Sex, Love and Videotape

On movie sex and movie love...

Month: July 2019

Secretary

YEAR: 2002
DIRECTOR: Steven Shainberg
KEY ACTORS: Maggie Gyllenhaal, James Spader
CERTIFICATE: 18
IMDB SCORE: 7.0
ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 76%

SEX SCORE: 4.5/5
✔️ Rewatchable – it just makes me so happy!
✔️ Definitely want to fuck the cast – it’s James Spader after all!!
✔️ It did inspire fantasies – not so much of BDSM, but of finding love like that…
✔️ And it does pass the Bechdel test. Lee and her mother talk a lot and very little of it is about a man.
❓ But, oh the sex positive question is a difficult one! (Could James Spader be in both 5/5 movies so far?! Is this possibility affecting my decision??) The positive representation of masturbation is so important and, while the messages within the film aren’t without flaws, I really like the main theme that you can be who you want sexually (with consent, obviously) and that’s OK. But does she really consent…? This has to be a half mark (and I don’t care if that’s cheating – my blog, my rules!!)

As always, this contains spoilers so watch the film before you read on…

STREAMING: Devastatingly, this doesn’t appear to be available for streaming right now (except for a German dubbed version on YouTube) so just buy the DVD already!

[Content warning: discussions of poor consent, mental health and self-harm]

Secretary poster showing a drawing of a woman bending over, wearing tights with a seam up the backI’ve realised that the last few posts here have been more technical than emotional – Eyes Wide Shut examined Kubrick’s possible true purpose; Basic Instinct discussed the Hitchcockian overtones etc – so I wanted to go back to a movie that made me feel, not think. And so it had to be Secretary!

In reverse of When Harry Met Sally, this is a film that initially appears to be all about sex but I would argue that instead, it is one of the greatest love stories ever told. I love this film. I love this film!

Secretary is about Lee, a young woman who has recently been discharged from an inpatient mental health facility. Her exact diagnosis is never discussed but her admission was prompted by a self-harm incident when she cut deeper than was usual for her and couldn’t hide what she’d done. On discharge, she wants to get a job and finds a role as a secretary for a lawyer, Mr E. Edward Grey. As they spend more time together, they develop a D/s (Dominant/submissive) relationship, centred around him disciplining and spanking her for errors at work – errors that are eventually made on purpose – and taking a controlling interest in her life, choosing her meals and encouraging her to dress better. After much soul searching, they realise that this is a lifestyle that makes them both happy and they marry, presumably to live happily ever after!

Lee crawling across the floor with a letter between her teeth

Now before I gush about my love for this film, I need to acknowledge straight away that this isn’t an ideal representation of a BDSM relationship. Although it is perhaps not as dangerous for novices as that portrayed in Fifty Shades of Grey, Secretary is not blameless when it comes to perpetuating damaging stereotypes about people who enjoy BDSM. As Violet Fawkes described in her movie-themed ‘Food for Thought Friday’ post a few weeks ago, Secretary is problematic because there is a definite ‘conflation between poor mental health and BDSM.’ This is an assumption that the BDSM community works very hard to get away from – the idea that people would only allow themselves to be treated this way because they are damaged, not because they enjoy it.

Violet also correctly states that Mr E. Edward Grey actually isn’t that much better a Dom than the other Mr Grey, describing him as a ‘neurotic, explosive, impulsive and sulky “Dominant”’ who never really gains consent or discusses boundaries with his submissive.’ Mr Grey is very lucky that Lee so clearly enjoys the spanking immediately as he does not ask for consent…ever, until he tries to end their relationship. The consent is all implied because she never says no, and that isn’t good enough. ‘It feels like a BDSM PR nightmare, the sort of skewed message and illustration of deviance that we should be avoiding and trying to mitigate.’ Violet concludes. ‘Is it too much to ask for happy, healthy, responsible BDSM in cinema?’

She definitely has a point! And in a way, Secretary is more dangerous than FSoG as the flaws are more subtle. This Mr Grey doesn’t seem as ridiculous or extravagant as Christian Grey. He’s quietly spoken, he doesn’t make many requests, any encroachment on Lee’s wider life is definitely both consensual and wanted…and yet, he too is ashamed of who he is. He too communicates about BDSM poorly. He too could improve how he obtains consent.

Mr Grey, lying on the floor and looking alarmed

So if it is such a bad advert for BDSM, why do I love it so and why do I still claim it’s even slightly sex positive?

In short, I will always adore this film because of the love story. It’s a perfect love story. Both were broken and ashamed of themselves, and they found they could be happy together. They didn’t have to compromise; they didn’t have to change. They could be themselves – they could be better than themselves together – and I yearned for that.

In the most stereotypical hearts and flowers way, they were made for each other and I loved that it reminded me that even people who feel so broken can find someone who fits with them perfectly. Lee needs the structure and support of Grey’s domination and attention, and he needs the confidence and dependence of her submission. It works. They work. And when she’s with him, Lee walks taller. She dresses better, she doesn’t need to self-harm as she doesn’t feel so out of control, but, importantly, neither are ‘cured’ – they just find support in each other rather than the more destructive methods they used before. As Peter Bradshaw describes in his Guardian review, ‘it proposes a happy ending which does not involve anyone being cured or having their minds changed about whether what they are doing is right. It does not condemn the sub-dom relationship or present it as a metaphor for injustice; actually, it cheekily presents the whole business as counter- cultural domesticity.’ From this point of view, perhaps this film could be a good advert for D/s relationships!

