The Language Side of Two Women’s Films

Written by: Yuxuan Lai

Are you still excited about the Oscars? Two of my favorite movies for this award season, Anatomy of a Fall (Anatomie d’une chute) and Poor Things, have both done an excellent job on script writing. In the former, the leading female role, Sandra, is a German woman living with her husband in France. She speaks English more comfortably than French. We even see an intriguing mixture of English and French in her language, especially in the courtroom scene where she testifies in her own defense. The latter sees an obvious increase in language competency of Bella Baxter, played by Emma Stone, during her adventure and path towards self-realization. 

What shapes how we talk?

Still from the film Poor Things showing the character Bella Baxter, standing outside and staring at the viewer.

Poor Things. Dir. Yorgos Lanthimos. Searchlight Pictures, 2023.

In Poor Things, Bella was an adult woman who had committed suicide. Her body was discovered by a crazy scientist, Godwin Baxter (played by Willem Dafoe). He implanted the brain of a baby and brought the woman back to life. Bella goes through a tremendous language development as she receives education and explores the outside world. In her infancy she constantly addresses herself in third person, “Bella wants water,” or “Bella cuts too.” I notice a pattern that she uses this preposition more often when she tries to articulate a demand, but switches to first person when she responds emotionally to a certain thing, which reflects the return of her agency.

In an interview with Vanity Fair, screenwriter Tony McNamara talked about his approach to Bella’s language development. “It’s a person who doesn’t know words and she hasn’t been taught words for things. She was educated in science not in the world” [2]. The screenwriter created an odd yet reflective way of speech, such as “pen book” (means write down) and “furious jumping” (sex). Such a creative use of words reminds me of how negative social connotation of some words plays a critical role in limiting female discourse. 

Female discourse

When reading My Brilliant Friend (L’amica geniale) by Elena Ferrante, I realized the importance of having a precise word in place to explain some hidden feelings and the experience of shame. Women living in the neighborhood of Naples were not able to share traumatic experience such as domestic, gender-based violence, and sexual harassment, not only because of the social repression, but also a lack of vocabulary to express their feeling or conceptualize their experience. Such a gap separates female victims into silos and makes it difficult to form a collective discourse of the victims, let alone seeking for public attention and broader aid. In reality, this deficiency of language also hinders the voice of the vulnerable and the healing and well-being of survivors of sexual violence. There is already a considerable amount of research that shows proof that articulating traumatic or adverse life experience either in written or oral form have tangible benefits for the recovery of trauma-related disorders like PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). 

Language and Emotion Expression

Having professional vocabularies or terminologies for trivial sentiments also builds recognition, making the person who experiences the emotion feel seen and obtain a sense of belonging. I notice that there are always some terms in a language, usually describing a subcategory of emotions, that are hard to find synonyms for in another language. For example, Japanese has a word specifically describing the feeling one gets after leaving a barbershop looking worse than you did going in, called “Age-otori” [1]. In a global environment, those words blend into other languages and enrich the vocabulary base of non-native speakers. 

Research has shown that people in a culture whose language contains more words for emotions with nuances are more resilient to emotional change compared with those whose language is simpler, “emojified”.

English as the Lingua Franca

Still from the film Anatomy of a Fall of the character Sandra sitting in a courtroom.

Anatomy of a Fall. Dir. Justine Triet. Le Pacte, 2023.

In the French film Anatomy of a Fall, Sandra, played by actress Sandra Hüller, is a German woman who is accused of murdering her French husband and therefore being put on trail. There is a flashback scene where she tells her husband that English is their “meeting point”: a way to transcend her Germanness and his Frenchness [3]. 

There is an interesting dynamic transformation between English and French as the lingua franca of the world. French used to sway across Europe, a “noble language” spoken among intellectuals and the aristocracy from Paris to St. Petersburg. Now it is English.

Researchers at Stockholm University have found that your personality can change when you switch between languages. “Your level of ability could bridle your personality. And so maybe the way you respond to that is you personify shyness,” said Nathan Joel Young, lecturer at Stockholm University [4]. We noticed that Sandra was more expressive and firm when she’s defending herself with English when she has much more proficiency. It also leads to an interesting assumption of mine that Sandra might take up a more logical personality because she’s a native German speaker, a language known for strict and complex grammatical rules, while her husband appeared to be more sentimental, partly due to his native tongue of French—known for versatile vocabulary of emotions. 

As a multilingual, I sometimes feel the difference when I speak Mandarin (my mother tongue), English, and French. I associate Mandarin more with casual and intimate scenarios, like deep talk with friends and family. English is more for professional scenarios, being utilized as my working language. French is more for entertainment, as I initially picked it up by watching French shows and movies. 

What does it mean for localizers?

A lot of the localization efforts are based on English (treated as the source). The design and content is English user-centric, and the workflow and operation of localization work follows suit. We need to question our design and process to make sure other languages are not the “substitute of English content”. There should be a mindset change in designers to aim for internationalization, and localization should be involved upstream in the product development cycle. 

Again, there is AI

We also need to stay alert for the AI hype that is disrupting everything, including the language industry. We have already seen a performance difference in Generative AI models (like ChatGPT) among different languages, as the amounts of quality training data vary widely from language to language. English, of course, is the primary language of almost all the Large Language Models available. Will this reinforce the current Anglo-centric structure? Content writer Jack Stacey raised the awareness of bias in the AI algorithms. “The use of AI as research for content generation feeds a vicious circle—where the research done is provided on limited data, in language formed from English literature, and then fed back into that content engine of the web in whatever language” [5].





[4]Hej, hello, hola: Does your personality change when you speak another language?  (


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