Victorian Popular Fictions 6.1 13 Esser

“Our own means of production”: An Ouidate Reviews Poor Things

Yorgos Lanthimos (dir.), Poor Things (film). Ireland/‌UK/USA/‌‌Hungary: Element Pictures, Film4, Fruit Tree, 2023

Reviewed by Helena K. Esser

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Recommended citation: Esser, Helena K. 2024. Review of Poor Things (2023 film), Victorian Popular Fictions, 6.1 (Spring): 139-42. ISSN: 2632-4253 (online) DOI:‌/10.46911/GPTT8863

When I watched Yorgos Lanthimos’ 2023 film, Poor Things, the first among my many thoughts was: “This is like something out of a Ouida novel.” On the surface, of course, the clearly neo-Victorian film adaptation of the equally neo-Victorian 1992 novel by Alasdair Grey can have little in common with the works of a Victorian author of popular fiction who has been systematically sidelined in memory and scholarship. However, this highly stylised, larger-than-life coming-of-age story of Bella Baxter also features, like many of Ouida’s works, a sexually independent heroine, through whom the story closely examines how gender is culturally produced in a patriarchal (Victorian) society and how female bodies are expected to behave under the male gaze but can also find agency. The film’s frank discussion of female sexuality has stirred no little amount of outrage among audiences and critics, even those self-identifying as feminists – thereby exposing how the lack of certain theoretical frameworks can skewer a work’s reception.

All of these are landmarks of Ouida’s oeuvre as well (see Gilbert 2005; Schroeder and Holt 2008; Jordan 2011; Hager 2014; Pykett 2016; Esser 2024a). As such, Poor Things can tell us much about contemporary popular gender politics and the state of feminism, but also about cultural memory and new/old impulses for neo-Victorian fiction. Whereas this is certainly material enough for a longer study, I will attempt a brief outline here.

Among the frameworks needed to fully understand the works in question, that of neo-Victorianism is the most general. By default, the fantastic story of Bella (played in the film by Oscar-winning Emma Stone), whose infant mind has been transplanted into the adult body of her deceased mother by the eccentric and himself cyborg-ian Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe), not only roots itself in seminal nineteenth-century popular fiction such as Frankenstein (1818), but re-evaluates the era from a contemporary perspective (Heilmann and Llewellyn 2010: 4). The film starts with a recognisable Gothic premise, with its sinister implications around female identity as both physically and psychosocially vulnerable to the whims of the patriarchal power of fathers and doctors – familiar to scholars of Gothic fiction, sensation fiction, and asylum-obsessed neo-Victoriana, ranging from countless novels to Emily Autumn’s music and Penny Dreadful (2014–16). However, its prevalent preoccupation is not with “resurrecting the ghost(s) of the past, searching out its dark secrets and shameful mysteries, insisting obsessively on the lurid details of Victorian life, reliving the period’s nightmares and traumas,” while understanding “the nineteenth century as the contemporary self’s uncanny Doppelgänger” (Kohlke and Gutleben 2012: 4). Instead, saturated by surrealism, hyper-real aesthetics, and anachronisms, Poor Things can be better understood as a steampunk film that flaunts a playfully warped a-temporality as its defining feature (see Esser 2024b) and invites audiences to approach it as allegory rather than mimesis.

Through the prism of a rapidly growing woman who possesses a sexualised adult female body, but none of the cultural conditioning that comes with it – Bella has never been taught, and hence does not experience shame – the film systematically confronts and exposes how female bodies are expected to perform in a patriarchal society: Godwin (who is content to let Bella call him “God”) and the timid would-be suitor Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef) both seek to police and confine Bella in the name of protection, one to gratify his ego, the other out of an instinctive sense of chivalry. Both are premised on the woman’s ignorance and infantilisation. Bella, meanwhile, explores her budding sexuality with enthusiasm.

Duncan Wedderburn (a delightfully unhinged Mark Ruffalo) most potently (and amusingly) catalyses how gender dynamics are re-framed if the female party refuses to play her socially assigned part. A virile, hedonistic cad, Wedderburn seduces Bella away, seemingly excited to “ruin” her – indeed, a popular trope in Victorian fiction from Dickens to Hardy. However, Bella remains a willing and active participant in their frankly depicted sexual escapades – which she terms a “furious jumping” – and remains wholly ignorant of the power dynamics that supposedly govern their relationship. She neither regrets her elopement or erupts into the hysterics Wedderburn expects, nor lets herself be intimidated or curtailed by his masculinity, boldly frustrating the paradigms of the Fallen Woman role in which she has been cast with her level-headed inquiries. As she simply rejects Wedderburn’s schemes to control her, at once increasingly obsessive and futile, it is he who is driven to madness and hysterics as his own gendered identity in a patriarchal order (and his meta-fictional role as villainous seducer) falls apart.

When Bella chooses to engage in sex work out of a practical need for money – a journey during which the usual, expected, and sensationalised violence and misery of both Victorian and neo-Victorian fiction fails to manifest – Wedderburn, now reduced to jealousy and stalking, calls Bella a “whore” in the street, attempting to reign her in through public shaming. Bella and her friend, on their way to a socialist meeting, barely turn around. “We are our own means of production,” Belle declares, re-claiming her body from a gendered capitalism.

Similarly, Bella defies Harry Astley’s (Jerrod Carmichael) nihilism with which he seeks to tame her joyful disposition, and the abusive violence of Alfie Blessington (Christopher Abbot), the patriarchal triple-threat (he is an aristocrat, a military man, and an abusive husband) that drove her mother to suicide. In the end, Bella finds a happy ending with her alternative family, which includes a McCandles who now meets her on equal terms.