There are two quotes from Lee that I’ll share here that sum this all up better than I can explain it myself:

‘But because he had given me the permission to do this, because he insisted on it, I felt held by him as I walked alone. I felt he was with me. At the same time, I was feeling something was growing in Mr. Grey. An intimate tendril creeping from one of his darker areas, nursed on the feeling that he had discovered something about me.’

‘In one way or another, I’ve always suffered. I didn’t know why, exactly. But I do know that I’m not so scared of suffering now. I feel more than I’ve ever felt, and I’ve found someone to feel with, to play with, to love, in a way that feels right for me. I hope he knows that I can see that he suffers, too. And that I want to love him.’

If I’m honest, Lee’s progression is what I wanted when I started sex blogging. I felt like she looked at the beginning – awkward, uncomfortable, dressed in oversized clothes and never sure of herself or where she fitted in. From a most superficial level, I wanted to be able to wear pencil skirts and silk shirts with pussy bows like she does, but I mainly wondered if I could find that same self-confidence through sex. If I could walk taller with my shoulders straighter if I knew and accepted my desires and needs. Not necessarily through BDSM – I already knew that the specifics of Lee and Mr Grey’s relationship didn’t appeal to me nearly as much as their acceptance of each other. Could I find myself through my own sexual exploration? (Spoiler: I definitely did!)

Lee is standing up, speaking on the telephone, and being encouraged by Mr Grey

There is also an argument that consensual and controlled pain can be beneficial for our mental health, as it seems to be for Lee. Kate Sloan, a fabulous sex blogger, has written about how spanking is often exactly what she needs when her anxiety and depression are out of control: ‘The pain moves my focus from my racing brain into my body, and psychologically it feels like I am being punished for my bad thoughts about myself — like all those doubts and worries and tears are being whacked out of me, one blow at a time.’ Spanking and kink are no substitute for proper therapy and mental health treatment but can be therapeutic for some people, just as running or shopping can be for others – it’s a focused activity that creates pleasure. And it’s not self-harm as it’s not done alone: ‘Good, consensual BDSM is performed with a partner who wants to please you and support you, not destroy you or punish you the way you do to yourself when you self-harm from a depressed headspace.’

This film was also revolutionary for me as it’s one of very few truly positive portrayals of female masturbation. I’d been wanking since I was a teenager but I’d always been slightly ashamed of it. Not enough to stop, but enough to keep it a secret. And yet here’s Lee, wanking in the bath, wanking in the toilets at work, wanking lying on her stomach, which I had never seen before! Showing positive images of female masturbation like this from a female perspective, and not like it is often shown in porn, is so rare and so necessary. How else can we accept that it is normal? I loved seeing how masturbation was just part of how Lee falls for Mr Grey, part of their sexual relationship. And the fact that she was wanking over images that would seem conventionally unerotic to others (‘And…four…peas!’) was frankly life-changing.

Lee is wearing a wedding dress and being held by Mr Grey as he lays her down on a box covered in astroturf

For me, the film is summed up by the song that is played during the final love scene when Mr Grey rescues Lee from her vigil in his office – Chariots Rise by Lizzie West. It’s a song whose lyrics often give me goosebumps anyway and has long been on my regular playlist rotations, but the version in the movie is subtly but importantly different. Rather than saying ‘what a fool am I to fall in love,’ the line was changed to ‘what grace have I to fall in love.’ Because Lee isn’t a fool, and the love that they share isn’t foolish. Ridiculously, even the official movie soundtrack has the original version so I usually have to listen to that but every time I hear the line about being a fool I remember Lee and Mr E. Edward Grey and their perfect love.

Because, ‘who’s to say that love needs to be soft and gentle?’

Next week: Zac and Miri make a porno

Copyright
All stills and photos are sourced from MovieStillsDB and CineMaterial, and are the courtesy of their respective production studios and/or distribution companies. Images are intended for educational or editorial use only.

Basic Instinct

YEAR: 1992
DIRECTOR: Paul Verhoeven
KEY ACTORS: Sharon Stone, Michael Douglas, Jeanne Tripplehorn
CERTIFICATE: 18
IMDB SCORE: 6.9
ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 53%

SEX SCORE: 3/5
Fails the Bechdel test – none of the female characters speak to each other – and it generally portrays women very poorly…
✔️ I’ve not seen this for years but it definitely stands up to a rewatch and I’d be happy to watch it again so, yes, rewatchable!
✔️ I do think the cast are fuckable but this point comes with a caveat. The sex is hot and Sharon Stone is HOT but I really don’t rate Michael Douglas – as an actor or as an attractive lead. I don’t know why but he does nothing for me. And yet…
✔️ It did inspire fantasies – luckily for my husband, not fantasies of murder or manipulation but of sex that hot and of being a women who was in control her own pleasure. Who wouldn’t want that?
❌ But is it sex positive? Yes, it’s hot and explicit and kinky and mainstream and all about female pleasure but it’s kind of homophobic and the women are awful and sex is used as a weapon or threat and there’s the infamous story about Stone not consenting to the upskirting and I just can’t give it the mark…

