Poor Things: Mark Ruffalo Embodies the Stupidity of the Patriarchy to a Tee


“Who is you?” Poor Things protagonist Bella Baxter asks the strange man who has found her in her secluded home. With a self-satisfied smirk and a dodgy, slurring accent, the man entertains Bella by first wearing a goofy hat and then by pinching her between her legs. So pleased is he with the liberties he can take with her body, that the man doesn’t seem to notice Bella’s childish behavior, the way she blows bubbles or speaks in the third person.

All he’s interested in is how Bella seems excited by his presence. And so he saunters away with a smile after answering her question, introducing himself as “Mr. Duncan Wedderburn.”

Duncan thinks that he’s hit the jackpot. “I hate polite society,” he tells Bella (Emma Stone) with flourish. “It’s fucking boring and destroys one’s soul.”

And yet, as Duncan and Bella continue their relationship, his statement proves to be just one more example of false bravado. As portrayed by Mark Ruffalo, Duncan Wedderburn is the ultimate liar, a man who decries polite society while also relying on the patriarchy to enforce his desires.

Poor Things and Poor (Male) Behavior

Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos and written by Tony McNamara, who adapts the novel of the same name by Alasdair Gray, Poor Things features many bad men, beyond Duncan Wedderburn. Although he clearly has more sympathy for Bella and her autonomy, the scientist Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe) aka God and his assistant Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef) see her as little more than an experiment.

Lanthimos and his co-creators make that sense of ownership clear in the sequence in which God and Max talk about the latter marrying Bella. The two talk about Bella as if she belongs to God, and while asking a father figure for a woman’s hand in marriage is common in the movie’s Victorian setting, the two men are especially inconsiderate of Bella’s feelings. It’s God who tells Max to marry Bella, insisting on the limitations that he puts on his “experiment.” When Max expresses hesitation, he does so not with regard to Bella’s preferences, but to God’s intentions. When the subject is broached, Max pauses because he assumed that God intended to mate with her, a suggestion that God dismisses with a focus on himself and not on Bella.

Any viewers feeling sympathy toward Max and God might contrast the two to General Alfie Blessington (Christopher Abbott), husband to Bella when she was called Victoria. A confused Bella tries to make sense of the situation, which Alfie takes as an opportunity to control the narrative. When she asks, “You are?” Alfie talks less about himself and more about her relationship to him. “You left in a state of mental addlement and hysteria over your pregnancy,” he explains. “On the discovery of your absence I felt disembowelled.”

Although Bella emphasizes her agency when she agrees to go with Alfie, the scenes that follow indicate the extent of his control over her. When she asks a female servant, “Tell me about myself,” the woman says nothing, fearing her employer’s reprisal. As Bella tries to assert her selfhood against Alfie’s understanding of Victoria, resisting to the point that he threatens to shoot her, Lanthimos and cinematographer Robbie Ryan move the camera around him, pushing up close to his face, increasing the sense of disease and claustrophobia.

And yet, despite these bad behaviors, none of the men in Bella’s life are as reprehensible, or risible, as Duncan Wedderburn.

The Danger of the Doofus Duncan Wedderburn

We first meet Duncan at the end of the first act of Poor Things, when God hires him to review the contract drawn up in regards to Bella’s marriage to Max. “Must be quite a woman to warrant such binding,” Duncan says with more than a little relish. It’s that curiosity that drives Duncan to excuse himself and see Bella for himself. And yet, as he sneaks through God’s mansion, Duncan trips on the stairs and falls on his face, immediately undermining his power in the eyes of the viewers.

Throughout Poor Things, both Lanthimos and Ruffalo delight in exposing Duncan as a doofus. The film switches from black and white to surreal technicolor when she goes to Lisbon with Duncan, inviting the suggestion that he is bringing her to a new world of sensual delights. However, even in the montage of sex acts that follows, the score by Jerskin Fendrix continues to waver off key and an iris shot of Bella on top of Duncan surrounds her with darkness.

Throughout the sequences of her abroad with Duncan, Bella tries to claim for herself the same libertine ideals that Duncan evokes, only to find him getting angry at her. When she talks frankly about his semen at a dinner table, Duncan responds with mortified anger. When she shows signs of leaving him, Duncan locks Bella in a trunk and takes her on a cruise, far from her potential lovers in Lisbon.

But even within these more violent moments, Poor Things invites viewers to laugh at Duncan’s impotence, in every sense of the word. When Duncan tells a still excited Bella that he, like all men, cannot continue immediately after climaxing, she asks, “It is a physiological problem? A weakness in men?” Lanthimos cuts to a close-up of Duncan, capturing Ruffalo’s drooping face and embarrassed expression, trying to explain without giving into the way she’s exposed him.

In perhaps Ruffalo’s best scene, Bella informs Duncan that she has raised money from sex work. In her usual frank style, Bella tells Duncan that the experience of having sex with a strange man has only increased her desire for him, a revelation she thinks he will take as a relief. But instead, Duncan is shocked and upset, hurling sexist insults at her and punching the air.

Neither attempt to attack Bella finds its mark. Instead, Ruffalo lets Duncan make an utter fool of himself, proving once and for all that his character does care very much for polite society when it allows him to control women. But when he encounters a woman who actually doesn’t care, then he’s rendered a completely impotent buffoon.

Duncan’s Impractical Love

“I am enjoying this practical love we have,” Bella tells Max toward the final act, after she leaves Paris and returns to London to stay with the ailing God. Against his behavior at the start of the movie, in which he deferred to God as Bella’s owner, Max now proves himself an attentive listener who acknowledges Bella’s wants and needs.

That’s a lesson that Duncan never learns. In his final scene in the movie, he interrupts Max’s wedding ceremony to Bella, bringing Alfie with him. As the toad that he’s always been, Duncan hides behind Victoria’s husband, ducking out only to hurl an insult and then returning to his safe position behind Alfie, the very model of the demands of polite society.

Duncan’s behavior in his final scene reveals something that was true throughout Poor Things. Many men don’t actually hate polite society. Instead, they rely on its ability to control women. And yet, as obvious as that truth may be, it’s something that Duncan never realizes, making him the ultimate patriarchal buffoon.

Poor Things is now streaming on Hulu.

The post Poor Things: Mark Ruffalo Embodies the Stupidity of the Patriarchy to a Tee appeared first on Den of Geek.

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