Poor Things and Frankenstein's Girlies
On the lineage of the Bride, intellectual horniness and the sexy baby trope.
I’ve always had a problem with the Bride of Frankenstein (1935).
Namely, that there’s not enough Bride. Although Elsa Lancaster's image as the Bride, with her tall hair and bandage-chic dress, has long been an indelible part of horror iconography, she has barely five minutes of screen time. That’s only five minutes of (reanimated) life before she is set on fire after rejecting the Creature. Within a few minutes of coming alive and a single, scorched scream, the Bride is gone.
It’s a shame, because The Bride is a creation of the movies. In Mary Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein’s Creature is a disappointment to his maker. He is not a beautiful, glorious effigy to Dr. Frankenstein’s genius, but a monstrous reminder of his hubris. If he cannot have his creator’s love and guidance, the Creature demands a mate instead. When his demand is not granted, he kills Frankenstein’s bride, Elizabeth. The Bride does not exist as a character, as such, in Shelley’s novel. She is unfinished. Her creation is requested by the Creature, but it’s the movies that delivered her.
In subsequent reimaginings of the book, her story has often been presented in a similarly sidelined way. In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994), a gaudy, gothic ego trip by writer-director-star Kenneth Branagh1, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham-Carter) is revived as the Bride after she is murdered. In the few minutes of reanimated life she gets, she is made to dance with her brother-husband-maker2 and forced to pick between Frankenstein and the Creature with the same tact as one would try to make a cat choose between two types of kibble. Still trying to grapple with the whole death and reanimation thing, Elizabeth (correctly) chooses to set herself on fire instead of being a plaything for either of the men in front of her: the one who killed her and the one that brought her back to life.
In Bride of Re-Animator (1990), Brian Yuzna made a sequel to his own take on Frankenstein. It followed a similar pattern to the 1930s original by introducing a lady monster into a previously boys-only mad scientist scenario. Here the Bride (Kathleen Kinmont) is a deceased girlfriend, reanimated. This Bride is a mangled prize doll, muscle tissue exposed and coarsely stapled together except where it counts (ie. tits and ass), her posture stiff like a wind-up ballerina. Amongst the usual Yuzna gorefest is a moment of desperately sad self-awareness when the Bride rubs herself up against one of the men who made her, supplicant, her neck and limbs still twitching. “I don’t want your body,” one of them says, repelled. The Bride, rejected, rips her heart out, screeching “Is this what you want?”. This time, at least, she gets a few words in.
The only moment of agency in the Bride’s narrative is her rejection of this life. Because her story is always a footnote to that of the men who create her, the only act of true independence she can do is to self-destruct. She realises that she was better off dead than hanging about with the men who had brought her to life for their own fulfilment. Not very live, laugh, monster of her.
Some films have given her a bit more room to play with. Most notably, the period piece oddity The Bride (1985), with Jennifer Beals in the lead role and Sting as Dr. Frankenstein (Sting! Sting!), who escape together after she rejects the Creature and Frankenstein’s lab burns down. Christened Eva, she is the more successful of Frankenstein’s creations: beautiful and ignorant. A sexy baby. Unaware that she used to be someone else’s dead bits, Sting’s Frankenstein begins his process of making her into a “perfect companion”, whatever that means. Listen, The Bride is not a good film by any metric of what we consider “good”. It’s oddly paced, bizarrely cast and seemingly has no interest in unpacking what it means to cast a biracial woman to be sculpted and introduced into society by a white aristocrat. The Bride, despite itself, is a strange realisation of one central, great idea: what would happen if the Bride ran away?
Frankenstein is in the bones of Poor Things. Yorgos Lanthimos’ adaptation of the Alisdair Gray novel blends together the Bride and the Creature into one Bella Baxter, a woman brought back from the dead by an eccentric scientist. Many reviews have included some sort of combination of “steampunk”, “horny” and “Frankenstein”. All of these words I’m on board with. Mostly, I want to see what the Bride would do for the duration of a whole movie, left to her own devices.