As always, this contains spoilers so watch the film before you read on…

STREAMING: YouTube (from £2.99), Amazon Prime (rent £2.99, buy £5.99)

I have decided to streamline this list and only mention Netflix, YouTube, Amazon Prime and any other free streaming services. A full list of availability can be found at JustWatch.com

[Content warning: discussion of non-consent and rape]

The poster for Basic Instinct - Michael Douglas looking over to the right with Sharon Stone glaring over his shoulder

I don’t really have a story to tell about watching Basic Instinct for the first time. It was sometime in the last 15 years and I saw it mainly because it was a film that I felt I ought to have seen. I knew all about the interrogation scene but very little about anything else. I saw it, I was fascinated and enthralled by the sex, but didn’t think much else of it – it was ridiculous, exaggerated, pulpy, and I don’t remember it being any good. I’d wanted to see it again for a long time, mainly to see if the sex was as hot as I remembered, but had never quite got around to it. It was low down on my list of rewatches.

Basic Instinct is essentially a murder mystery story. A rockstar is stabbed with an ice pick when having sex and killed, in a method eerily similar to that described in a trashy novel written by his girlfriend, Catherine Tramell. She is the prime suspect, but is this book the perfect alibi? The murder is investigated by an unstable and hot headed cop, Nick, who falls under Catherine’s spell and, well, all hell breaks loose. It’s tense, there are plot twists every two minutes, and I thought it was kind of stupid. Not bad, in the same way that Under Siege isn’t bad. Just stupid.

Except that I can see now that I completely missed the point! For its many flaws, which I’ll get to later, Basic Instinct is absolutely note perfect satire. Satire of the film noir genre, of the femme fatale trope, of everything Hitchcock made but definitely of Vertigo. It subtly but definitely mocks cops, detective movies, the 80s/early 90s (the dancing in the club is just too much), and I’d even go as far as to say that it is personally mocking Michael Douglas. How else do you explain that ridiculous green v-neck that he wears to the club? Combined with that ‘sexy-angry’ face that he wears throughout the film, he is a caricature of himself and that scene may be exactly when I stopped believing him as a heroic figure. And all in all, it’s clever. It’s really fucking clever.

I should have expected it. From RoboCop to Starship Troopers and all the way to ShowGirls, Verhoeven makes cutting satires that slice straight through whatever he is trying to expose but his satire is never obvious. In fact, it’s possible to watch the film, think it’s ridiculous and never understand his purpose (as I did with ShowGirls, a film on my list to review soon!) but the movie is so much better when you do!

Basic Instinct is also important as it marked a turning point in cinema history, ‘hitting America like a tidal wave of cynical hedonism run rampant.’ The indulgent excesses of the 80s were fading and we were moving into the steadier safer 90s, and here was a movie about excess and greed and sex but which had 80s yuppie hero Michael Douglas being brought down by the sexy and dangerous newcomer Sharon Stone rather than triumphing. It’s seedy, it’s gritty. It’s a film without heroes, without a good guy, without a clear moral conclusion and one that brought sex and kink and bisexuality to the mainstream in a way that changed everything that came after it.

And, of course, the sex was all that anyone talked about. It was all I remembered after all! Somehow managing to keep an R-rating in USA (avoiding an NC-17 was seemingly a bigger deal there as it was given an 18 certificate in the UK without much fuss), it has some of the most explicit and realistic sex that I’ve seen on screen outside of porn. Roger Ebert describes the sex scenes as belonging to ‘that strange neverland created by the MPAA’s Hollywood morality,’ showing what is allowed rather than what is good. He claims that trimming down hard-core sex to get a lower rating ends up being less erotic than more subtle, implied action,but I don’t think I can agree. The film buff in me knows that walking that ‘ratings line’ was necessary for the satire to work, over exaggerating the pleasure and hedonism, but as a horny kinkster, I also know it’s just hot!

Stone leaning back as Douglas kisses the front of her neck. Both are naked.

Sex under a mirrored ceiling? Hot. Tying wrists to the bed head to restrict your partner’s movement? Hot! Having your partner look up at you from between your legs as he eats you out? So so hot!! And the sex looked realistic enough to be believable. Everyone having sex with Catherine Tramell, Sharon Stone’s character, looked like they were having a really great time! It was sweaty and exhausting and parts of it at least showed sex that I recognised. Hot. Just hot.

Thinking about all the sex does reveal one of the major conflicts that I have with this movie. Is it sex positive? I concluded that it wasn’t in the end, but it wasn’t an easy decision. There is a lot to be said in its favour! For a start, it’s an erotic thriller where both of the main actors were over 30. Sharon Stone was 34 when it was released and Michael Douglas was 48. It also places female pleasure in the front and centre of the plot. Catherine does what she does and fucks as she fucks because it gives her pleasure. She doesn’t feel tied to old-fashioned expectations – ‘I wasn’t dating him. I was fucking him’ – and she is definitely in control of her body.

Stone looking up at Douglas

But, and this particular but comes up a lot when I’m thinking about positives for this film, she’s a complete psycho. [Edited in October 2019: I’d forgotten that I’d described Catherine this way as I’ve written in later weeks about how I dislike the common movie connection between mental illness and being evil. I’m sorry this one slipped through – Catherine is manipulative but, from memory, had no mental health diagnosis.]

