Only in Hollywood

[Only IN Hollywood] Decrying why there is no sex in movies, Lanthimos delivers a lot of it in masterpiece

Ruben V. Nepales

This is AI generated summarization, which may have errors. For context, always refer to the full article.

[Only IN Hollywood] Decrying why there is no sex in movies, Lanthimos delivers a lot of it in masterpiece

POOR THINGS. Yorgos Lanthimos' latest film starring Emma Stone. Searchlight Pictures

Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

Yorgos Lanthimo's sex-filled gothic romp 'Poor Things' starring Emma Stone wins the prestigious Golden Lion award at this year's Venice International Film Festival

VENICE, ITALY – “Why is there no sex in movies?”

Brilliant filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos addressed that in Poor Things, his feminist sex-filled gothic romp, starring Emma Stone in her finest performance, which won the Golden Lion, the best film prize in the recent Venice International Film Festival.

Based on the 1992 novel of the same name by the late Alasdair Gray, Poor Things couldn’t be more Frankenstein-esque: in 19th century London, mad scientist Doctor Godwin Baxter (we learn he himself was the subject of experiments by his father) takes the body of an adult woman who threw herself off a bridge, replaces her brain with that of an unborn child that survived inside the woman, and brings her back to life.

The result is Bella Baxter, who has a baby brain inside the body of an adult, who gradually grows into a woman totally ignorant of the rules imposed by a male-dominated society. After discovering masturbation (courtesy of a fruit) and sexuality, Bella runs off with Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo), a debauched lawyer with whom she indulges a lot of what she calls “furious jumping” (sex).

CLOSING CEREMONY. Yorgos Lanthimos wins the top honors, Golden Lion, for ‘Poor Things’ in the 80th Venice International Film Festival. Photo by Earl Gibson III/Golden Globes 

He takes her to Lisbon, Alexandria, and Paris on a journey that reflects the film’s take on sexism, colonialism, personal freedom, and male chauvinism.

Dafoe best sums up the strange but absolutely engrossing film in the production notes: “It is about the development and liberation of a woman who grows up in a very repressive male society. That’s a lot of the source of the comedy because her relationships with the male characters are very frank and quite exposing of the fear men have of women.”

Stone added: “The male characters are trying to control Bella in their own various ways, and she doesn’t even entertain it. She is just too autonomous.”

The actress also said about Bella Baxter: “I was so excited and scared for all the right reasons. Bella doesn’t have any shame or trauma, or even a back story. She’s not raised by a society that is putting these confines on women.”

“That can be incredibly freeing, and there is really no research you can do for something like this. Bella draws things from the men she meets, from the women she meets, from the environment she’s in, from what she’s eating. She’s like a sponge.”

It’s Lanthimos’ latest film with Stone, who is also one of the producers, after The Favourite. Also known for The LobsterThe Killing of a Sacred Deer, and Dogtooth, Lanthimos comes up with his biggest-scale film that is bizarre yet it’s his sweetest, most accessible work.

One of the year’s best films, Poor Things also stars Ramy Youssef, Jerrod Carmichael, Margaret Qualley, Christopher Abbott, and the terrific German actress, Hanna Schygulla.

STANDING OVATION. Yorgos Lanthimos acknowledges a standing ovation at the world premiere of ‘Poor Things’ in Venice. Photo by Ruben V. Nepales/Rappler

Yeah, it’s weird, isn’t it? Why is there no sex in movies?” Lanthimos replied in answer to a journalist’s question during his film’s press conference at the 80th edition of the prestigious film festival in Italy.

“It’s a shame that Emma cannot be here with us to speak more about it because it’s weird that it will be coming all from me.” Stone did not show up at the Lido due to the ongoing SAG-AFTRA strike, which prohibits actors from promoting their films.

The three-time Oscar nominee elaborated on Stone’s character and the actress’ willingness to do the graphic sex and nudity scenes, the most ever seen in a studio-backed film in a long while. In her sexual awakening, Emma’s Bella finds work in a Paris bordello, where she discovers the ways and depravity of men.

