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YORGOS LANTHIMOS’ 'POOR THINGS': WHEN DID SEX SCENES BECOME A BAD THING?

Little can be said of Yorgos Lanthimos’ Poor Things that hasn’t already been talked about in some form already. Most debates revolve around topics of feminism, the male gaze or comparisons to Greta Gerwig’s Barbie. The camps seem divided between lauding Poor Things as the latest feminist masterpiece, a reclamation of bodily autonomy, or those who deem it a rompy sexfest which objectifies and commodifies sex. Both are valid but are either correct? 



The problem with trying to fit something like Poor Things into a pre-packaged box with the label of feminism slapped on is that it’s reductive. Lanthimos’s latest feature is anything but binary. In broad terms, it’s a rom-com critiquing idealism and also a bildungsroman which explores sexual awakening. Core themes delve into sexual liberation and sexploitation while simultaneously navigating the well-trodden path of both paternity and systemic paternalism. To borrow the title of the 2023 Oscar-winning Best Picture, Poor Things is a bit of everything, everywhere, all at once. 


Courtesy of Searchlight Fox

Bella Baxter (Emma Stone) is front and centre, a reanimated corpse brought back to the decadent world of the living by the disfigured surgeon-cum-father figure, Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe). If it sounds reminiscent of Mary Shelley’s gothic Frankenstein, that’s because it somewhat is. Based on the 1992 novel by Alasdair Gray under the same name, Poor Things is an experiment about letting a harsh reality paint a blank canvas untarnished by shame or standards. 


Bella grows up under the watchful eye of Godwin, or ‘God’ as Bella calls him, within the confines of the surgeon’s spacious house. She is slow, walking stumpily and often in need of physical assistance. Her table manners are as appalling as they are bemusing, although housekeeper Mrs. Prim (Vicki Pepperdine) is hardly charmed. Godwin is laboured by memories of his abusive father, who treated him as a personal labrat. It is an origin story which echoes the dark comedy of Paul Beatty’s novel The Sellout: so appallingly ridiculous you can only laugh. 


In this world where stitched together animal hybrids are the norm – a goose-bulldog and duck-goat wander the Victorian interiors aimlessly – Bella does not seem wholly abnormal. Her life is initially predestined, with a hasty betrothal to Godwin’s assistant Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef) on the cards. It may feel like there is an expanse of characters with odd names but, handily, the plot of Poor Things is uncomplicated. The eccentric costumes, courtesy of designer Holly Waddington, and a zany array of retro-futuristic sets birthed by production design duo James Price and Shona Heath are undercut by a simple, timeless coming-of-age tale. 


Feminism at this stage is a foreshadowed theme, the cogs ticking while the screen splendours in visual delights. That is until Bella, suddenly in possession of a bottomless libido courtesy of a dining room experiment with a particular fruit, decides to embark on a European sexual odyssey. Her chosen companion is fuck boy-turned-simp Duncan Wedderburn, played by a hammy Mark Ruffalo. An exaggerated, aristocratic British accent underlines Wedderburn’s predictable appetite for polite society. His role is one that is marvellously executed: the archetypal man whose lust for women is only outweighed by a lust for money. He is a pathetic harbinger of shame in this bitingly funny film. 



Sure, it’s easy to point out that the director, alongside screenwriter Tony McNamara (who previously collaborated with Lanthimos on The Favourite) are all male. Or that, yes, Emma Stone’s body is certainly on display although I would argue not gratuitously so. But, as Lanthimos himself told Mark Kermode in an interview, the film consciously steers away from Gray’s source text and instead opts to reframe the narrative from Bella’s perspective. The book is saturated by male perspectives, whereas the screen adaption is piloted by a career best performance from Stone, charting the life of a woman not burdened by a moral compass dictated by shame or trauma. It is a small shift, but one that matters hugely for those concerned with the political implications of Poor Things


And that is precisely what they are: political implications. Beyond cyclical discussions about female agency and sexual morality, there lies a cinematic masterpiece laden with unabashed and unrelenting comedy. In a post-Barbie world where clean-cut feminist tropes have taken centre stage, Poor Things does what other films are too timid to do. It does not hold back. 


For all the visual delights (a lurid, steampunk Lisbon) and cinematic quirks (fish-eye lens shots abound), Poor Things tangibly critiques humanity. Is it a film that drips of male gaze sexuality? Not really. The sexual odyssey around Europe is as satirical as it is revelatory: even the self-proclaimed coital champion Duncan Wedderburn is limited by his male refractory period. Ruminations on cynicism versus idealism feed a newly awakened cerebral hunger in Bella, whereas Wedderburn regresses back to his roots as a cash-rich, intellectually-poor patriarch. 


To be upset by Bella’s sexual appetite is to be confined within puritanical models of society. Women should obviously be free to enjoy sex as much as men and you would certainly hope they find it as enjoyable as Bella’s “furious jumping”. Here, pleasure is far from the property of men. It feels somewhat naive to disregard the bawdy hedonism as an inherently male fantasy of nymphomania. But, then again, what do I know? I am just another man, talking about female pleasure. Sometimes a straightforward and much deserved admiration for Lanthimos’ sheer smorgasbord of weirdness is all that is needed, as is the case in Wendy Ide’s fantastic review for The Guardian.

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