No one can deny that sex plays a big role in Poor Things. It makes some people uncomfortable and sparks debates. It’s also one of the things that stood out to me when I first watched the movie. Sex starts the conversations but it’s only a small aspect of Bella’s (Emma Stone) journey. Poor Things is Bella Baxter's story and the complexities of her growth and development.
She learns love and develops an appreciation for the world by living in it. It’s an ode to the dark beauty of existing and being human. For many, sex is a part of that journey of self-discovery and growth. Therefore, it’s a huge element of Poor Things and Bella, but it is not the only fascinating part of her story.
Warning: Poor Things Spoilers Ahead. Proceed With Caution.
Sex Is Bella’s Gateway To The World And Freedom
Poor Things starts with Dr. Baxter (Willem Dafoe) keeping her locked away. Max (Ramy Youssef) offers her some exposure to the outside world, but he mainly aids in her imprisonment. Then beautiful idiot Duncan (Mark Ruffalo) comes along and shows her the art of living. His main interest in her is sex. Duncan doesn’t seduce Bella, because she wants this as well, but he comes at the perfect time: The start of her sexual awakening.
The movie begins in black and white but turns to color the moment Bella becomes free to explore the world. The color switch also happens during the movie’s first sex scene. Duncan becomes her teacher and advisor in the art of pleasure. He does this with a lot of sex (to Ruffalo’s worry), and by exposing her to enjoyment in its many forms (food, gambling, music, and so on).
Sex later allows Bella financial freedom, as sex work provides her with income that makes her financially independent. The shock factor of certain sex scenes may be too much for some, but they’re never played in a sexy way. Ruffalo and Stone play these scenes comically. Poor Things isn’t trying to rank high among lists of sexiest movies but shows sex as transformative. It transforms Bella’s life because it opens the door for her freedom.
Her Experience Increases Her Intellectual Growth
Sex opens the world to Bella and teaches her the euphoria of pleasure. But, it’s just the start of her access to want, desire, and experiencing everything the world can offer. With Duncan, she travels to many different places, tastes all types of food, and is introduced to more people, experiences, and things. In an interview with BBC Radio 4, Stone and Poor Things director Yorgos Lanthimos discussed how sex is used in the film. Bella’s development includes her eliminating shame from her norms. Stone offered this insight into Bella’s character:
She doesn’t know to be embarrassed by these things or to cover things up or not dive into the full experience when it comes to anything.
This lack of embarrassment grants her access to the world without societal barriers. Shame and embarrassment stop most people from fully embracing the world, which is a good thing in some ways, but limiting in others. Bella has no limits. She eats as much as she wants without worrying about judgment from others. Bella speaks honestly and boldly because she doesn’t fear repercussions. Experiencing things so fully allows her intelligence to grow at a rapid rate.
Max and Dr. Baxter sometimes struggled to help Bella’s intellectual growth because they kept her from learning through experience. Her progress just gets stronger with every new experience. If you contrast Bella with Felicity (Margaret Qualley), it’s clear her development doesn’t progress as quickly as Bella’s.
Felicity simply could be just an inferior experiment to Bella, but it could also be that Felicity also needs to learn through experience. You can read and study something thoroughly and completely but most things can’t truly be learned without experience. You can read a million books on movie making but you won’t become a great filmmaker without making many movies (bad and good ones). Bella becomes more evolved when she can learn through experience, not just taught by Max and Dr. Baxter.
The ending also reflects that Bella may never learn shame. She has surrounded herself with people who also limit their embarrassment and love her for her. Bella may continue to learn from the outside world but keep her identity because of those surrounding her.
Empathy And Human Emotions Are Vital To Her Development As Well
Bella learns empathy when Harry (Jerrod Carmichael) shows her people suffering. She doesn’t just learn sympathy, but true empathy. This leads to her misguided attempt to throw money at the problem. A sympathetic response would have been to feel bad for them; an empathetic response is to want to save them, to cry with them. Bella does both.
She needs to develop emotions to fully become a human. Some may argue love is the strongest emotion, but I think empathy is right up there. To truly understand someone’s pain and feel it with them requires stepping beyond the natural state of most humans. Life makes most people too busy and stressed to look beyond their world and see their struggling neighbors. This empathetic response highlights Bella’s uniqueness. Because she looks at the world through a different lens than the norm, she’s able to feel and understand the pain of others — at least pain that she doesn’t directly cause.
Later, Madame Swiney (Kathryn Hunter) mentions that humans need to experience all emotions, including the bad ones. Empathy is her gateway emotion beyond pleasure, but she later experiences it all while working at the brothel. The brothel helps her become financially independent but it also provides important lessons on emotions and people, especially men.
Finally, Curiosity Drives Bella
It all starts with curiosity. Bella begins her journey because the world interests her. She wants to know more about it. This drive to learn eventually leads to her taking university courses. It’s also why she goes with Victoria’s husband, Alfie (Christopher Abbott). Bella wants to know about Victoria. This desire for knowledge continues to push her and help her development.
This film makes it clear that if Bella continues to seek answers and ask questions, her intellectual growth will make her a genius. Her curiosity is a powerful learning tool.
Poor Things is one of the best Sci-fi movies of 2023 because it uses this Frankenstein story to explore the complicated journey of human development and the ways it pushes us to better our lives but also confines us (if we allow it).
For more Poor Things Check out CinemaBlend’s full interview with Emma Stone and Yorgos Lanthimos.