Poor Things cast on its ‘raunchy’ sex scenes

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By Rebecca LaurenceFeatures correspondent

Atsushi Nishijima Emma Stone  and Mark Ruffalo in Poor ThingsAtsushi Nishijima

Emma Stone, Mark Ruffalo and Willem Dafoe star in Yorgos Lanthimos’s Oscar-tipped Victorian fantasy, Poor Things, which has drawn attention for its nudity and sex scenes – but are they what they seem?

The critically acclaimed Poor Things, which was released in the US last week, has been called “the raunchiest movie you’re likely to see this year”. Its frequent nudity and numerous sex scenes featuring its star, Emma Stone, are a major talking point, leading Justin Chang in the LA Times to call it “one of the most sexually forthright movies ever released under the Disney banner”.

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Adapted by Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos and co-writer Tony McNamara from Alasdair Gray’s Victorian-age, Frankensteinian 1992 novel, it follows Bella Baxter (Stone), a young woman brought to life from a corpse by the experimental scientist Dr Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe).

I think it’s gotten a little bit prudish, like a new Victorian age – Mark Ruffalo

When we first encounter Stone’s character Bella – who has been reanimated with the brain of an infant by the reclusive and craggy Baxter (whom she calls “God”) – she speaks and walks with the jerky cadences of a toddler and learns 15 new words each day. As the film progresses, Bella discovers sex, which she approaches – like food, dancing and music – with an uninhibited exuberance and lack of knowledge or care for 19th Century social mores.

For a mainstream release and a top Oscar contender, albeit from the offbeat stable of Lanthimos (The Favourite, The Lobster, Dogtooth), Poor Things is remarkable for its generous inclusion of enthusiastic (and female) sexuality, within a contemporary Hollywood system that has been accused of increasing censoriousness with regards to sex.

The stars of Poor Things on sex, nudity and ‘prudishness’

“I think it’s gotten very… a little bit prudish, and like a new Victorian age, in a sense,” Mark Ruffalo tells the BBC. He plays the caddish bounder Duncan Wedderburn in the film, who whisks Bella away on a grand tour where they engage in a series of vigorous and hilarious sex scenes.

“She has no shame about her body and her sexuality and who she is, and I am so proud of that aspect of the film,” Stone told the New York Times. “It was a very intrinsic part of the novel itself, her freedom about everything, including sexuality,” Lanthimos noted at the film’s premiere in Venice, where it took home the Golden Lion.

‘Cultural oppression’

Echoing the themes and gothic conventions of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Gray’s Scottish meta-novel is a strong social critique that satirises Victorian prudishness towards sex while nodding to the modern reader’s fascination with it.

Lanthimos’s version is set in a retro-futurist steampunk universe, with outlandish Victorian-inspired costumes by Holly Waddington, and fantastical production design; it’s shot by DP Robbie Ryan at awkward angles, using a fish-eye lens. As theatrically removed from reality as it is, Bella’s voyage of discovery in the film – sexual and social – reveal to her individual and systemic forms of oppression and injustice, that in turn, may reflect more contemporary concerns.

[America] has been having a reckoning with sexuality, with women’s rights, with autonomy for a long time – Ramy Youssef

Ramy Youssef, who plays Max McCandless, a medical student who falls in love with Bella, says the film can be read as a modern satire. “I think in America, everyone is kind of prudish,” he tells the BBC. “This country has been having a reckoning with sexuality, with women’s rights, with autonomy, for a long time, and here comes something that doesn’t really talk about it, but in not talking about it, it’s really talking about it.”

Mark Ruffalo adds: “I think that’s what’s so remarkable about this movie, it’s… shaking off this cultural oppression in a lot of ways.”

Willem Dafoe argues that the film’s humorous approach can play a part in holding up a mirror to audiences’ own limiting beliefs: “I think a movie like this, that makes you laugh at our conditioning, laugh at how tight we can be, how self-oppressed… I think people yearn for personal liberation, and that helps. That helps the world.”

Yorgos Lanthimos Bella's (Emma Stone) voyage of discovery in the film reveals to her individual and systemic forms of oppression and injustice (Credit: Yorgos Lanthimos)Yorgos Lanthimos

Bella’s (Emma Stone) voyage of discovery in the film reveals to her individual and systemic forms of oppression and injustice (Credit: Yorgos Lanthimos)

Not everyone is on board with Lanthimos’s bawdy interpretation of the source material, however. In an otherwise positive review, BBC Culture’s Nicholas Barber bemoaned the diminution of the social commentary in Gray’s novel for a more intoxicating approach. “Traces of Gray’s views on feminism and socialism are still visible, but it can be hard to spot them amid the endless sex scenes and the retina-scorching production design” he writes.

While Ann Hornaday writes in The Washington Post that the film enters “ambiguous territory” with Emma Stone’s sex scenes: “As thoroughly committed as Stone is to the bit, there are moments when viewers might wonder for whose benefit she’s baring it all so bravely. As real ideas begin to overtake Bella’s hedonistic instinct, the idea of her finding agency through hyper-sexualisation admittedly feels freeing, but also undeniably gratifying for the men looking through the lens.”

Similarly, Adam Nayman in The Ringer praises Stone, but criticises Lanthimos’s “carefully tasteful (as opposed to thoughtful) deployment of nudity to implicate the viewer (but never himself) in what is essentially a voyeuristic, fetishistic scenario. Because Stone is so good… Poor Things deftly sidesteps any charges of exploitation, but the flip side is that its depravity feels rote. We’re never mortified, just amused.”

However the sex scenes in Poor Things are perceived, the sheer bravery and audacity of Stone’s performance is undeniable; she is currently the strong favourite to take the Academy Award for best actress next March, according to Oscars prediction site Gold Derby. “A tour de force” declares Hannah Strong in Little White Lies, while Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian writes “[Stone] takes it to the next career level”.

And the inimitable Bella Baxter is undoubtedly a role that Emma Stone relished taking on: “My God, she’s the greatest character I’ll probably ever get to play,” she told the New York Times.

Mark Ruffalo, Ramy Youssef and Willem Dafoe spoke to the BBC’s Tom Brook.

Poor Things is on release in the US and will be released in the UK on 16 January.

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