It’s difficult to really take any positives from Catherine’s character because she’s such a terrible person. She’s the closest this movie has to a baddy! She’s manipulative and calculating. To quote from the film, ‘she’s evil. She’s brilliant!’ She’s much, much cleverer than anyone else but we’re not supposed to aspire to be her – she’s a warning to us all about the dangers of smart, sexual women.

Thinking about it, there are actually no women in this film who aren’t portrayed as at least a few sandwiches sort of a picnic. They’re either convicted murderers, stalkers or frankly unhinged. To me, it doesn’t matter that all the men are idiots and, my god, are they stupid. It’s not enough. Portraying women in this way is just perpetuating the patriarchy.

And I can completely understand why there were protests from gay rights activists about how lesbians and bisexual women are portrayed. Roxy, Catherine’s lover, is jealous, possessive and homicidal, confirming a long-standing Hollywood trope that lesbians are somehow evil, and it is really no comfort that all of the other characters are despicable too. Roger Ebert claims that protestors should ‘take note of the fact that this film’s heterosexuals, starting with Douglas, are equally offensive’ as if that would silence their arguments. Sadly, I fear this just reveals his privilege – being mocked or ridiculed or defamed is no big deal when society in general accepts you and doesn’t question your existence and rights.

Stone and Sarelle, with their arms around each other

Beth, Jeanne Tripplehorn’s character, is another character that particularly suffers to elevate Catherine. She’s a psychologist whose opinion is frequently sought but she never seems to a professional scene when she isn’t being overridden by a male colleague, or by Douglas himself. I don’t know why they gave her character such an intellectual career unless Verhoeven was deliberately trying to show her as a lesser women than Catherine.

Tripplehorn looking at Douglas, who is looking elsewhere

I also can’t mention Beth without mentioning her sex scene with Nick. Unlike the other sex in the movie, I did not want this type of sex but it was no less recognisable. Angry, fierce, entirely for his pleasure and in a consent grey area that looks decidedly rapey to me. Yes, she was there for sex but was she there for sex like that? Was this meant to highlight her weakness or emphasise Nick’s power? I can’t quite fit it into the rest of the plot, except perhaps to reaffirm that Nick is a twat but extra confirmation really wasn’t necessary!

Talking of non-consent brings me around to the infamous interrogation scene. What extraordinary cinema! It’s such a perfect scene – Catherine, dressed in white and looking stunning under the lights, holds every man in that room in the palm of her hand. She may be the suspect but none of the policemen could control her. She is in charge of everything; confident, slick, upfront about sex, teasing the increasingly sweaty men who are trying to intimidate her. In this context, the leg-crossing scene is the ultimate power play and it’s fucking hot. She’s taunting them with her sexuality, so close and yet unreachable.

A gif of Sharon Stone dressed in white and sitting with her legs crossed, rubbing them against each other

But IMDB reports that Sharon Stone had no idea that she would be so exposed when filming, which is frankly horrifying. According to Stone, Verhoeven asked her to remove her underwear as it was causing a shine on the camera and she agreed ‘under the assumption that her genitals weren’t visible,’ only discovering the truth at an early preview. What the actual fuck? Talk about a violation! Verhoeven’s version is slightly different, claiming that Stone changed her mind about the shot and asked for it to be removed, but he refused. I’ve got to be honest – this is no better! It’s still a massive violation!! Particularly in scenes with such a sexual content, she surely should be in control of how her body is used? Urgh…

As usual, I could witter on and on about everything that interested me about this film but I’ll finish with a subject that I could write 2000 plus words on alone – how the influence of Alfred Hitchcock is just flooding through this film. He’s there in the intense creepy music, in the car chases and shots within cars that were so clearly filmed in a studio. Thinking of Vertigo in particular, he’s there in San Francisco, in the clifftop scenery and long rolling avenues. And he’s there in the blonde heroine.

So much of Catherine’s style appears to be straight from Kim Novak’s wardrobe but they also share that typically Hitchcockian trait being icy cold and calculating. Hitchcock blondes are ‘beautiful and eye-catching, sure, but they also project the qualities of independence, poise, range, determination and, most significant, mystery.’ Hitchcock is said to have felt that blondes were ‘less suspicious’ than brunettes, which allowed him to create a duality of character – outwardly classic, beautiful, cool and internally conflicted, mysterious and aflame. He felt there was a ‘greater shock’ when a blonde is deceitful, further adding to the intrigue of his plot. Of course, it is possible that he was justifying a personal preference and there is much to suggest that Hitchcock had a very strange relationship with the women in his movies, but his legacy is certainly felt in Basic Instinct.

All the women are blonde and hiding a mysterious and potentially murderous past, apart from Beth who is the more traditional doormat of a women and is a more domestic brunette. Except, of course, when Beth’s history with Catherine is revealed and she becomes a suspect in her own right. Photos of her back then show a blonde woman.

Fancy that.

Next week: Secretary

Copyright
All stills and photos are sourced from MovieStillsDB and CineMaterial, and are the courtesy of their respective production studios and/or distribution companies. Images are intended for educational or editorial use only. Gifs from Giphy.

