Sex, Love and Videotape

On movie sex and movie love...

Month: November 2019

Pride and Prejudice

YEAR: 2005
DIRECTOR: Joe Wright
KEY ACTORS: Keira Knightley, Matthew Macfadyen
CERTIFICATE: PG
IMDB SCORE: 7.8
ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 86%

SEX SCORE: 5/5
✔️ I love this film and definitely think it’s rewatchable!
✔️ I also definitely want to fuck the cast. Keira Knightley is beautiful as always and Matthew Macfadyen is seriously fuckable in this movie!
✔️ I’m going to give it a mark for sex positivity. Sex isn’t mentioned explicitly but enthusiastic consent for marriage and making good relationship decisions is certainly a big topic, as is disrespectful treatment of women, so I’m happy to say it’s sex positive!
✔️ And it passes the Bechdel Test! I mean, the named women talk about balls and ribbons and dancing, rather than directly talking about men, but it’s still a pass!
✔️ And, drum roll, I’m going to give it a mark for inspiring fantasies as Darcy is a fantasy man for so many people, including me. 5/5!!

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

STREAMING: Amazon Prime (rent £2.49, buy £7.99), YouTube (from £2.99). For a full list of streaming options, check out JustWatch.com

The Pride and Prejudice showing Knightley and Macfadyen

I have a very strong memory of watching the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice with my mother. We were boarding in the granny annex of a friend of the family as we were in the process of moving house and I remember that the apartment didn’t have a separate living space so we had to watch TV sat on my mother’s bed. Can you imagine the decadence of being allowed to stay up longer than your little sisters to watch a programme such as Pride and Prejudice and to watch it while snuggled up in bed with your mother? It was literally heaven! I suspect that we were watching a re-run when I was 12 in 1997, rather than the original showing in 1995 when I was 10, but this was still my first exposure to Jane Austen, to Pride and Prejudice, and to Mr Darcy. I never looked back…

An image from Pride and Prejudice showing the Bennett family in a carriage

In case you need a summary, Pride and Prejudice is a story about marriage and status. Mr Darcy and Mr Bingley, two highly eligible bachelors, cause a stir in the village where the Bennet family lives, simply by moving there and being single. Mr Bingley soon falls for Jane, the oldest and most beautiful Bennet, but no one likes the arrogant and brooding Mr Darcy, especially not after he insults Elizabeth. After spending more time together, Mr Darcy falls in love with Elizabeth but manages to propose in such a hamfisted fashion that she is even more insulted and refuses. This isn’t the end of the story, however, and events soon occur that enlighten Elizabeth as to Darcy’s true personality. Rather than the arrogant wanker she suspected, he proves to be a good and gentle man and, of course, they end up getting married.

And after such an indulgent introduction, I fell head over heels for the story and the drama and the style of Pride and Prejudice, going straight out to read the book and devouring as much Jane Austen as I could, but I never really got the whole Darcy thing. Or rather, I was consciously caught up in the fuss that surrounded the character ever since Colin Firth stepped out of that lake with his wet shirt and brooding look, but I always felt that I was crushing on Darcy because that’s what everyone did rather than because he particularly set me aflame.

That was until I saw the 2005 movie version. Oh. My. Gosh! Matthew Macfadyen as Mr Darcy changed absolutely everything and I honestly don’t think I couldn’t love him more!

As a rule, I tend to enjoy most retellings of this story, even Pride and Prejudice and Zombies! And I while like the chemistry of the Firth-Ehle pairing in the BBC version, the difference here is that I love the Knightley-Macfadyen combination. The Pride and Prejudice story has been told so many times in so many ways that you wouldn’t think that it would be possible to create such a radically new perspective, but this feels all new to me.