Many aspects make this film a revolutionary neo-Victorian steampunk creation, including its surreal rather than Gothic lens, and the absence of voyeuristic re-enactments of the viscerally gendered trauma that, in many neo-Victorian fictions, is billed as “feminist.” In line with its practical approach to bodies, the film also re-imagines sexual encounters, its neutral wide shots robbing the sexual act of mysticism, erotic power, and unequal power dynamics. Historically and still nowadays, sex scenes in films have of course been instrumental in objectifying female bodies, both before and behind the camera, as #MeToo has shown; but Poor Things certainly presents an intriguing bid to rethink our approach to sex, intimacy, and power, as indeed recent queer theory demands (Cerankowski and Mills 2014). That the sex scenes, which Stone herself shaped as both actor and producer, proved to be so controversial with audiences (as any Google search will demonstrate), is not only ironic but also an indictment of our lack of productive frameworks around sexuality, autonomy, and erotics: what does it say about us that we still view female sexual pleasure with suspicion? Does this collective need to police Stone’s body on screen illustrate the film’s core argument?

In many ways, the film’s explicit sexuality echoes the reception of Ouida, who was known (and feared) for her works’ “red-hot passion and ultra-Swinburnian fleshiness” (“Novels” 1880: 841). But the film also takes up the excess and hyper-realism with which Ouida was identified, and both certainly confront and defy our expectation of “the Victorian.” For all its innovation (which I hope will inspire more), Poor Things actually does not re-invent the wheel – or, in this case, the Victorians.

Ouida, too, constantly explores young women’s coming of age as an (albeit often fatal) confrontation with the male gaze that seeks to re-define and subsume what they have hitherto understood as natural, half-wild bodies, be it in Under Two Flags (1867), Tricotrin (1869), Folle-Farine (1871), Moths (1880), or Guilderoy (as I explore elsewhere). She depicts violent husbands (and marital rape) in Moths and a “Fallen” woman who, through her ignorance of social convention, retains her purity in Ariadnê (1877), but also famously explores how adventuresses and Femme Galantes successfully leverage their sexualised bodies within a gendered patriarchal economy – becoming their own means of production, too. Lastly, Poor Thingsclosest Ouida counterpart is perhaps Princess Napraxine (1884), a novel that (as I explore, again, elsewhere) both recognises sexual intimacy as a catalyst for female agency or lack thereof and explores a radical disentanglement from that sexual economy as potentially re-defining female agency.

To me, these parallels illustrate what Ouida has taught me over the years, namely that nothing we think today is really new, and if we think it is, we probably have not looked hard enough – or we have failed to make sense of the past because we have lacked the vocabulary. Neo-Victorian media has a tendency to affirm a present-day enlightened identity (see Kohlke 2008), but Poor Things’ steampunk aspects also challenge and collapse the distance between past and present, them and us (Esser 2024b: 202).

Like Ouida, the film holds the potential for new and rewarding insights into our relationship with the nineteenth century – if we can find productive ways to engage with it.

Works Cited

Cerankowski, Karli June, and Megan Milks. 2014. “Introduction: Why Asexuality? Why Now?.” In Asexualities: Feminist and Queer Perspectives. London, Routledge, edited by Karli June Cerankowski and Megan Milks, 1-17. New York: Routledge.

Esser, Helena. 2024a. Ouida. Brighton: Edward Everett Root Publishers [forthcoming].

Esser, Helena. 2024b. Steampunk London: Neo-Victorian Urban Space and Popular Transmedia Memory. London: Bloomsbury [forthcoming].

Gilbert, Pamela K. 2005. Disease, Desire and the Body in Victorian Women’s Popular Novels. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hager, Lisa. 2014. “Embodying Agency: Ouida’s Sensational Shaping of the British New Woman.” In Rediscovering Victorian Women Sensation Writers, edited by Anne-Marie Beller and Tara MacDonald, 90-101. London: Routledge.

Heilmann, Ann, and Mark Llewellyn. 2010. Neo-Victorianism: The Victorians in the Twenty-First Century, 1999–2009. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Jordan, Jane. 2011b. “Ouida.” In A Companion to Sensation Fiction, edited by Pamela K. Gilbert, 220-31. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

Kohlke, Marie-Luise, 2008. “Sexsation and the Neo-Victorian Novel: Orientalising the Nineteenth Century in Contemporary Fiction.” In Negotiating Sexual Idioms: Image, Text, Performance, edited by Marie-Luise Kohlke and Luisa Orza, 53–79. Amsterdam: Brill Rodopi.

Kohlke, Marie-Luise, and Christian Gutleben. 2012. “The (Mis)Shapes of Neo-Victorian Gothic: Continuations, Adaptations, Transformations.” In Neo-Victorian Gothic. Horror, Violence, and Degeneration in the Re-Imagined Nineteenth Century, edited by Marie-Louise Kohlke and Christian Gutleben, 1-50. Leiden: Brill Rodopi.

“Novels.” 1880. Examiner (10 July), 841.

Pykett, Lyn. 2016. “Fin-de-Siècle Ouida: A New Woman Writing Against the New Woman?” In The History of British Women’s Writing, 1880–1920, edited by Holly A. Laird, 35-46. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Schroeder, Natalie, and Shari Hodges Holt. 2008. Ouida the Phenomenon: Evolving Social, Political, and Gender Concerns in Her Fiction. Newark: University of Delaware Press.

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