“First of all, it was a very intrinsic part of the novel itself, her freedom about everything, including sexuality. And secondly, it was very important for me to not make a film which was going to be prude because that would be completely betraying the main character.”

EMMA STONE. In ‘Poor Things,’ Emma’s Bella finds work in a Paris bordello, where she discovers the ways and depravity of men. Photo by Atsushi Nishijima/Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

“So, we had to be confident and, again, the character has no shame, and Emma has to have no shame about her body, nudity in engaging in those scenes, and she understood that right away. The great thing about myself and Emma is that now we’ve completed four films (including the short Bleat and the coming AND) together so you can understand that there’s a shorthand.”

“We can communicate without having to explain everything or talk too much about things. So, as soon as I started saying something like what I just said, she said, ‘Yes, of course, I understand. It’s Bella. We’ll do what we need to do.’ ”

“And from then on, it was a great experience, actually, because although we were working in big studios and sets that we built and there was a lot of crew and lights, we still managed to maintain the same kind of atmosphere that we had in previous experiences.”

“On location with natural light, by lighting the sets as much as we could from the outside, from windows, and using practical lights. So that enabled us to just have three people in the room, just the camera.”

“Sometimes even sound wouldn’t be there. We would just rig the mics in various places. And it was just Robbie (Ryan, cinematographer), myself, Hayley (Willians), our AD (assistant director) and the actors. So that created a very comfortable, intimate environment.”

The Athens-born filmmaker cited the importance of a relatively new job in cinema – a crew member who ensures the well-being of actors while filming sex scenes: “And also, I have to credit Elle McAlpine, who’s our intimacy coordinator, which, in the beginning, this profession just felt a little threatening, I think, to most filmmakers. But it’s like everything, if you work with a good person, it’s great and you realize that you actually need them.”

“So, she made everything so much easier for everyone. Her personality is great for that kind of thing that she does. She made everyone feel very comfortable – Emma and the actors whom we rehearsed with, Mark Ruffalo whom she had quite a few sex scenes with.”

“They were already very familiar through the rehearsal process. All the actors who came in just for a scene or two, that’s when Elle became very useful. She would speak to them before they would get acquainted with Emma. It just created a very comfortable environment for everyone.”

STAR-STUDDED CAST. Emma Stone and Mark Ruffalo in ‘Poor Things.’ Photo by Atsushi Nishijima/Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

“That was extremely helpful to us. We decided with them, we sat down with Emma at some point. There was a script, and especially for the sex scenes though, we just sat down and decided, so what kind of position we do here?”

“What kind of thing do we do there? What’s missing? What, from the experience of sex and the different desires that people have, do we need to portray in order to make this just a complete – well, I don’t know how complete it can be but to make enough of our presentation of human desire and idiosyncrasies and all of these kinds of things?”

“Yeah, it was important for all of us to have that be a part of the film and not shy away from it.”

On his absurdist take on sex and humanity in the film, the filmmaker who is part of what’s called the Greek Weird Wave, explained: “I take it from people. I just observe, read and imagine. And yeah, I think there’s absurdity in every kind of human behavior, from this simplest thing.”

“And why wouldn’t it be part of sex and how our desires are manifested? So, it just seemed like a natural film to me.”

“Although it ended up being maybe absurd within the context of everything, initially. It just seems natural that you have all these kinds of different human beings and different kinds of behavior, including in sex.”

The three-time Cannes Film Festival winner pointed out that Stone enthusiastically signed on to the project right away: “Emma was involved very early on because I already read Alasdair Gray’s novel back in 2011. I went and met him and got his blessing to adapt it into a film but it took quite a few years, as you can see, to get there.”

“So, while we were making The Favourite with Emma, I already had it in mind. We had already started working on the script with Tony McNamara. I mentioned it to Emma as soon as we finished The Favourite.”

“She was extremely excited about the notion of playing this character. She wanted to be involved as much as possible so from then on, I kept her in the loop on all the drafts, all the ideas about designing that world and all the people that we were going to be working together and other actors.”

“I think that actually helped her a lot too, with even her performance as well because she kept this idea in her mind for a long time. Then, when the time came for her to actually do it, she had lived with this character for quite some time.”