Bella is Frankenstein’s Bride if she were designed as an intellectual experiment, not a living sex toy. She has none of the horror stitching of Frankenstein’s creature. Instead of a patchwork of corpse scraps, she was someone once, and has only two visible marks reminding her of that past: the C-section scar on her stomach and a dainty hidden one on the nape of her neck from where her child’s brain was implanted into the body of its mother. (Poor Things asks you not to think too hard about the ethical quicksand of this situation, same as Big did back in 1996.)
Emma Stone is given the rare chance to design a character’s entire journey of intellectual and physical emancipation. The film awakens with Bella, her world turning to colour as she discovers pleasure through masturbation, “furious jumping”, travelling, empathy and reading (in that order). Her travels take her from the custard tarts and the teal-tinted sea of Lisbon to the turmeric skies of Alexandria and a musty-looking brothel in Paris. It is impossible to be unmoved by her as her crank-pedalled movements and unbothered exclamations evolve into rich thoughts. Bella has no need for pretending, so she doesn’t. It is a shamelessness that women are simply not familiar with and it is exhilarating to watch.
Meanwhile, the men of Poor Things are pathetically obsessed with Bella. There’s an edge to the paternal love of her reanimator, Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe), himself the subject of many experiments that have left him heavily scarred and unable to process foods without the aid of heavy machinery. (Dafoe is the kind of rare performer who can play sex freaks and the kindest of souls without ever being out of place as either.) His love for her is evident, but she is also his prize creation. Bella is studied and observed millimetrically: her nutritional intake, hair length and vocabulary are all registered. Godwin’s sweet apprentice, Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef), falls in love with her after being hired to monitor her development, his fascination quickly turning to what he calls love. He agrees to her “ownership” being transferred to him upon marriage, but she is whisked away by Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo). This self-appointed greatest lover in the world becomes jealous as her sexual appetites surpass his ability to satisfy them. Finally, the film’s weakest spot is Alfie Blessington (Christopher Abbott), Bella’s body’s former husband, who is just a parody of a steampunk incel.
There is a second Frankenstein’s girlie in Poor Things, deployed only to reinforce Bella’s specialness: Margot Qualley’s Felicity is alive in principle only, occasionally showing up to boink things with a hammer and not much else. She does not have Bella’s rabid curiosity, so she is not paid much attention to. For the men in the film, Bella is the perfect specimen: a pristine, empty vessel to be moulded. The fun starts when they all fail. In Duncan’s eyes, Bella is DTF and unburned by clinginess. And in a lesser film, Bella would become convinced she needn’t explore further after meeting him, but she out-fucks him. She skates by the Born Sexy Yesterday3 trope. She is sexy baby, but instead of falling for the first man that comes her way, she plays around with some of them, plus herself, plus some fruit, plus some women, and never settles. The film’s use of sex as her path towards self-discovery is unconcerned with being erotic, and neither is Bella. The sex in Poor Things is silly, like much of real-life sex is. In this world, there are no bodily fluids, and no shame. Bella is mechanically horny, uninterested in the implications or messiness that comes with along with “furious jumping”. There is no longing, no real desire: it’s all discovery for her. If it feels good, she wants more of it. The sex serves the same function as language does for Shelley's Creature: it allows for Bella’s evolution into herself. Her unworldliness does not impede her from recognising when she is being kept prisoner. The story of the Bride is, always, about possession, but Bella manages to set herself free.
We rarely see the Bride after her rejection of the men who create her. In most adaptations, no matter the level of faithfulness to Shelley’s text, The Bride ends up destroyed. She instinctively rejects the half-life of surveillance and obedience offered to her by her creator. The Bride is just a body, reanimated, rarely allowed the time to become someone. Bella Baxter finally gets the time. She is what I imagine would happen to The Bride if she ran away instead of running into the fire.
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Branagh made huge efforts to make everything his character did seem dizzying and epic, including sewing his dead bride’s head onto another woman’s body.
Not enough footnotes in the world to get into the layers of mess of this film.