Sex and Power in Yorgos Lanthimos’s Poor Things

Examining Poor Things, the Oscar-nominated film starring Emma Stone that has audiences divided

One of the dominant questions to arise after the release of Yorgos Lanthimos’s new film, Poor Things, is one that is often directed at cinema: is it feminist? The film, which stars Emma Stone, Willem Dafoe, Mark Ruffalo and Ramy Youssef, was arguably marketed as such, tackling themes of power, sexual liberation and control, against a whacky, technicolor dreamscape backdrop.

The story follows Bella Baxter, a young woman who has been brought back to life in an unorthodox science experiment, and who is effectively a baby experiencing the world in an adult’s body. She’s learning to walk and talk while grappling with the rules of civilized society. As she develops mentally and physically, Bella leaves the confines of the mansion in which she was “born” – and the man that created her – in an uninhibited quest of worldly, and sexual, exploration.

Poor Things is a warped coming-of-age story, one that’s been sped up, exaggerated and stretched beyond the limits of reality. Stone’s character is curious, intelligent (eventually) and strong-willed, and doesn’t stand for the controlling nature of the men – or women – that share her world. The most shocking thing about the character – to the audience at least – is that she enjoys sex, and knows how to wield it as power.

Emma Stone in Yorgos Lanthimos's Poor Things
Emma Stone in POOR THINGS. Photo by Yorgos Lanthimos. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2023 Searchlight Pictures All Rights Reserved.

Sex, and its role in power, is something that Lanthimos’s films often address. In The Favourite, his 2018 black comedy starring Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone, the main characters engage in sexual exploits to win the affection of a deranged Queen Anne. In his 2015 absurdist film The Lobster, it’s a lack of sex that causes tension: the characters are deprived of human contact in order to build passion for a partnership.

Whether the depiction of sex in Poor Things, and the treatment of Bella’s character, is feminist can be argued either way. On the one hand, her carnal desire is expressed without the constraints or shame that society places on women, and the way in which she feeds her insatiable libido is something of a revelation. On the other, it portrays a retrograde fantasy of womanhood through the lens of the male gaze, in which women fuck their way to empowerment and self-discovery.

But the highly stylized and surreal set design, the fantastical costumes, farfetched scientific concepts and dark humor signal that this film isn’t to be taken all that seriously. Certainly, the text shouldn’t form the basis of the next feminist doctrine. It’s too absurd for that anyway. Rather, it should convey a resoundingly fun watch.

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