Eyes wide shut

YEAR: 1999
DIRECTOR: Stanley Kubrick
KEY ACTORS: Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman
CERTIFICATE: 18
IMDB SCORE: 7.4
ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 75%

SEX SCORE: 3/5
✔️Definitely want to fuck the cast – this film came out at my peak Tom Cruise loving age (I was 14) so although I didn’t see it for a few years, I still want to fuck 1999 Tom Cruise for nostalgic reasons if nothing else. And I don’t want Nicole Kidman as much as I want her in Moulin Rouge but she’s still looking ridiculously hot!
✔️ It does pass the Bechdel test (Alice talks to a named babysitter, Ros, about their daughter) but I am getting a little disheartened at how many films barely scrape over this low bar.
✔️ Whether or not it was the point of the film, this is where my curiosity about sex parties started so yes, it certainly inspired fantasies!
Not really rewatchable – it’s SO long and complicated that it’s not a film I’d rush out to see again.
I don’t think this film is sex positive – it’s a cautionary tale about jealousy and excess where sex is a punishment and a temptation, not a delight. Also, it uses the f-word, and I don’t mean fuck, so no…

As always, this contains spoilers so watch the film before you read on…

STREAMING: YouTube (from £3.99), Amazon Prime (rent £3.49, buy £7.99), iTunes (rent £3.49, buy £7.99), Rakuten TV (from £7.99)

[Content warning: discussion of professional and emotional abuse]

The poster showing Cruise and Kidman kissing but she is looking at that camera rather than her husband

I don’t normally like films that take a lot of Thought with a capital T. I love clever films, complex films and films that get better and become more interesting when I’ve read up on them or the more I watch them, but I don’t like films that are incomprehensible or difficult to understand without that work. It’s why I don’t really get Bladerunner, why The Shining is my favourite Kubrick even though 2001: Space Odyssey is arguably the better film…and it’s why I never really took to Eyes Wide Shut.

I first saw it when I was about 21, drawn in by a teenage crush on Tom Cruise and the promise of sex and debauchery. What I found instead was just weird. Fuck, it was weird. I didn’t get it at all!

And eighteen years later when I considered reviewing it for this blog, it was because the only thing I could remember was the glamorous orgy set piece in the middle. Yay, sex parties, I thought. I love sex parties!

I’ve written about my own hedonistic experience of sex parties on my other blog but, as much as I loved the experience, I can now see the detrimental effect that Eyes Wide Shut had on my expectations. When we arrived at the venue, my first thought was that it was seedier than I’d imagined. It was just a warehouse with fabric draped on the walls and mattresses in the corner. I mean, it was perfect – functional, clean and comfortable – but there was no opulence. No luscious red carpeting or mirrors to reflect the soft candle light and no jazz pianists playing in the background. Eyes Wide Shut had led me to expect more glamour!

Despite this, I prefer my reality. Since the release of this film, upscale and glamorous sex parties organised by big companies like Killing Kittens have become almost mainstream. Public sex is portrayed as extravagant and, thanks in part to the billionaire dominant trope popularised by Fifty Shades, sexual excess is something for the wealthy. Except that it isn’t and shouldn’t be like that at all. I’ve never been to a Killing Kittens party and I don’t want to go as I am put off by their strict beauty criteria and I’ve heard rumours of an age cut off, both of which are completely at odds with my idea of sex positivity. The practical and adequately decorated warehouse full of horny people across the whole spectrum of size, sexuality and gender who were all having a great time was the debauched orgy that I want! (Sadly, and hopefully not tellingly, this company has gone out of business…) Sex should be inclusive, not exclusive, and I resent the implication of division that was propagated by this film.

Rewatching Eyes Wide Shut, I’m beginning to suspect that Kubrick didn’t think much of that decadent ‘reality’ either. As I will get into later, I don’t think too much of Kubrick and his process but there is no doubt that his previous filmography were works of genius. Eyes Wide Shut just doesn’t feel in the same league – it’s clunky, disconnected and overly long – unless this was what Kubrick wanted. Considering this film holds the world record for the longest continuous shoot at 400 days and Kubrick reportedly performed 95 takes of Cruise just walking through a door, it only seems logical to conclude that this effect was intended, Cruise’s flat and wooden affect and all.

Because it’s all a dream.

Once I’d realised that perhaps it wasn’t intended to be a film of reality, it all fell into place. The coincidences, the odd language, the abnormal concentration of stunningly beautiful women and fucking ever present male gaze with unnecessary tits on display at the drop of a hat all make sense because it’s Dr Bill Harford’s vision; his jealousy manifest in a surrealist nightmare. And in this existential vision of self-flagellation, it also starts to make sense why he appears so dull in this Christmas-light illuminated glamorous sexual wonderland.

And it’s not really a film about sex – it’s a film about marriage and jealousy. At the start, Alice and Bill exist in a sort of bland intimacy, complimenting each other’s appearance without looking and appearing to live in harmony, and it takes the kick of jealousy to set the events of the movie in motion.

