Poor Things poster

See how the Oscar®-nominated Poor Things hits the Save the Cat! story beats.

Written by: Tony McNamara

Based on the book by: Alasdair Gray

Directed by: Yorgos Lanthimos

Genre: Fool Triumphant (a fool whose innocence is her strength, coming up against an establishment, leading to her transmutation into someone new)

Opening Image: In vivid color, we see the back of a woman, but not her face; she is, in essence, invisible. We pull back to see that she stands on a precipice and, in slow-motion, set to discordant music, jumps to her death.

Set-Up: In Victorian England (filmed in black and white), we meet Bella Baxter (Emma Stone) in her thesis world—a strange, monosyllabic creature who stumbles around like a toddler, pounds on piano keys just to hear the noise, and spits out her food at the table. She is watched over by the quintessential mad scientist and Dr. Frankenstein wannabe, Godwin “God” Baxter (Willem Dafoe) and his lackey, Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef), who is desperate to understand what Bella is and where she came from.

After Max discovers a series of startling medical charts, God breaks down and tells him the truth about the things that need fixing: Bella was an unknown, pregnant woman who committed suicide and God took the brain of her still-living fetus, implanting it in her head and reanimating the corpse. Yes, we are watching a lifespan—from birth to adulthood— in the body of a very-recently-dead woman.

Bella’s speech and mobility progresses as she “ages,” and like any child, she is wildly curious, restless, and demands what she wants when she wants it. Of course, the men in her life see themselves as protectors, not only because she is a child in a woman’s body, but because she has a woman’s body and women’s bodies are the property of men.

Bella, however, proves to be a rebellious, wily, and innovative captive; she simply cannot be caged. And as soon as she discovers the delights of masturbation, God decides it’s time to reign in her sexuality; she will marry Max and both will stay in his home forever.

Theme Stated: Regarding scientists and philosophers, God tells Bella, “They pushed the boundaries of what was known and paid the price. But that is the only way to live.” Bella will cross every line and break every boundary in her quest for self-knowledge, with all the requisite suffering along that path.

Godwin Baxter
Godwin Baxter, with an emphasis on the first syllable

Catalyst: Enter Duncan Wedderburn (a truly hilarious Mark Ruffalo), self-proclaimed cad and womanizer. As all “bad boys” do, he promises Bella freedom, but ultimately wants to control her just as much as the other men in her life.

Debate: Bella is wildly intrigued by Duncan and the prospect of traveling with him to Lisbon, but what about her betrothal to sweet Max? She declares she will go with Duncan as an “experiment” and then come back to marry. God eventually gives in, seeing that his creation has a mind of her own, but Max is horrified and threatens to kill Duncan. His anger is kind of sexy to Bella, honestly, but she chloroforms him anyway.

Break into Two: Bella and Duncan take off to her antithesis world, a gorgeous, unnaturally color-saturated Lisbon (a place that could only come from the mind of Yorgos Lanthimos), and they have sex. Lots and lots of sex. Regarding this “furious jumping,” Bella asks, “Why do people not just do this all the time?!”

B Story: Bella’s relationship with Duncan Wedderburn, from the sublime to the ridiculous, will chart her progression from wide-eyed innocent to adult, and help to work out a lot of her inner bad guys along the way.

Duncan Wedderburn against a wall
Duncan Wedderburn, in over his head

Fun & Games: Watching Bella exert her independence all over Lisbon is an absolute delight. Wearing a short skirt like a little girl, she devours her new life in great gulps, overeating pastries, dancing wildly, getting into fistfights, and of course, having lots and lots of sex.

Unleashed, Bella is truly uncontrollable and the overwhelmed Duncan starts to batten down the hatches, at first for her safety, but soon for his ego. And so he literally puts her in a box (a steamer trunk) and promising a new adventure, takes her on a cruise in the middle of the ocean where she can’t escape him. Bella is not happy about this turn of events, but when her anger turns to cruelty, she is perplexed and unsettled by this new emotion.

Meanwhile, back at the lab, the downcast Max and God decide to look for another dead woman to reanimate. And let’s just say that Felicity (Margaret Qualley) is no Bella; after months of work, she can say two words and barely catch a ball, much to the doctors’ chagrin.

Midpoint: In a false victory, dowager Martha von Kurtzroc (Hanna Shygulla) tells Bella, “As years have passed, what’s in between my ears is my big concern; what’s in between my legs, much less so.” This new idea—that Bella could have a life of the mind rather than just be a sexual plaything for men—captivates her. She starts reading Emerson and talking about philosophy and Wedderburn grumbles that she is losing her “adorableness.”

Bad Guys Close In: When the ship stops in Alexandria, Harry Astley (Jerrod Carmichael) shows her the slums and poverty just outside the hotel where the rich are feasting, and Bella is distraught. She impetuously gives all of Duncan’s money to two sneaky shipmen who promise to deliver it to the poor and is crushed when she realizes she’s been had.

Harry Astley maintains that that all people are cruel beasts and Bella starts to contemplate who she will be ethically, determining that she will be someone who improves the world. But for now, she and Duncan are destitute in Paris.

Bella stands in the snow with Wedderburn on a bench
Bella and Duncan don’t love Paris in the wintertime.

Bella, ever practical, turns to prostitution to make a buck and Duncan, who has been teetering on the edge of sanity for a while, goes mad with rage and jealousy. Bella finally sees Duncan for who he really is and cuts him loose; she will just have to go it alone and earn her living with something she’s quite good at: “furious jumping.”

But soon, the endless parade of horrible sexual experiences begins to dim Bella’s spirit; the whorehouse madam, Swiney (Kathryn Hunter), says that Bella is going through her “dark period” and she must keep heading towards the light.

All Is Lost: God, who is dying of cancer, sends for Bella. On his deathbed, he finally tells her the truth about her origins.

Dark Night of the Soul: Bella is devastated by this revelation; not only did her mysterious former life end in suicide, but in her current life, she is nothing but a monster. God disagrees. Yes, she is an unusual being, but she has fearlessly created “Bella Baxter” for herself.

Break into Three: Bella realizes that while she may not understand her past, she can decide what her future will be: she will marry Max. It may not be complete synthesis, but it’s a start.

Finale: Bella gathers the team and executes the plan, but at the wedding there is a truly astonishing high tower surprise: the vengeful Duncan has found Bella’s husband from her former life and Alfie Blessington (Christopher Abbott) wants her back. God and Max strenuously object, but Bella sees a chance to finally understand herself and, as usual, will leave no stone unturned in her quest. She leaves with Alfie.

It only takes a few days for Bella to figure out why “Victoria” took her own life. Alfie is a sadistic monster and plans on his wife undergoing genital mutilation, a clitorectomy, to reign in her sexuality and make her quiet and obedient. Bella responds by grabbing a gun and shooting Alfie, but she doesn’t kill him.

She is no longer to be someone who destroys, but one who improves the lives of others, and her own. She will become a doctor/scientist like her dear God and her first order of business is to replace Alfie’s brain with that of a goat’s—a vast improvement, if she does say so herself.

Final Image: In the garden of God’s house, we find Bella in true synthesis: unmarried, but close friends with Max; having rescued one of her “sister” prostitutes and helping Felicity to flourish; and studying her medical books while Alfie the goat-man nibbles on plants by her feet. We end on the perfect opposite of the Opening Image: Bella has turned everything around and now we see her face, happy, satisfied, and at peace.

Bella Baxter raises a glass of champagne while lounging on an outside recliner
A toast to a perfect Final Image