Emma Stone in the dance scene from Poor Things (Yorgos Lanthimos, 2023). Screenshot courtesy of Searchlight Pictures


Dance+: Poor Things

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Emma Stone in the dance scene from Poor Things (Yorgos Lanthimos, 2023). Screenshot courtesy of Searchlight Pictures
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Dance scene from Poor Things (Yorgos Lanthimos, 2023)

Take one

Georgia Howlett

At first glance, Bella Baxter is just a woman. Look a little longer and you’ll notice she stumbles like her ankles are bolted to stilts at jaunty angles. At first glance, we’re in dusty, sombre Victorian London, but frightful half-breed animals scream of either a regressive future or a past gone horribly wrong. Bella (Emma Stone) is the result of a brain transplant experiment by Doctor Godwin (Willem Dafoe), or God. Godwin himself was subject to his father’s unspeakable trials in the name of science, his face a patchwork quilt of stitches. Confined to a dreary monochrome mansion, Bella sputters only a handful of words, but her development hastens when aided by Godwin’s beguiled assistant (Ramy Youseff). She is hungry for the world beyond these walls, landing her on a hedonistic pleasure quest with a debauched lawyer, the melodramatic Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo). In a ballroom, on a cruise ship, in an ocean both gothic and turbulent, a dance unfolds.

Jerskin Fendrix provides the off-kilter score. A foot-pedalled brass monstrosity chugs deep, monotonous notes, softened later by cheeky twinkles. Bella begins to twitch, shake, and then rock in her chair, like erratic lines on a heart monitor. Standing up, she gallops in teeny tiny little steps, broken by rapid twirls, arms stiff and outstretched like a toddler as she advances towards the musicians. Duncan interjects with a jolly skip. An aggressive paso doble is born, and then dies with Duncan wrestled into headlock, but smiling, to maintain civil appearances of course. After swinging him through backbreaking spirals like girls in a playground, they join the group in a stifled hopscotch. But Bella is adamant to break free. With glee, she shunts and thrusts her way closer to the sound in a sequence of poses: fingers clicking and legs strutting, chest buffed and head thrown back, a giddy hyena grin.

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Her dance is devoid of ego, unreliant on the attention of observers

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And yet, Bella is not posing for anyone. The delight of this scene is that her dance is devoid of ego, unreliant on the attention of observers. Bella is unaware that dance implies performance. The ironic presence of stuffy elites, restricted to their glazed, small-talk waltzes, is wonderful purely because Bella barely blinks an eye. Dance is an unflinching reaction, emerging with a primal urgency present also in her impulsive, predatory pursual of knowledge. Unfettered by past physical experience, Bella lives, and now moves, in a vacuum, an unrealistic though desirable example of a person unhampered by society, not lost in its maze of constructs.

Duncan’s dancefloor interjection is a sober reminder of his assumed ownership of Bella. She, though, has no reason to believe she can’t exercise free will in any given moment: her naivety births fearlessness, but not innocence. In this film, Lanthimos often blurs the lines of consent beyond distinction, but the dance scene is not one of those moments; rather, it is a landmark in Bella’s evolution as Frankenstein’s feminist monster, liberated by a certainty of her rights.

Poor Things is set in cities we know yet seem never to have seen before. Lisbon and Paris appear like paintings. Watercolour blotched skies bleed in colours almost tangible for Bella to touch and taste.

The uncanny is subtly everywhere, as defiant in logic as Dali’s hypnagogic visions. Europe is rendered surreal enough for us to accept an absurd plotline, to not be utterly repulsed by the concept of putting brains where they don’t belong. The dancefloor, however, is grounded in universal desire. How many adults do not know how it feels to dance, to play? Bella’s physicality is worth investing in as much as her dot-to-dot learning of a feminist future. And though her stop-start steps have not been ironed smooth, this is the first moment her body takes her beyond A to B. She laps up movement like she gorges on a pastel de nata, makes love, and feasts on those skies with eager eyes.

Dance is a recurring feature in Lanthimos’ films. One learns so much through a way a person moves, the shades of a character that dialogue merely grapples with. Lanthimos takes human nature, turns it inside out and back to front, and creates, albeit through morbid methods, a fresh bud of a girl, who looks out at the world in a way we never can again: with crucial, untainted frankness. What a joy to witness dance through her lens.

Unlocked by the most unpleasant melody, in this scene Bella is struck by the urge to move in a brief but rollocking reminder to ‘sing for the private joy instead of the public ear’ (Nell Dunn). That is, to move not with thought but instinct. The impulse to dance is something that, like Bella’s sexual desires and intellectual hunger, can be satisfied for one’s self but not owned by another – it is hers, and she devours it.


Take two

Lena Megyeri

When Bella Baxter (Emma Stone) gets up on the dancefloor in a Lisbon ballroom, it signals a turning point both in her life and in her relationship with her smug dandy lover, Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo). We shouldn’t be surprised: sometimes a dance can change everything, after all.

Bella is a young woman who, despite having the body of an adult, is still in the process of developing basic skills and exploring the world, much like a child. (There’s a reason for that, which is unknown to Duncan and is also only fully revealed to the spectator later on in the movie.) At the time of the Lisbon adventure her verbal skills are still moderate: she speaks in strangely roundabout, grammatically incorrect sentences. Her walking is also unnatural, her body stiff and her movements somewhat uncontrolled. Still, when she hears the first beats of the steely, mechanical music that the band starts to play, she is physically seduced: she needs to dance.

Blue Quote Mark

Who’s leading whom on the dancefloor?

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Duncan has had an ambiguous attitude towards Bella: driven crazy by her antics, yet unable to resist this curious, unscrupulous creature. This is all reflected in this scene too: when he sees her joining the dancers, he panics at first, but then decides to just go with the flow and make the most of the occasion – resulting in one of the highlights of Ruffalo’s entertaining performance. Sometimes he tries to tame Bella and adapt to the formal steps of the others dancing in a neat circle around them, but sometimes he gives in and goes along with the girl’s raw movements that almost look involuntary, as if instinctively responding to the music. Who’s leading whom on the dancefloor? It is impossible to tell, it changes all the time; a power game in the disguise of a light and fun dance.

Choreographer Constanza Macras, who also worked on director Yorgos Lanthimos’ previous movie The Favourite, explained how the group movement that at first glance looks a lot like ballroom dance is actually highly inspired by Portuguese folk dance, while Emma Stone’s choreography grew mostly from her character, with the actress adding some elements to it during the shooting. Her weird and wild movements might look ridiculous in contrast to the crowd’s orderly steps, but they are actually rather fascinating. She is like a contemporary dancer who has accidentally landed in the middle of an old-fashioned Swan Lake performance: Even though she’s out of place, she demonstrates so well how expressive dance can be, how different – how much more.

When the couple finally return to their seats, Duncan catches Bella exchange winks with a tall, bald man (it is none other than István Gőz, one of the founding members of Hungarian dance company The Symptoms; indeed most of Poor Things was shot in Hungary, and it features many Hungarians in the cast and crew). While Duncan grapples with the man, Bella is invited by the other guests to join them as they go dancing in the city. ‘I have never danced in the city!’ says Bella excitedly.

For Bella, this dance is not only another new bodily experience, nor just another stage of her development, but a dance of liberation. When Duncan tries to prevent her from going to the city without him, she resists: she won’t be guarded and guided any more. Bella finds her integrity, and Duncan is lost forever under the spell of this remarkable woman. Yes, sometimes a dance can change everything. 

Theme: Dance+
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