My opinion of their jealousy is undoubtably affected by my own polyamorous marriage but I think they’re being ridiculous. Bill claims he doesn’t get jealous because Alice, as a woman, isn’t evolutionarily capable of wanting more than one man. What the fuck? This feels particularly troublesome and misogynist as Bill is allowed fantasies but his wife is not, telling her that he wouldn’t stray simply because he’s married rather than because he never wants to. To me, and this may well be the polyamory talking, this is monogamy – occasionally wanting others but not acting on those feelings or allowing them to develop as you’ve made a commitment to your partner. It feels unreasonable to expect any couple to be together for years and years without looking and fantasising about others. Looking and wondering isn’t cheating; acting is cheating.

Alice gets it. She’s rightfully annoyed at Bill’s unbalanced and unfair opinions and, when talking about her intense attraction to the naval officer, she admits that her husband felt ‘dearer to [her] than ever.’ She may have wanted someone else but that made her love and appreciate her husband more. Her acceptance of these fantasies and her surprise that Bill doesn’t think she has them is more realistic than Bill’s utopian and frankly sexist belief that his wife (and women in general) don’t have those sorts of desires.

Kidman sitting against a radiator and looking intently towards Cruise who is out of shot

But Alice’s revelations seems to cause Bill to suffer a psychologically collapse as he wanders around the city, stumbling across all sorts of sexual encounters, each more bizarre than the next. These episodes further convinced me that this was Bill’s dream as each event was much more potentially damaging to men than women, as discussed in the Fatal Attraction podcast, suggesting a conflict of masculinity as well as within a committed relationship. Underage girls, jocks questioning his masculinity, sex workers – these are all dangerous to the classic red blooded male and threaten his clean image. Throughout it all, as Roger Ebert notes, Bill is ‘forever identifying himself as a doctor, as if to reassure himself that he exists at all.’

A large circle of men in clocks and masks surround Cruise

These encounters also act to emphasise Bill’s own sexual attraction. All of these women throw themselves at him in most unlikely situations, such as the grieving daughter confessing her love in the presence of her father’s body. And the women are stunning – and have the same body type, Kubrick explicitly asking for a ‘Barbie-doll type.’ Is this just the effect of the male gaze or is Kubrick highlighting the fact that these are figments of Bill’s imagination and he has a type? These are the runaway fantasies of an insecure guy who needs to reaffirm his attraction in the wake of the discovery that his wife doesn’t only have eyes for him.

Thinking of Eyes Wide Shut as a film about a film about marriage brings the action on screen back around to reality, and I wish Kubrick was still alive to answer whether this was exactly what he intended. Because unlike any other that I’ve reviewed so far, it feels impossible to critique this film without connecting it to world in which it was produced. After a prolonged and secretive shoot, Kubrick died six days after submitting his final cut, which could only enhance the mystery surrounding his final project, but it is the casting of Cruise and Kidman at a time when they were married and arguably at the peak of their Hollywood stardom that feels most significant to me. This was a deliberate choice by Kubrick, allowing their on-screen and off-screen identities to flex and merge, adding to the dream-like state that he was keen to cultivate. Film School Rejects describes ‘the reality behind the fiction’ as ‘an extra layer of voyeurism that it will never escape.’ Whether this was part of Kubrick’s plan, the design of the poster also brings the director firmly into the action on screen, crediting him like a third actor, and this feels right – his influence in their performances extends beyond just his direction.

Cruise and Kidman, in their underwear, sitting on a bed and he is kissing her cheek

And the more I read about him, the more convinced I am that Kubrick was a twat! His filming ‘process’ requiring multiple takes with limited communication to aid development is notorious for causing Shelly Duvall to suffer a mental health crisis during the filming of The Shining but I don’t know that his role in the breakdown of Cruise and Kidman’s marriage just two years after the release of Eyes Wide Shut is as widely appreciated, nor how this film adversely affected Tom Cruise’s subsequent career. Honestly, it sounds abusive. Was Kubrick a genius or was he just a bully, manipulating and gaslighting his cast who were in awe of his reputation and would do anything for him? In a sexual situation, this misuse of power really would not be tolerated!

As discussed in an enlightening and somewhat horrifying article for Vanity Fair, Kubrick knew exactly what he was doing and intended to ‘break’ the actors so that he could direct a unique performance: ‘The theory was that once his actors bottomed-out in exhaustion and forgot about the cameras, they could rebuild and discover something that neither he nor they expected.’ Which just feels cruel.

He also used Cruise and Kidman’s marriage as a fulcrum around which to stress them, all in the name of encouraging a great performance, but I read nothing about whether he provided any aftercare. Kubrick psychoanalysed them both, probing them to confess issues and fears within their marriage and discussing their beliefs on fidelity and commitment. But as Kidman told Vanity Fair, it was almost like marriage therapy, except it wasn’t because ‘you didn’t have anyone to say, “And how do you feel about that?”’ He broke them open and exposed their vulnerabilities but offered them no way back together.

It gets worse! The intense secrecy surrounding the production was extended to surround and divide Cruise and Kidman in order to ‘exaggerate the distrust between their fictional husband and wife.’ He directed them separately and forbid them from sharing notes. He would not allow them to discuss scenes that the other wasn’t in, exemplified by Kidman shooting a naked sex scene over six days where Kubrick banned Cruise from the set and forbid Kidman from telling him what happened. Obviously, it was Cruise and Kidman’s choice to follow Kubrick’s rules but such was his reputation and the high regard that his filming style was held that I can completely understand them following him willingly, despite the harm he was doing to them. Which makes this professional relationship sound frankly emotionally abusive.