“Not necessarily consciously but it was always there with her, I think. And being part of every aspect of the film, every decision, makes this so much richer in every way.”

I had no idea nor expectations about Poor Things when I watched it at the film’s world premiere in Sala Grande so seeing Stone as Bella for the first time – with thick dark eyebrows and long hair, dressed strangely and behaving weirdly – I was transfixed from start to finish.

Holly Waddington, the film’s costume designer, who joined Lanthimos at the press conference, along with production designers Shona Heath and James Price, hair, make-up and prosthetics designer Nadia Stacey, producers Ed Guiney and Andrew Lowe, score composer Jerskin Fendrix, and cinematographer Robbie Ryan elaborated on how they came up with Emma’s child-woman look.

“It was quite a jigsaw puzzle actually putting the wardrobe together,” Waddington began. “There was a lot of different requirements and there was a very distinct journey.”

“It’s a sort of dramaturgy, really – that we had to achieve in the costuming, starting when she’s in the house where the whole language is based on her being in these quite childlike pieces of clothing that are made of quilting, seersucker, and childlike baby-ish fabrics.”

Emma Stone in ‘Poor Things.’ Photo by Yorgos Lanthimos. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2023 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved.

“Everything is cozy and suitable for a young child and also very disassembled and bits coming off and missing. The whole concept of that was like a young child, she would be dressed by Mrs. Prim (Vicki Pepperdine) in the morning but by about within an hour, her clothes would all be half missing.”

“She’s often in strange combinations of clothes, which are quite incongruous to look at. Then when she leaves the house and gets to Lisbon, she no longer has Mrs. Prim to dress her. She’s kind of dressed in this traveling suit.”

“She has sex with Duncan in the hotel and then she comes out just with her knickers on, which we just thought was really funny because she wouldn’t think to put a skirt on. That look is probably my favorite in the film because she just wanders around Lisbon among a load of people wearing these ridiculous Victorian outfits with corsets.”

“She never wears a corset. We committed to that from the beginning. Then she puts her clothes together in a way that nobody else is doing because she doesn’t really think about things like how you put an outfit together properly.”

“Really, until that moment on the cruise ship actually where she’s in a sort of very formal white cruise ship outfit, that sort of felt important because that’s the moment when she sees this abject poverty that is very shocking for her and really set her on her path towards wanting to do something meaningful with her life. Then she becomes a doctor.”

Stacey added: “I always kind of come on board after production and costume design are on. When I came on board, the world was already starting to be created and it was just apparent to me that we hadn’t seen a character like Bella before.”

“Obviously, the main thing with her being that this experiment is that her hair grows at an accelerated rate. I wanted to use that to mark her journey as well. As ever, I wasn’t allowed to use wigs.”

We had these hair pieces made in various lengths. I changed that with each place she went to. Working with Holly, that always determines where I go, depending on the costume and what state she’s at.”

“I just love that there are certain images where Bella’s got this really long hair around all these other people that have these period hairstyles in Lisbon. And she has this wild hair. It just really shows who she is against the society she’s in.”

Back to Lanthimos, he described his process of adapting the novel of Gray, who died in 2019 and previously refused to allow a screen version: “It’s a film that’s very hard to describe. I mean, to be honest, there have been films throughout time that are unique and exceptional so I guess maybe in our time, maybe there are many films like it. It is hard for me to say what it is.”

“We had to change the structure a little bit of the novel. There were elements that were more novelistic devices as part of the novel.”

FILMING. Emma Stone and Jerrod Carmichael in ‘Poor Things’. Photo by Atsushi Nishijima/Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures.

“There are some large parts of the novel that are almost like a naysay and more political about specific themes that Alasdair Gray was interested in. But early on, and as soon as I read the novel, we decided that it was going to be her story, her point of view.”

“That’s what drew me immediately to the material. Like, this character, unlike any other character that I’ve read before, this mind that can start free without any shame, prejudice, just experience the world in her own terms.”

“We felt that this is the line that we need to follow to make this into a film. So, we shed a few things but I also think [we kept] the tone of humor, many of the characters, the locales. A love of it, and a lot of the essence of the novel, is there.”