The movie is often unfavourably compared to the 1995 BBC version but I much prefer it. For me, it has everything that a British period drama needs to have – elegant and overcrowded dances and balls in great halls, walks in libraries, enviable dresses, plus an odd chicken walking around here and there – but I love it because I believe it. I believe that Mrs Bennet spends every moment plotting the love lives of her daughters. I believe that Bingley is wholly in love with Jane, but I also believe that he is stupid enough to persuaded that Jane’s love isn’t real when his friend warns him off. He is so sweet and guileless and trusting that he would just nod along with his friend’s recommendation and break his own heart rather than believe his feelings.

An image from Pride and Prejudice showing Elizabeth at a ball

More importantly, I love this film because I believe in Darcy. I believe that he is completely overwhelmed with his feelings for Elizabeth and just doesn’t know how to handle them, which, when combined with an obvious social awkwardness, creates that famous diffidence and aloofness that makes him appear so proud.

And I love them as a couple because I am cheering them on from the very first second that they lay eyes on each other. They are clearly in love with each other from that very, very first second! It’s why they keep glancing at each other; it’s why Darcy’s remarks about how ‘tolerable’ Elizabeth is sting so much, and it’s why he stumbles over his words and phrases when talking to and about her. He wants her. He wants her so much that he can’t think straight and it is just intoxicating! He is so obviously trying to impress her, trying to make up for accidentally insulting her but keeps failing and just making it worse. As the New York Times describes, ‘the disparity between his diffidence and her forthrightness makes the lovers’ failure to connect more than a delaying tactic to keep the story churning forward; it’s a touching tale of misread signals.’

Because Elizabeth is no better – I had never really associated the Pride of the title with her, but in this version it is definitely her wounded pride that causes her to keep toying with Darcy and teasing him, never letting him get the better of her again. But in this version of the character, I really, truly believe that he is worthy of Elizabeth’s love and I completely understand why she falls for him. In other versions, I didn’t really get it. Was it because he had a big house? Because he saved her family’s reputation? All good reasons but not exactly ones to inspire such romantic longing.

But I do long for them to get together. Macfadyen’s secret finger flex after he holds Knightley’s hand makes me gasp like I imagine everyone did when Firth started wandering around in wet shirts, but this is just the beginning. By the end, when Mr Bennet tearfully exclaims that Elizbeth really does love him, I’m sobbing along with him as I can’t contain my happiness.

Gif from Pride and Prejudice showing Darcy flexing his hand after touching Elizabeth’s hand

So what is so different about Macfadyen’s Darcy and this film to cause such a huge change in my emotional reaction?

Well, I think it comes down to the fact that I had previously really struggled with the idea of Mr Darcy as a dream romantic icon, and this was made worse because I see in Firth’s portrayal everything that I don’t like about the Darcy character.

In my opinion, Firth’s Darcy is arrogant; he is brusque and offhand and thinks he is better than everyone else. He snubs Elizabeth because he genuinely thinks that he is above that kind of company and hasn’t bothered to get to know her at all. Firth’s Darcy is as surprised as anyone to find himself in love with Elizabeth and his proposal feels selfish somehow, as if he hasn’t thought of her opinion at all and just presumes she’ll accept as he doesn’t think she can get any better. Firth’s Darcy is every one of those horrendous but beautiful fuckboys who don’t treat women nicely because they know they don’t have to. Women swoon at his feet regardless of how he behaves. Until Elizabeth, of course. Then he has to learn to be a better person because that is what Elizabeth demands it of him.

In contrast, Macfadyen’s Darcy feels like a good person all along, just one who doesn’t know how to show his emotions: ‘Matthew Macfadyen finds a human dimension in the taciturn landowner Fitzwilliam Darcy that was missing in earlier, more conventionally heroic portrayals. Mr. Firth might have been far more dashing, but Mr. Macfadyen’s portrayal of the character as a shy, awkward suitor whose seeming arrogance camouflages insecurity and deep sensitivity is more realistic.

Interestingly, I prefer Firth’s second version of Darcy – Mark Darcy in 2001’s Bridget Jones’s Diary – although he is still no Macfadyen! That Darcy seems like a middle ground between the arrogant and the socially awkward, and I am fascinated by the trend, because there is a definite trend in how Darcy is presented and received. Honestly, delving into the history of Darcy and his place in popular culture has proved to be my favourite piece of research for this blog so far!

