Poor Things, the newest movie from offbeat director Yorgos Lanthimos, offers us plenty to think about: nudity, the word “rakish,” a burning desire for cropped Victorian jackets. In the film, we meet Bella Baxter (Emma Stone), a woman-child created by a controversial scientist (Willem Dafoe) who found her dead pregnant body in the Thames and implanted her baby’s brain into her adult head, jolting the resulting hybrid back to life. As weird as this premise sounds, it’s pretty transfixing once you get used to it, and the film follows Bella along a series of madcap adventures across the globe, many of which involve food, vigorous sex, socialism, or some combination of the three. Plenty of parallels have been drawn — to Frankenstein, to Freud, and even to Lanthimos’s other excellent collaborations with Stone. But to me, the most telling comparison is one that critics were quick to catch onto at the movie’s Venice Film Festival premiere: Poor Things is the much raunchier older sister of Greta Gerwig’s Barbie.
In the broadest strokes, Barbie and Poor Things — which, coincidentally or not, are also two of this year’s buzziest releases — follow the same plot: A naïve woman conceived under some fantastical circumstances and controlled largely by men ventures into the real world, where she stumbles upon upsetting revelations about gender and social inequities. Eventually, she arrives at some sort of enlightened new headspace, having confronted the ugly truths of the world and developed her own sense of agency. Unlike some older biblical loss-of-innocence plots I can think of, Bella’s and Barbie’s journeys are celebrated — as unpleasant as tasting the forbidden fruit of these harsh realities may be, it’s also clearly the right choice.
Are these creationist stories successful? The jury is out. Barbie runs out of gender-theory road somewhere around hour two, coming to a sputtering close. Poor Things has received a heftier share of backlash, largely as a pseudo-feminist circus of exhibitionism penned and directed by two cis men. Both have been criticized as ideologically muddled. Personally, I didn’t feel satisfied by either movie’s take on female empowerment. But I also found them to be thoughtful, ridiculously funny allegories for modern womanhood that, at the very least, give us something to chew on well after the credits roll. The biggest thing they have going for them is deceptively simple: They’re just so fun to watch.
That’s true in the most straightforward sense — these movies and their showy imagery are hugely pleasurable to look at. Gerwig dialed every set detail into Mattel’s vast world of pink and plastic, joining a decades-old aesthetic with her own artistic vision, and the result is the aesthetic equivalent of standing under a confetti cannon for 114 minutes straight. The movie’s endless parade of archival doll outfits also inspired one of the most fashion-heavy press tours of the year. Similarly, the costuming for Poor Things warped vintage styles into a new, edgy expression of femininity: comically large sleeves, lobster-tail bustles, conservative wool coats worn as minidresses. Where Barbie brought a stale brand concept to vibrant life, Lanthimos and his team worked off drawings from Poor Things’s source material, a 1992 novel written and illustrated by Alasdair Gray. The film adaptation stretched Gray’s Kafkaesque imagery into a whimsical re-imagining of Victorian-era Europe that the director has said shows the world through his protagonist’s wide eyes. There’s such a strong sense of play in both projects that you get the sense these teams thoroughly enjoyed creating what’s happening onscreen, and that feeling is contagious.
Which isn’t to say that the acting is in any way unserious. Bella and Barbie are major physical undertakings for their portrayers: Margot Robbie starts the movie doing the best mime acting this side of the 19th century, and later we watch her struggle to wrap her head around elements of the non-plastic world, as when she sips actual liquid from a real cup. Stone, meanwhile, was tasked with moving her adult body like a toddler, then a 6-year-old, a tween, and eventually a grown woman, which she executes to a tee. In stories that put such a fine point on the loss of innocence experienced as a woman, these performances are wildly effective — the knowledge the characters gain changes how they move through the world, literally.
Stone’s and Robbie’s performances are also persistent reminders that, when we first meet them, neither is quite what we’d consider an adult woman: One is a doll, and the other is … well, she’s a baby. It’s surprisingly fruitful to explore female agency through characters like these, both of whom were created by men and take it upon themselves to define their existence on their own terms. What makes them want liberation when neither of them were created to be free? What makes us root for them to get it? For all the cathartic female rage dominating pop culture this year, why are these women — who feel anger, yes, but also awe, sadness, love, and joy — so compelling? Maybe it’s because, despite all this philosophical musing, their stories never feel weighty, and we get to experience the full spectrum of emotions along with them. We can have a little optimism as a treat. Because, for all its downsides, womanhood is not all pain and suffering.