of the warrior,” “EDUCATION—Very poor children learn to beg, lie, and steal from their parents.” She feels it is her duty to improve the world, and so identifies as a socialist.
When she returns from her tryst with Wedderburn—during which he became an angels-and-demons basket case—Bella survives a near-fatal run-in with her former husband, General Sir Aubrey de la Pole Blessington Bart, and makes good on her promise to marry McCandless. She starts going by Victoria McCandless, combining the first name she’d been known by in her previous life with her husband’s surname. She enrolls in nursing school—Baxter thought all doctors should start as nurses, since if 80 percent of doctors disappeared, the expertise of their staff would mean patients wouldn’t even notice—with plans to one day have her own practice focused on women’s reproductive health. For Gray (the fictionalized facsimile of the author), these texts have immense significance as they provide a full record of “the first woman doctor to graduate from Glasgow University, a name only known to historians of the suffragette movement nowadays.”
The first thing we see in Lanthimos’s Poor Things is a still of a white quilt, imprinted with a quaint house. A series of such cotton squares passes before a woman in a dark blue dress is shown stepping off a steel pier cap. From the start, Lanthimos establishes Bella’s perspective as central by showing the suicide Gray never describes. How has that perspective changed?
When we meet her properly, Bella sits at the piano, but instead of “The Bonnie Banks,” she plays a string of random, discordant notes with her hands and feet. (In fact, the film bears one small mark of its Scottish origin in Dafoe’s subtle brogue.) “That’s a very pretty retard,” says Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef) later, as he watches Bella dance alone. Max serves the thin narrative purpose left over from Lanthimos’s two-way split of Archibald McCandless, with his naivete going to the himbo ingenue and his unconditional love for Bella to the camera. Most of what made him interesting (plus the other S of his surname) falls to the cutting room floor. Without Archie, we cling to Bella to ground our perspective on the narrative, and as such are led through a visceral carnival of sensations both wonderful and torturous.
Lisbon is where the journey comes to a head. Even as it is an elegant site for Bella to learn to engage the world on her own, it’s an odd choice for her affair with Wedderburn (Ruffalo). Not only does the city appear once in the novel as a marine port en route from Marseille to Edinburgh, but here it is needlessly obscured under the shadows of aerial trams ferrying tourists to and from the sea. Bella’s sense of the place calcifies when she ventures out alone. The Portuguese singer Carminho steps onto a balcony to serenade her with “O quarto,” which, translated, reads:
In this small room
That I thought was just mine
Such a poison infiltrates
What is loneliness and me
Bella is moved by the song if not its meaning, like anyone who can’t understand Portuguese may be (since there are no subtitles). That tin-eared sensitivity is the dominant mood throughout the film. The most disappointing example is in Alexandria, where Bella feels no maternal pang; instead screams on a broken stairway as the score deafens.
In an earlier scene at Baxter’s, Bella wakes up alone in bed, hazy-eyed from an incident (tantrum, chloroform). She stares at the ceiling a while. For some reason, her hand travels waist-ward. This is Bella’s first sexual experience in the film: masturbation without fantasy or stimulus. Downstairs at the dining room table, she brings an apple and a cucumber below her dress, encouraging Max and the maid to join her. In these scenes she’s not so much learning as experimenting. But here, in Lisbon, she has intercourse for the first time—then a second, and nth—and as she develops a taste, she starts to grasp the role of sex in human relationships. She doesn’t understand why Wedderburn gets jealous when he learns she let a man from the bar “perform tongue play,” though he’s relieved they did not “do furious jumping,” i.e., copulate.
In both works, after the Wedderburn affair ends in chaos, Bella needs cash to get home and so takes up as a sex worker in Paris. In the novel, this period lasts three days, in which Bella sees forty men and earns 480 francs. The result is tragic: the madame in charge of the brothel is in debt with the French police, and every cent Bella earns goes toward bribes. For Lanthimos, however, prostitution takes on a much greater significance. It’s here, not Shakespeare, where she learns about different kinds of relationships, as with men who fuck rough and a father who brings his sons in for a live demonstration of the birds and the bees. It’s here, not on the boat from Alexandria after seeing the poor, where she decides to become a socialist. Bella had learned as much from reading Emerson and Goethe as Wedderburn did (he threw the books overboard). In the brothel, another sex worker and occasional lover brings Bella a pamphlet. “You’re whores,” screams Wedderburn when he briefly returns. “We’re our own means of production,” they reply.
Yorgos Lanthimos has never shot a scene in which people make love. Plenty fuck, no question. Two come close; but when the Dogtooth parents put separate pairs of headphones on to creak out missionary it feels too routine, and in The Lobster one man’s psychopath almost-wife insists they keep the lights on so she can stare at him in silence and wakes up early to stab his dog. While not quite passion, Bella devours the cornucopia of sex in Poor Things (I count five distinct positions with Wedderburn alone). In the Vogue interview, Lanthimos and Stone, a producer on the film, talk about it in terms of overcoming shame, self-empowerment, and seeking pleasure. Even as she cried every day of filming the first nude scenes, Stone called Bella “the most joyous character in the world to play,” as “[The] more agency Bella gets, the more she learns and grows, the more it drives these men insane.”
There is one part of Gray’s novel I have yet to address. After McCandless’s book-within-the-book, editor-Gray includes an apocryphal chapter written by Victoria McCandless (aka Bella). Published in 1974, long after their deaths, it is written for posterity. Victoria rejects McCandless’s account of her life entirely. She denies the science fiction of her alleged origin, claiming that McCandless, who could never escape his working class ambitions, fancied himself a great literary mind after his medical career waned. Victoria claims he “filched from” Shelley, Edgar Allen Poe, Arthur Conan Doyle, and H.G. Wells.
