Yorgos Lanthimos’ misogynistic retelling leaves much to be desired.
When I booked my ticket to see Yorgos Lanthimos’s adaptation of Poor Things, I was already apprehensive. As part of my literature degree, I had lived and breathed this book for the last four months, and utterly fallen in love with Victoria. The name Victoria may be unfamiliar to you if you have only seen the film- and that was one of the many reasons I walked out of the cinema not only disappointed, but actually offended.
I have laboured over whether using the word offended is the correct adjective here, and I have come to the conclusion that yes, it is. I was insulted by Yorgos Lanthimos’ film. I am not suggesting that in order for an adaptation to be enjoyable, it needs to be a hundred percent accurate to its book; however, I ask that when the book you are adapting was written as a direct questioning of British conservatism, you do not make a misogynists wet dream. It is unfair of me to suggest that Lanthimos was not enamoured by Gray’s Frankenstein retelling – of course he was, he obviously read Bella Baxter’s letters and fell as in love with her as Archie (inexplicably renamed Max in the film) does. However, if you have read the book, you will understand that spoiler! Bella doesn’t actually exist. Yes, you heard it, the woman with a baby brain you watched writhe in a series of beds for almost three hours, is an utter fabrication of Archie McCandless (the second name is completely mispronounced to the cringe of every Scottish viewer McCAND-less…not McCandles). In a feat of pure genius, Gray switches the tone of his book in its final few chapters and reveals that Bella Caledonia is actually Victoria McCandless, a doctor from working class Glasgow (more on this later) married to fellow Glasgow University Medical School graduate, Archie. And no, she didn’t have her unborn child’s brain transplanted into her skull- she actually was a devout feminist, and set up countless health clinics in Glaswegian schemes, saving the lives of thousands. In Gray’s version, readers see direct commentary on how rich men revel in taking the voices of working-class women and not only infantilising them, but reworking them in order to entertain themselves. In Lanthimos’ version, he is the rich man, taking the voice of Victoria and completely disregarding it, instead focusing on the hypersexuality of walking-sex-doll Bella Baxter. Side note: the book (shockingly) doesn’t include an extended period of Bella being a prostitute, she does not have sex with a father instructing his sons, she does not have a ball gag shoved in her mouth, all while, and I cannot emphasise this enough: she has a baby brain in. her. Head.
The film feels bizarrely voyeuristic (I swear if one film bro tries to tell me this is just Lanthimos’ ‘style’: I know that. I still don’t like it.) often leering in on Bella as she ‘finds herself’ through various sex acts. The sex in this film does not further the plot in any interesting means, just as the setting doesn’t either.
Being told the film was being taken out of Glasgow was like an actual punch in the gut. The late, great Alasdair Gray embodies the phrase “People Make Glasgow.” Locals speak fondly of seeing him out in the West End, his art is displayed on our buildings, though not in Glasgow, one of his quotes is engraved in the Scottish Parliament building. So to the argument it would be “disingenuous” of Lanthimos as a Greek man to make a film about Anglo-Scottish relations, I counter: don’t adapt a story that features Anglo-Scottish relations as a key theme. As a Glaswegian woman, it genuinely became hard not to take aspects of this film personally; this is a story that at its heart is about the oppression of working-class Scottish women. The schemes Victoria works in are the schemes my family are from, the humour is told in my dad’s accent, the walks characters go on are the walks my mum took me on when I was a child. And for Lanthimos to surgically remove the city from a text that literally says “a nation is only as old as its literature” it’s not just annoying, I think it clearly shows an absolute misunderstanding of the text he claims he loves. So, if this is his understanding of Gray’s story, the film was never going to be good! If he saw Victoria as being unnecessary to the plot, he proved Gray’s point! Rich men love infantilising poor women. Bella Baxter is not a feminist icon for the new age, and frankly, to suggest that she or this film is at all empowering is limited at absolute best, and unbelievably misogynistic and classist at worst. One and a half stars: that literally only belongs to Emma Stone, who could both play a convincing character AND stick to a single accent. Shocking.
Illustration by Lydia Kempton