Jordi Casamitjana, the author of the book “Ethical Vegan”, reviews Yorgos Lanthimos’ 2023 film “Poor Things”, looking at it from a surprising vegan angle
Yesterday was a cold day.
Although the climate has changed considerably in recent years, and I have experienced all sorts of unusual weather, this time it was predictably cold because it was in the middle of British winter. However, it was also a very sunny day, so I could not resist the temptation to go for a walk around London — suitably protected by many layers of clothing and a growing beard.
In the middle of my walk, I passed by a small cinema that was about to show a film I had heard a lot about in recent days: “Poor Things”. This is the latest feature film of the talented Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, starring Emma Stone, who also starred in his previous feature film, “The Favourite.” So far, I have liked all his films because he has a very distinctive visual voice and deals with interesting subjects in surprising ways. And I always have liked Emma Stone in every movie she has been in. So, feeling that providence had led me to wander by a cinema showing the award winning film I wanted to watch, I decided to step in.
I left the cinema very satisfied and uplifted, and when I was walking home, still slightly intoxicated by the magic of the universe Lanthimos managed to create, I led myself to wander into a curious fantasy. I imagine a press conference in London where the cast of the film was answering questions, and from a crowd of real journalists my raised hand was picked up. In my fantasy, I ask this to Emma Stone while she was leaning in carefully listening to my words while trying to past my Catalan accent: “Does the name Anna Kingsford mean anything to you? If not, I would suggest you contact your friend Woody Harrelson, because he knows the way.” You see, in that imaginary hotel hall (like the one in the film Notting Hill), I was being deliberately cryptic hoping to arouse Emma Stone’s curiosity. I was hoping this would make her look at who this woman was, contact the vegan actor Woody Harrelson with whom she co-starred in two zombie comedies, and following his advice finally decide to become vegan herself (something which, having been a vegan for 22 years, I wish for all the talented people I admire).
What happened is that, when watching this science fantasy black comedy film, I realised that there was an interesting vegan angle in which the story could be read, and I was wondering if this was something devised by its creators or just a product of my imagination. I was wondering if Yorgos Lanthimos (or the screenplay writer Tony McNamara) intentionally or subconsciously channelling somebody else, might have embroidered his stunning film with a subtle vegan message. One that perhaps the cast had not even noticed — hence my fantasy about pointing their attention to it. And who could be this mysterious person being channelled through the magic of film-making? It could well have been Dr Anne Kingsford.
A Modern Take on the Frankenstein Novel
“Poor Things” is a fantastical tale of the incredible intellectual and behavioural development of Bella Baxter (brilliantly portrayed by Emma Stone), a young woman living in a stylised weird Gothic version of Victorian London, who is brought back to life by the unorthodox scientist, Dr Godwin Baxter (excellently portrayed by Willem Dafoe), and has to re-learn to become a person from scratch. She does that by meeting all sorts of interesting characters, travelling internally (by maturing very fast) and externally (through a parallel half-old and half-futuristic world) to Lisbon, Alexandria, and Paris.
Therefore, this is a reimagining of the 1818 novel Frankenstein (or The Modern Prometheus), by Mary Shelley, from which many films have been made. This time, the revived “creature” is an attractive young woman (not a scary “monster”), and her brand new brain makes her behave in a very different way than in the original novel — I don’t want to spoil the film as it has just been released, so I will not reveal here what makes her brain unique.
You may think this is the vegan angle I was talking about, but that’s not quite it. It’s part of it, though, as Mary Shelley was a vegetarian, and her novel is often mentioned as sending a vegan message as she made “the monster” vegan. Indeed, the creature refuses to eat meat and says this: “My food is not that of man. I do not destroy the lamb and the kid to glut my appetite; acorns and berries afford me sufficient nourishment.” The vegan scholar Carol J. Adams talks a lot about this novel in her 1990 book, “The Sexual Politics of Meat”, and says “[f]or a work that has received an unusual amount of critical attention over the past twenty years, in which almost every aspect of the novel has been closely scrutinized, it is remarkable that the Creature’s vegetarianism has remained outside the sphere of commentary.”
However, the film is based on the 1992 novel by Alasdair Gray titled “Poor Things: Episodes from the Early Life of Archibald McCandless M.D., Scottish Public Health Officer”, which won the Whitbread Award and the Guardian Fiction Prize. Therefore, the connection of the film with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein started with this modern novel. I wonder if in the novel there is any sign that Bella eventually becomes vegetarian (it occurs to me that perhaps Alasdair Gray might have been inspired by Carol J. Adams’s analysis of Frankenstein, as it had been published a couple of years earlier).
