The Joy of Sex
Is sex necessary in movies? UCLA’s Center for Scholars and Storytellers surveyed young people (God, it kills me to say that) aged 10-24 regarding the kinds of stories told through screens.* Respondents aged 13-24 were asked about sexual depiction in movies and television. Over half of them wanted stories with a stronger focus on friendships, and forty percent felt there needed to be greater depictions of asexual and non-romantic relationships.
If we look at those numbers, they tell us that a chunk of younger viewers aren’t particularly interested in the fictional depiction of the beast with two backs. Is it because Gen Z is less interested in sex than the olds? Did the pandemic scramble their development? Does their online identity supersede their IRL identity? I can’t say, I’m just some clown that writes about movies.
What I do know is that, at their best, movies portray truthful aspects of the human condition. For a certain kind of person, a satisfying narrative will delve into deep friendships or the limits of loyalty. That same person might find an exploration of sex unsatisfying, viewing it as merely an avenue for titillation, or worse, exploitation. I’ve seen many, many, many comments saying variations on a theme, that theme being, “We don’t need to see sex.”
So, is sex necessary in movies? Absolutely, and context is the key. Depending on how it’s depicted, how/when/where/why and with whom people have sex with can tell us a great deal about both character and themes** An excellent example of this is Yorgos Lanthimos’ latest film Poor Things, a deranged masterpiece and easily one of the best films of the year, if not the decade.
We’re introduced to a young woman (Emma Stone) in the last moments of her life. She flings herself off a bridge, content with her self-annihilation. The body washes ashore and is found by Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe), a scientist involved with…ah…unconventional experimentation.
Baxter brings the body home to his sprawling London mansion, and before you can say, “It’s alive!,” it is, in fact, alive. Assisted by a nervous medical student (Ramy Youssef) and using a specific procedure, the details of which we will discover later, Baxter resurrects her. She’s now known as Bella Baxter. Initially, she has the cognitive ability of a bright toddler. Initially, she calls Baxter “God,” and views him as a benevolent deity. But she learns, very, very quickly.
Before long, Bella discovers two things. The first is a yearning to venture outside Baxter’s mansion and see all that dwells in the world. The second is that sex is extremely awesome. Is that truly important? Absolutely! When Bella discovers she can make herself feel good, she discovers she has agency. When she discovers she has agency, she realizes there’s not a moment to lose to seize it.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that the person who will walk Bella through that particular carnal door is Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo), Dr. Baxter’s lawyer and a rake/lothario/scumbag extraordinaire. He spirits Bella away to Lisbon, hoping for nothing more than a few days of what Bella refers to as “furious jumping.”. But Bella will not be denied. She has plans, goals, and Duncan will not stop her.
First, I should alert the more Puritanical readers that there is a breathtaking amount of sex in Poor Things. So much so that I’m kind of amazed it’s not rated NC-17. It’s all necessary, and it’s necessary that the sexual depiction is graphic. Director Yorgos Lanthimos previously made The Lobster, a very strange and interesting film made with no small degree of chilliness. Here, Lanthimos’ aesthetic feels warmer, more energetic, and more like a horny Tim Burton, but in a good way! His stylized sets, sumptuous costumes, and thoughtful filmmaking blend together and create something that feels like a waking dream by way of the steampunk genre. There are moments of wildly disturbing body horror, hilarious comedy, and somber drama, sometimes all in the same scene. It’s frankly astonishing filmmaking, the kind of thing I haven’t seen in quite some time.
The screenplay by Tony McNamara is remarkably assured in terms of how it depicts plot and themes in service of character. We see Bella reaching sexual maturity, then intellectual maturity, then emotional and moral maturity. Her debauchery isn’t only for physical pleasure, it’s a way for her to wrap herself in the world and all its experiences. As she does that, she’s confronted by people, mostly men, using physical confinement, emotional manipulation, and financial power to attempt to control her. It gets into the joy and pain of life in general, and how that life is experienced by women in particular. In somewhat of an odd way, the screenplay covers a number of the same beats as Barbie, and I think the two films would make for an excellent double feature.
The cast is literally fearless in terms of their bravery, and unparalleled in terms of their skill. Mark Ruffalo has played nice guys in a number of roles, and he must have relished playing the rotten bastard Duncan. He’s charming, manipulative, a bounder and a cad, and Ruffalo looks like he’s having a blast. The same goes for Willem Dafoe’s Godwin Baxter, a horrifically scarred researcher who’s not so much evil as he is ethically challenged. As time goes on, in his own way, he learns from his past actions and attempts to be a good person. And yet, he does all of that specifically in tune with the behavior of his character. It’s yet another reminder that Dafoe is one of our best actors.
Speaking of best actors, Emma Stone is both amazing and unsurprising as Bella. For a long time, Stone has been one of our most skilled screen actors. She’s done drama, comedy, and projects that are beneath her, but she’s never sleepwalked through a role. As Bella, she flings herself into the role. Stone uses precise body control to portray Bella’s evolution from a stumbling toddler to a curious and aware woman. She pairs that with emotional openness, and we always know what Bella feels and thinks without the need for dialogue. In short, it’s a damn good piece of acting. I’m sure Stone will be nominated for tons of acting awards, and she’s so good that I don’t think any of them really matter.
There aren’t many filmmakers within the studio system that understand how to make sex interesting and creative.*** Poor Things probably had to be an independent film since, in large part, American culture is still embarrassingly prudish. However, more and more artists are breaking through cultural taboos. I have a suspicion that, in a strange way, the explicit and daring sexuality of Poor Things will pave the way for a great film about asexuality. That’s good, but better yet is how this film uses sexuality as a vehicle for a woman to experience life.
*You can check out the survey here.
**I think you could make the same argument about porn. Some genres of porn can be deeply sleazy and exploitative, while others can be incredibly sex positive.
***Christopher Nolan is one of the few as we saw with Oppenheimer. Predictably, lots of people seemed to willfully misunderstand why and how sex appeared in that film.