This would almost, almost, be forgivable if they were happy with the end result; if both actors could look back and understand that it was necessary for them to give the performance of their lives. But I don’t know that they can. Cruise certainly received significant criticism as early reviews saw ‘his all-too-convincing performance as a haunted, repressed individual written off as merely wooden,’ which feels unfair as Kubrick was such a perfectionist and filmed so many takes and retakes that Cruise’s performance must have been exactly what he wanted.

A retrospective review by the BFI earlier this year takes this idea even further, suggesting that exaggerating the contrast between Cruise’s real personality and that of his character was intentional. Kubrick took ‘immense delight in subverting Cruise’s virile man-of-action image [as] Bill is almost pathologically passive, unable to acknowledge, let alone explore, his sexuality.’ I cannot remember the extent of the rumours about Cruise’s sexuality in 1999 but they are certainly an ever present part of his story now. Did this film somehow support these rumours? More importantly, did the poor response to his vulnerability on screen and slight flirting with queerness crush any future public explorations of these themes? It is perhaps telling that other than 1999’s Magnolia, which was likely in production at a similar time to Eyes Wide Shut, all Cruise’s subsequent films have him play ‘wholesome, unwaveringly heterosexual heroes.’ Imagine what his filmography might have been like if he’d not had this knock back. Imagine what performances he might have gone on to deliver. Should he have taken the criticism so hard? Probably not. Is it an understandable reaction to suffering through a prolonged filming process that sounds like hell and likely contributed to the end of his marriage? I certainly think so!

So after all this, what is Eyes Wide Shut? Is it an erotic story? A love story? A morality tale or some sort of modern day parable?

I honestly don’t think I can describe it more accurately than an article in Vulture where it claims that Eyes Wide Shut ‘plays like a sex-drenched variation on It’s a Wonderful Life, a warning to its protagonist to learn to appreciate his lot in life and love.’

Yes. That’s exactly it.

What a weird film.

Next week: Basic Instinct

Copyright
All stills and photos are sourced from MovieStillsDB and CineMaterial, and are the courtesy of their respective production studios and/or distribution companies. Images are intended for educational or editorial use only.

I’ve discovered that the Food for Thought topic this week is Movies so I’ve linked this latest post! Do click the button below to see what movie have inspired other sex bloggers…

#F4TFriday

What women want

YEAR: 2001
DIRECTOR: Nancy Meyers
KEY ACTORS: Mel Gibson, Helen Hunt, Marisa Tomei
CERTIFICATE: 12
IMDB SCORE: 6.4/10
ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 54%

SEX SCORE: 1/5
Not sex positive – I suspect this was supposed to be sex positive – or at least vaguely feminist – but it hasn’t aged well at all and the male gaze is too infuriating for it to count.
I don’t particularly want to watch this again – I fear that it will only age further…
It didn’t inspire any fantasies – it’s more of a romance than a sexual film, but it’s certainly not a romantic trope that I’d like to be involved in: misogynist undermines professional woman, almost destroying her career, and yet she falls in love with him anyway!?
I don’t want to fuck Mel Gibson. Helen Hunt, maybe, but not enough for a point…
✔️ Somehow this does pass the Bechdel test, but I’m giving the mark very begrudgingly – women talk to each other about something other than men but they rarely both have names and are almost always interrupted by men. Urgh.

As always, this contains spoilers so watch the film before you read on…

STREAMING: YouTube (from £2.99), Amazon Prime (free with subscription)

[Content warning: this contains brief mentions of sexual assault and discusses potential non-consensual sex]

A poster for What Women Want showing Mel Gibson smiling forward with Helen Hunt looking passed him

I wish I could remember how What Women Want came across in 2001 when it was released. Eighteen years is a long time but this film feels like a million miles from current acceptability and it seems inconceivable that it was made this century, let alone that it became the second highest grossing romantic comedy of all time! When I added this film to my list, I wrote ‘#MeToo’ next to it as I feel this should be shown to anyone who doubts how difficult men can make life for women – professionally, socially, romantically, publicly. It’s essentially a public information video!

Because Mel Gibson’s Nick Marshall is awful. Was he seen as the hero he thinks he is back in 2001 or did we notice how fucking awful he is? Luckily it seems that reviews at the time were similarly appalled, with Salon stating the film ‘does nothing but condescend’ women and should be seen as ‘an intriguing if ugly little nugget of social history,’ but I was still shocked at how far it went. In the opening scene and subsequent long walk to his office, Nick is condescending, patronising and dismissive. He literally sexually assaults a women, ‘accidentally’ grabbing her breasts, he harasses another, and men are shown to be in awe of his prowess. Less than 15 minutes in and I already feel like I need a shower…

This really bothers me as I don’t think Nick was intended to be such a monumental twat and the Guardian review at the time even felt that ‘from the outset, it is made crystal clear that he is supposed to be lovable.’ He isn’t an evil figure who is shown the error of his ways; he’s a normal, pretty cool guy who becomes heroic – and gets the girl.

Mel Gibson holding items from a box including a bra

My dislike of this film can be summed up by a quote from Nick’s therapist: ‘If you know what women want, you can rule.’ Not help them, not make their lives easier, not act in a more empathetic and understanding fashion towards his equals; he could rule. Urgh, really?