There are two main differences between the film and Gray’s novel, though. Firstly, the novel is very much centred in Glasgow (making a very purposeful social commentary of the city) while there are no specific Scottish references in the film (perhaps I missed them, though). Secondly, the novel is told from the perspective of many characters who met Bella, while the film is exclusively told from her point of view. This, naturally, would place a huge burden on Emma Stone’s shoulders as she had to carry the film having to play a very challenging character with no reference to be based on — but she does it amazingly well, brilliantly supported by Mark Ruffalo and Willem Dafoe. Despite Bella being the character most out of place in an already weird world, we experience it through her eyes, and Stone manages to make us feel comfortable (even through uninhibited sex and social awkwardness) exploring it with her. There is something very raw and authentic in her performance that balances up the bizarreness of her character’s condition.
A One-of-a-kind Woman
Despite the obvious connection with the original Gothic novel, the person I think might have been channelled in this film is not Mary Shelley, but Dr Anna Kingsford, and if you have watched the film you will understand why I think that. In my book “Ethical Vegan”, I wrote the following about her:
“When in 1880 Anna Kingsford, a thirty-four-year-old women’s rights activist from Stratford, Essex, graduated as a medical doctor from the Ecole de Médecine of Paris, it was a big deal. Women were not allowed to practise medicine in the UK, and this is why she had to study overseas. However, she achieved far more than a ‘forbidden’ degree: she did it without having experimented on a single animal. Paris at that time was the centre of advancement in the study of physiology, mostly as a result of experiments on animals, particularly dogs, conducted without anaesthetic. But Anna Kingsford was a leading anti-vivisectionist and a prominent member of the recently founded Society for the Protection of Animals Liable to Vivisection, the world’s first organisation opposed to animal research. She was also a vegetarian (obviously for ahimsa reasons) and founded the Food Reform Society, which promoted abstinence from animal flesh.”
I do not doubt that, if Dr Kingsford was living today, she would have been a vegan rather than a vegetarian, as although vegans have existed for millennia, the term “vegan” had not been created yet when she lived. Her commitment to anti-vivisection (like many social justice suffragists of the time), and her words in her book “The Perfect Way in Diet: A Treatise Advocating a Return to the Natural and Ancient Food of Our Race”, show me that she was not one of those vegetarians who only changed their diet for health reasons, but someone who truly cared about animal rights.
If you look at her country of origin, where she studied, her profession, her caring for those in need, the period of history where she was born, her “socialist” revolutionary tendencies, and her defiance against what was considered at the time “proper” behaviour, you will be able to find many parallels between Dr Kingsford and Bella Baxter. Scenes where Bella spits meat dishes from her mouth, finds pleasure in fruits and vegs, tells things as they are without filtering, tries to reform the institution she is working in, feeds animals who have been horribly deformed through bizarre vivisectionist experiments (switching their heads around), and is horrified when she discovers the suffering of the most forgotten victims of society, reinforce this connection that vividly materialised in my mind at the very end of the film.
Perhaps nobody in the film’s production team knows about Dr Kingsford, but they should, because she, like Bella, was a one-of-a-kind brave woman who became “the first” to break a barrier no woman had broken before, in a place, time, and manner (minus the sexual part) curiously similar than those shown in the film. Something to think about.
Poor Things Could Mean Poor Beings
At first, it was not obviously clear to me why the film is called “Poor Things”, but the novel on which the film is based gives us a clue. As was the case of the 1897 Gothic novel Dracula by Bram Stoker, and other gothic novels of the time, Alasdair Gray’s novel also uses a frame narrative to present itself as a “found document” that the author is just editing (as if the whole thing is a true story). Under this narrative, the “editor” of the novel says this: “I have also insisted on renaming the whole book POOR THINGS. Things are often mentioned in the story and every single characters (apart from Mrs. Dinwiddie and two of the General’s parasites) is called poor or call themselves that sometime or other.”
Chris Lambert says this about the title in his review “Poor Things (2023) | The Definitive Explanation”: “I think the title ultimately gets at this notion that we are all our poor things facing the overwhelming struggle to live well. The experience can break us. But some continue to seize whatever hope is within reach. Either way, the title evokes a sense of empathy for humanity as a whole.”