While Poor Things is set in the Victorian era, Lanthimos stressed that its paean to freedom and identity awakening resonates with our time: “I think it feels extremely contemporary. Speaking about freedom, the way we think, and the way we perceive the world, the position of women in society, or men, as well, the relationship between men and women, that’s still very contemporary.”

“Things have changed slightly so we have new tools to identify things. And the book was written in the ’90s so it’s funny that not much has changed since then. But yeah, I just find it extremely contemporary in every aspect of it.”

“It just uses a certain form of a gothic novel and a period film or story, in that case, to speak about contemporary issues.”

A visually magnificent film, awash in exaggerated colors or stark black and white, Poor Things also tantalizes with its assortment of wacky hybrid animals running around in their scientist-creator’s (Willem’s Dr. Baxter) house – from pig-chickens to chicken-dogs.

Lanthimos prodded Ryan to explain how they shot the strangest animals you will ever see in cinema. Ryan obliged: “With a lot of the things in the film, we approached it trying to make it as if you’re just filming it in front of you but obviously a duck and a dog don’t necessarily stick together.”

“We had to do some VFX CGI work but we shot it in a way that was probably mostly difficult for the CGI people to try and achieve because it was the way we would film it normally and they had to take our information and make it work. We went through quite a few versions of them but it was a lot of fun.”

“We had a second unit who spent a lot of time filming to try and get an animal to do a move or a turn. It was a very enjoyable part of the film because seeing those animals come to life was quite strange.”

“We did a test at the beginning. It seemed to work and you just pick which animal kind of would mix with another animal. I think the pig chicken was the trickiest one.”

Lanthimos quipped, “I don’t remember that. I only remember Goose Willis. That was the goose and the dog.”

Ryan said, “The chicken dogs are good, too.”

Lanthimos also talked about the film’s fantastical look, which includes the use of extreme wide lens and fish-eye lens: “I always start by what the film is and what feels right to film a certain kind of situation, characters, story. But there’s also an aspect of what interests me in general, in terms of filmmaking and developing a certain kind of aesthetic that serves the way I want to tell stories, and push that further with each film.”

“Pushing it further, it doesn’t necessarily mean going more extreme or whatever, although in this case, it seems like that. I felt that it fit this story in particular more.”

“For example, we just shot another film (AND, with Stone and Dafoe), with Robbie again, which is much simpler and very different because I felt that story needed that. And also, probably because we were like, ‘Oh, let’s do something different. Let’s not get bored.’ ”

SUPPORTING ROLE. Willem Dafoe in POOR THINGS plays Dr. Godwin Baxter Photo by Atsushi Nishijima/Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

“And this film in particular, I think it also had to do with the creation of the world. As soon as I read the novel, I realized that we would need to build a world for her (Emma’s character) to inhabit.”

“It couldn’t be the world as we know it. It should be slightly skewed and tweaked according to her perspective and point of view through her eyes. So that led us into building everything in a studio and adding all these elements that are not realistic in any way.”

“I think that lent itself to film in a certain way as well. So that is either enhanced or sometimes toned down, or using the black and white and the color, seeing a part of the world, only in black and white.”

“And then starting a journey and then returning to the same place and seeing it from a different perspective in color. So, I think it had to do a lot with what was going on and how we built this world but also a personal exploration of cinema, movie making, and photography in general.”

As you can sense, Poor Things was an experience that got me excited about cinema all over again. Described as a bizarre combination of Frankenstein and Pygmalion, the movie, like the unusual animals roaming the screen, is a hybrid – a wild sex frolic, a feminist tale of equality and liberation, and a monster movie.

Whatever it is, Poor Things is a masterpiece. –

Add a comment

Sort by

There are no comments yet. Add your comment to start the conversation.

Summarize this article with AI

How does this make you feel?

Download the Rappler App!
Avatar photo


Ruben V. Nepales

Based in Los Angeles, Ruben V. Nepales is an award-winning journalist whose honors include prizes from the National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards, a US-wide competition, and the Southern California Journalism Awards, presented by the Los Angeles Press Club.