Written 02 February 2024
I saw this last night at Plymouth Arts Cinema. The cinema itself was much fuller than normal, possibly because the film is nominated for Best Picture, but it was good to watch a film in a great venue with lots of other people; about a dozen is a good turn out for the films we tend to go and see there!
It’s a long film, about two hours and twenty minutes long and I have to say that for the first hour and three quarters I was not enjoying it at all. The film presents us with Bella Baxter, a modern day Frankenstein’s monster, created by Dr Godwin Baxter who discovers a pregnant woman apparently dead after jumping from a bridge into the Thames but revives her body by transplanting into it the brain of her unborn child. Dr Baxter then enrols one of his students to observe the Bella experiment, with the student becoming entranced by Bella and ending up engaged to her.
I saw the film in three parts: we have young Bella, who is growing into maturity but is awkward, uncoordinated, naive, childlike and wholly without social skills. The second part covers the sexual odyssey of a maturing and sexually voracious Bella who goes on a tour of Europe with a lawyer, encountering life for the first time in Lisbon and then in Alexandria, giving money to the poor, ending up penniless in Paris and turning to prostitution in a brothel. Then there is the now mature Bella returning to her dying creator to marry her betrothed only for this neat conclusion to be interrupted by the arrival on the scene of the man who was married to the Victoria, the woman who committed suicide. Bella decides to join him, only to find he is a monster who wishes to subdue and possess her and comes to understand why Victoria killed herself. Bella escapes and the husband is shot, she and her previous fiance then do marry while the husband has the brain of a goat transplanted into him and they carry on Dr Baxter’s work after he dies.
The visuals in the film are fantastic: there is a lot of black and white and then vivid colours, and the world in which it is set is a mashup of late 19th Century Europe but with the addition of aerial monorails, flying contraptions and so on (think His Strange Materials). The ideas are intriguing (the book by Alasdair Gray on which it is based is definitely on my list) and the performances are strong.
Now I mentioned at the beginning that for the first hour and three quarters I did not really enjoy the film. In fact I’d go further and say I found it was an unpleasant experience. The humour (based largely on Bella saying inappropriate things in straight laced London and slapstick based on how Bella moves) was tiresome and predictable. Part two, Bella on her travels, was the longest but much the least interesting part of the film. It seems to consist almost entirely of sex scenes: first Bella and her lover, then with assorted clients in the brothel. It was far, far too long. But as Bella discovers that she has had a baby and wonders why there is a scar at the back of her skull it does get very interesting.
Imagine having a character who finds out that she is actually a child living in its parent’s body. Or a parent with the brain of its own child. Transhumanism. Imagine what a good script could do with that idea, or the idea that a controlling husband wishes to subdue his wife but is actually exercising control over his own infant. Bella herself, so sentimental in some ways, is instrumental in the effective murder of her husband (or her father?). Worlds would open up to an imaginative script. But not only is the film not really interested in these themes, it seems the characters themselves aren’t. What a waste: this could have been such a fantastic film, but even though it falls far short of its potential it is well worth a watch and worth its Oscar nominations and is still a film that will live in the memory.