I would say that it goes beyond that. It’s empathy for all sentient beings, which is what veganism evokes. I think the “channelled” meaning of the title “Poor Things” means “poor beings”, and it is applied to all animals experimented on in the film, all the characters that Bella encounters trapped in all sorts of torment and unfulfilled cravings, the poor people Bella tries to help, and Bella herself (does her artificiality make her a being or a thing?). I believe the film tells us that there is no real difference between humans and the rest of animals (a very vegan message as it touches one of the five core axioms of veganism, the axiom of anti-speciesism), as in the film they are all equally treated as things. In the beginning, when Bella is hardly developed, she appears to be detached from human and non-human animals suffering (two violent scenes illustrate this), and at the end of the film, we see an unexpected twist in which the intimate connection between a human and a non-human animal ends up being physically literal.
Compassion for All Sentient Beings
The remark “You poor thing” is a very colloquial British expression of compassion often addressed to children or people we love while we try to console them or show empathy to them — I imagine Dr Kingsford saying it the first time she saw a dog in the vivisection table being cut without anaesthetics. It is, in a way, the primary gut feeling that would end up being intellectualised in the philosophy of veganism, and all the other philosophies and religions also motivated by the concept of ahimsa (the Sanskrit for “do no harm” or “non-violence”) which fell a bit short of the vegan principles — and which Bella begins to study after meeting an unconventional couple on a ship.
The film starts and ends with this title, but in the end, we hear it completely differently, as if now is coming from Bella’s mind looking at the world’s inhabitants, the mind of someone who has matured from an anarchic rebellious doll to a woman totally in control of her life ready to look after others.
Like all vegans who have been vegan long enough to have explored all the rooms of the vegan mansion, the film makes us also care about the “bad” humans who rather than “evil” appear to be victims trapped in the unfair confines of a corrupted society (captivity is another recurrent theme in this and others of Lanthimos’ films).
For instance, Dr Godwin Baxter, although he could be regarded as the evil mad scientist who causes all the problems, is portrayed as the victim of his own father’s experiments (which can still be seen in his many scars). Duncan Wedderburn (unexpectedly played by the brilliant Mark Ruffalo, who manages to play it just right, as an over-the-top dramatic man without becoming a melodramatic caricature), the pompous womanising lawyer who tries to “corrupt” Bella as the weasel in Pinocchio corrupts the wooden boy) is shown as a desperate man victim of his uncontrollable feelings. The character of Max McCandles (perfect for actor Ramy Youssef who truly makes us care about him), Dr Baxter’s assistant and one of the many who fall in love with Bella, is hopelessly thrown all over the place as a lifeless puppet by plot twists he cannot control. Even Alfie Blessington (convincingly played by Christopher Abbott), the military general who undoubtedly is the most despicable character of all, ends up being pathetically weak and becomes a “poor thing” too.
To pull this off, Emma Stone had to be matched with actors of the same calibre, which Lanthimos successfully did, not only through great casting but through team-building rehearsals and masterful direction (even minor roles were carried by great actors, such as the German actress Hanna Schygulla playing the sublime Martha Von Kurtzroc).
Like veganism gives humanity a second chance to still deserve living on this planet, Bella got a second chance to become a human, but this time, free from societal conditioning that needs time to operate, she does not allow herself to be crushed again under the supremacist oppressive patriarchal society she was first born into. Instead, she liberates herself from it and begins helping others who are still trapped (the sign of a complete vegan).
“Poor Things” is my cup of spicy tea. I like this film for what it is, a delightfully strange dark comedy dipped into the magical realism of a parallel past, with many amusing moments, memorable scenes, Fellinian characters, breathtaking shots, irreverent dialogue, surreal music (by Jerskin Fendrix), and surprising performances, that will transport you to a strangely familiar off-kilter world and leave you suitably entertained.
With scenes that remind me of Wes Anderson’s cinematography on steroids, and the ever-distorted images deformed by the constant use of the fish-eye lens, the uncompromisingly extravagant “Poor Things” is a different kind of film. Like an exciting colourful drink only found at a children’s party, it’s a refreshing cinematic beverage with an odd dazzling look, a weird hypnotic sound, and a mesmerising sparkly taste. Another brilliant quirky film of Yorgos Lanthimos, and another Oscar-worthly physically-exuberant brave performance of Emma Stone.
But in addition to this, it made me think. It made me reflect on important issues. It made me think about science and morals, about men and women, about monsters and freaks, about things and beings. Above all, it made me think about veganism. How this transformative socio-political movement can manifest itself in the most unexpected places, and how the vegan song resonates in so many stories with compassion and hope at their core.
Yesterday was a cold day that was made warmer by an intriguing thought.