As she has it, it’s her suspicious, narrow-minded father, new to the middle class and eager to keep his station, who had married her off to the rotten, wealthy Blessington. And she earnestly fell for him, but he made endless excuses to deny her companionship and animal comfort alike—at the same time that he knocks up a sixteen-year-old. Wanting a more pliable wife, Blessington arranged a clitoridectomy; the doctor on call was Godwin Baxter. When Baxter arrived, he asked Victoria why she wanted the operation. She didn’t really know, but hoped it would cure her heartsickness. Baxter talked her out of it. Later, the pregnant teen confronts Victoria, who finally realizes what kind of man Blessington really is and leaves him. It’s Baxter, Victoria says, who invented the story that she’d lost her parents and her memory in Latin America. He liberated her from that old life so she could study medicine under him. Baxter was always her true love, Victoria says, even if the only kiss they would share is on his deathbed.
A fast and loose reading of this portion would be that Bella is reclaiming the narrative. Gray’s aim is less twee. Alongside McCandless, Baxter, and Gray (as fictional editor), Victoria’s interpretation is portrayed as valid and partial as anyone else’s. Gray even depicts Blessington with some sympathy: in one scene, the general orders his wife to shoot him, his cruelty revealed as the desperation of a mad shell-shocked soldier. Gray did not intend Bella to be omniscient; in fact the real force of his worldview is that it does not exclude others out of hand. Gray welcomes debate, knowing some will lose: Blessington ultimately succeeds in committing suicide. Gray extracts so much meaning out of Poor Things by unifying the form of multiple first-person texts with the content of the tension between personal and social drama.
Lanthimos has proven himself capable of reaching that same unity, but he doesn’t get there in his Poor Things. Scotland could have emerged in a full miniature as if through a small window like England does in The Favourite. His Bella could have recited Shakespeare: in Dogtooth, a girl who learns English by watching Rocky IV and Jaws scolds her rapist brother with words cobbled together from the films. “Do that again, bitch, and I’ll rip your guts out,” she says in a small, resigned voice, “I swear on my daughter’s life you and your clan won’t last long in this neighborhood.” His Bella could have been a lion of a nurse: the troupe in Alps—the most effective of Lanthimos’s films, as well as my favorite—shows how devoting yourself to the care of others can make you desperate and broke and crazy but that it’s worth doing anyway. Even as she skips straight to doctor, Bella already seems to have forgotten her oath to improve the world. Gray’s Godwin Baxter, and Dr. Murphy from The Killing of a Sacred Deer, struggle with the responsibility they bear for their patients’ lives. But here the black and white rabbits have been replaced with charming but random chicken-pigs and duck-goats. And with the same petty vengeance Farrell’s David indulges in The Lobster, Bella holds her anatomy textbook in one hand and martini in the other as she turns a man into an animal. (I like to imagine she flips to the chapter on Hippocrates next.)
Call it entertaining, call it beautiful, call it funny, call it sexy; in every respect you would be correct. One case for Poor Things goes something like this. Lanthimos offers a very particular depiction of sex that neither rises to eroticism nor descends to pornography. By portraying the physicality of curiosity with such great detail and candor, Stone can say more by raising her eyebrow and letting out a gentle gasp than another actress could in soliloquy. The film then is a critique of the prudent, repressive culture which, despite incremental advances in civil liberties and kink-friendliness, still has a long way to go. If this cinema of sex positivity veers into glib snark, it does so with righteous temerity. Even short of that broad aim, the ensemble cast have created a picaresque girl-boss monster movie. In their vibrant, faux-Victorian camp costumes, their bold, sharp playfulness delights us even while mocking our diffidence. Jerskin Fendrix completes the thrilling scandal with a manic admixture of screeching strings that repurposes the typical horror score without its tired form. The result is an enticing portrait of Bella. Most viewers won’t mind that it leaves little room for anyone or anything else; they’ll be content to feel their way through a version Alasdair Gray’s thought experiment, if not perform it themselves.
Recently, Lanthimos’s short film Bleat screened outside Greece for the first time. When I took my seat before the film, a woman was tuning her harp in the makeshift orchestra pit. Shot in black and white on 35mm, the silent film has no dialogue or score. It apparently took years to arrange for the Greek National Opera to be flown to Lincoln Center for the sixty-first New York Film Festival, according to its artistic director Dennis Lim. Bleat is a necrophiliac fable in which Stone pleasures herself with her boyfriend’s corpse and collapses dead atop him; later he repeats the procedure on her and then buries her in the mountains. It’s textbook post-Alps Lanthimos: Stone masturbates with something she shouldn’t, an undeserving animal is killed, and strange, solitary dances are performed.
But I don’t know if Stone realized the ironic poetry of it when she told the audience after the screening, “It’s my favorite thing to not have to speak.” SAG-AFTRA, then on strike, had given Stone a special waiver to discuss Bleat, specifically prohibiting mention of Poor Things. This made me think of a moment in Gray’s novel when Bella/Victoria points out her withdrawn mother’s excessive drinking. Her father says, “Well, if she wants to kill herself by that particular road why should I object? As long as she does it quiet-like in her own parlor. What do you want from me?” Victoria hadn’t been getting the in-house education she’d hoped for, so she asks him to send her to school: in effect, to leave the black and white room, to be detached from the violinist, to escape the repression of her age, to govern her own body, to be born again. It is a loud, strident choice, and it’s the right one.