The more I watched, the more I became convinced that the writers of this film don’t actually like women. They certainly aren’t doing us any favours once they ‘reveal’ what we’re thinking – it’s all stereotypes or weak attempts at humour. Women are shown to be constantly calorie counting, anxious or rude. They also seem to be either secret lesbians or attracted to Gibson’s character, further emphasising his value. Oh, and don’t forget that his secretaries have no thoughts at all. Hahahaha, how funny to belittle women in the work place. (This film made me really angry!)

It made me so angry because the depiction of professional women is exactly what we have spent decades trying to undo. It is the Patriarchy writ large, emphasising that women just aren’t as good as men professionally. In 2001. I may be accused of missing the joke…but the redemptive arc did nothing to fix this particular discrepancy.

Whether their thoughts demonstrated frustration or suppressed intelligence, the humour and plot devices serve to undermine the female characters rather than uplift them. Nick’s assistant silently screams in her thoughts about how over qualified she is to be getting him coffee, but he doesn’t promote her – he encourages her to move her boyfriend to the USA from Israel. He gives Judy Greer’s file clerk a better job only when she decides to kill herself. He never appears to change his general opinion of women in the work place, just gains more respect for a select few and gossips with a few more. The fact that he eventually realised how good Darcy is at her job remains the exception rather than his new rule.

Helen Hunt is holding a poster board and looking over at Mel Gibson

Before this realisation, Helen Hunt’s character, Darcy, is particularly poorly served and I hate that she is used to confirm all the awful stereotypes that professional women face. She is literally hired because she is a woman, not because she is the best candidate, and her ‘competition’ (Nick) is told this. What a way to undermine her before she starts! She is also described as a ‘bitch on wheels,’ a very lazy criticism of a professional woman, despite clearly being charming and empathetic once we meet her. I couldn’t help but worry that hearing her anxious and self-depreciating thoughts undermines her further, revealing her insecurities. Does it make her more real and a better role model to know how much she worries about being taken seriously? Or is it fuel to the misogynistic fire that claims women aren’t fit for such professional responsibilities?

A publicity shot of Helen Hunt

It is also such a cliche of gender inequality that men repeat exactly what their female colleagues have said and are given all the credit, and here Nick goes further by stealing their ideas before they’ve even said them out loud. I would have loved to have seen him hear a good idea and encourage the thinker to speak up more, using the fact that his voice will be heard to promote them like a proper ally, even if this had to happen after his epiphany. He literally never used his gift for anything but selfish pursuits.

This is never more clear than when he uses his psychic ability during sex, and using these abilities does raise questions about consent. In two situations, Nick hears thoughts that contradict what the women say out loud – Marisa Tomei’s character Lola thinks regret about turning him down and Darcy pleads in her head for him to ask her inside after a date. I ranted in the Fifty Shades post about how we have to trust the words spoken to us, not whatever clues may be drawn from body language, but does this apply to thoughts? Obviously it’s a hypothetical question but it is an interesting one. Do we ever think in our best interests? I know I let my thoughts and desires run free in directions that I’d never want in reality and would hate to think these are being used to discount my well considered spoken words. I’d go as far as to say that we have as much control over our thoughts as we do our bodily responses (i.e. not very much!) so I’m inclined to feel that Nick is unfairly manipulating the situation in his favour by using these women’s thoughts as an excuse to act. Is it consensual when he has this kind of power?

It feels particularly invasive for Lola as her overheard fears match exactly what happens, despite still desiring him in her thoughts. She turns him down initially as she’s worried about getting hurt, fears he uses to make himself seem like a more sensitive man, and then he forgets and discards her after they fuck, just as she knew he would! Yet she’s portrayed as a crazy girl. We shouldn’t be criticised for having ‘crazy’ thoughts – it’s our words and actions that count and Lola’s were ignored. She tried to protect herself and she was overruled.

This rant is getting away from me so I have just one more thing to say about hearing women’s thoughts during sex. Isn’t it interesting that when he listens and responds to what Lola wants, the sex is incredible. He is even declared a sex god! Can you think of better proof that women should speak up more and men should listen more?

I think it’s safe to say that this film has not aged well! But a recent article by the AV film club suggests that it feels so upsetting now as Nick’s redemption arc is too familiar to that of Mel Gibson himself following his own #MeToo disgrace. Gibson went from anti-Semitic drunk whose career appeared to be over after recordings of violent threats to his girlfriend were discovered to being welcomed back with open arms following his nomination for the Academy Award for best director in 2016 for Hacksaw Ridge. He is described as a ‘blueprint for “a #MeToo comeback,” which other publicly disgraced men can now follow.’ The bar for Nick’s redemption is hilariously low – he forgets his daughter’s prom but is a hero for being called to rescue her there, he costs Darcy her job but is a good man worthy of her love for admitting to lying and getting her job back – and it doesn’t seem like it’s enough. As with these men ‘recovering’ from accusations of sexual assault, their penance is rarely enough.

So what do women want? We just want to be heard.

Next week: Eyes Wide Shut

Copyright
All stills and photos are sourced from MovieStillsDB and CineMaterial, and are the courtesy of their respective production studios and/or distribution companies. Images are intended for educational or editorial use only.