Geometric abstract doodle with eyes, teeth, and other body parts. Own work, 2024.

The joie de vivre of Poor Things

Sex in art needs no excuses, part 2

by AK Krajewska

In last week's episode, I made the aesthetic-ethical claim that sexuality itself is a legitimate subject of art. I want to pick up where I left off, with the example of three films that take sex and sexuality as their subject, though to very different degrees: Poor Things, The Devils, and Liberté. I'll take the films in order from most approachable and easiest to justify as art to the most challenging.

Poor Things #

Yorgos Lanthimos' 2023 film is a kind of sexy-gross Bildungsroman about a girl in a dead woman's reanimated corpse speedrunning becoming a woman. Bella, whose development we follow in the film, embraces life in every way. Her mad scientist father-creator does not teach her shame or fear and encourages her curiosity. Naturally, this leads to a very different experience of the world than most children have, in addition to the whole, you know, starting out with an adult body thing.

One of the things Poor Things explores, and at considerable length, is what would it look like for a girl-young woman-woman to learn about sex without the shadow of fear or shame. So, when Bella discovers the pleasure of masturbation, her father doesn't shame her about it (though her other caretakers aren't thrilled) and she joyfully shares her amazing discovery with everyone who will talk to her. Even as she later learns to be a bit more private about masturbation, Bella never stops thinking of self-pleasure as an unmitigated good. Next, she is seduced by a rake, whom she matches and exceeds in joy and vigour and desire for variety. The sex scenes are lengthy, athletic, and somehow fun, funny, and sexy all at once.

Emma Stone and Mark Ruffalo in Poor Things by director Yorgos Lanthimos

Emma Stone and Mark Ruffalo in Poor Things (2023) by director Yorgos Lanthimos. Image courtesy of Disney.

Later, having outgrown the rake in every capacity, Bella spends some time working in a brothel. She has a great deal of very silly sex with people whose tastes vary wildly. My favorite was the guy who wanted to pretend he was a crab. Even the bad sex is joyous because of Bella's attitude of curiosity, openness, and acceptance. Her adventures show that even the most casual and transactional sex can be beautiful.

All of this is, no shit, quite unrealistic. Despite all the risks, she's never in danger and no one harms her. Her feelings are never seriously hurt. She never gets pregnant or worries about it (though maybe as a reanimated corpse she can't). She never catches an STD, although she does discuss it as a concern. The sexual joy without danger is as much part of the fantasy as reanimating a corpse or making weird monster hybrid farm animals.

The sex Bella has onscreen expresses her development as a character and as such could be justified as not gratuitous because it's in service of character. Even so, if you judge the sex in Poor Things as being in service of plot or character, it might be easy to find it excessive or unrealistic. But, I think a big part of what Poor Things is about is sex itself, showing how central it is to our being, and imagining how sex could be in a different, fantastical world. The sex doesn't need to be justified. The sex is its own end, artistically.

Next time #

I was going to write about all three movies but I got caught up in weird sexy details of Poor Things so, The Devils and Liberté will have to wait. Psychosexual religious fervor and fake walls! Libertines in a forest talking about pee! And so much more.