Darcy is undoubtedly an archetypal romantic hero. He is supposed to be exactly what women want and a poll in the early 2000s revealed that ‘1,900 women across the generations voted for Mr Darcy as the man they would most like to go on a date with.’ And that is what fascinates me – ‘across the generations.’ Why does Darcy appeal to everyone? And is every generation of women attracted to the same Darcy?

An image from Pride and Prejudice showing Darcy and Elizabeth dancing

I read an absolutely incredible article about the history of Mr Darcy that I would strongly recommend that you read as I am about to essentially paraphrase and quote from it, but it proposes that Austen originally wrote Darcy at a time when masculinity and the role of a gentleman was in flux; a circumstance not that dissimilar to the current social upheaval prompted by #MeToo, discussions of toxic masculinity, and the next generation of feminists. Could this be why I find the most recent versions of Darcy more attractive and more true to my reading of the novel?

Austen wrote Darcy as a character who looked forward – he was a Victorian man with Victorian masculine sensibilities at a time when more Georgian gentility still dominated society. He has a ‘serious moral tone and a strong sense of purpose,’ which contrasted with Bingley’s ‘eighteenth-century gentleman’s refinement and easy, sociable manners.’ Darcy is straightforward, ‘paying more attention to “the promptings of his inner self” than to the “dictates of social expectations.”’

It could be argued that Darcy was a very early example of the struggles of toxic masculinity. He works so hard to maintain his position as a man and a gentleman at a time when it is not clear how best to be both, and this conflict causes him to be rude to, well, everyone. His status as a gentleman is ‘complicated by the lack of ease required to develop the manners and conduct that will recommend him to others.’ In the traditional sense of the word, he is a gentleman by birth but not in action and, until Elizabeth, this had never been tested. Elizabeth even directly attacks his identity as a gentleman when refusing his proposal – ‘You are mistaken, Mr. Darcy, if you suppose that the mode of your declaration affected me in any other way, than as it spared me the concern which I might have felt in refusing you, had you behaved in a more gentleman-like manner.’ No wonder it shakes him to his core!

But such is Austen’s genius that she is able to demonstrate both the struggles of this change in requirement of a gentleman and the reasons why such a change is necessary. Not only is Mr Bingley an adorably laughable character, exemplifying the superficial nature of gentlemanly behaviour, but Austen also wrote Mr Wickham as ‘Darcy’s foil’ – a reminder to both Elizabeth and those reading the book that ‘pleasant, easy manners alone are not an adequate measure of masculinity.’ Wickham may be the perfect gentleman but he is a cruel and manipulative man. Instead, Austen presents Darcy as a modern man and a more attractive option. He is not frivolous; he is measured and moral and good.

An image from Pride and Prejudice showing Darcy looking brooding

But this version of Darcy, the straightforward masculine man who struggles with knowing how he should present himself in a changing world, got lost for a long time in modern representations of him.

It is Lawrence Olivier in 1940 who is credited for being one of the earliest diffident and arrogant versions of Darcy, and his character progressed from there until Darcy had become a more brutal romantic hero and was almost an example of the weakness and inconsistency of women. We yearn for ‘dark, smouldering, moody, charismatic, arrogant Darcy types, whom we hate at first sight and then later find ourselves falling in love with’ only to feign surprise when they ‘turn out to be rigid, dominating and controlling.’ Fuckboys; our love for Darcy is what leads us to fall for fuckboys. And to fall for Heathcliff and Edward Cullen and James Bond and Mr Big and all manner of other emotionally unavailable men who treat women like crap. This Darcy may be a fantasy for women, but perhaps not one that we should want so much!

In a somewhat scathing attack written in 2004, the year before this movie came out, Cherry Potter suggested that ‘when society was deeply patriarchal, men like Darcy really were severe, remote and all-powerful’ and women had no choice but to marry them because they needed protection. But now, she worries about what our obsession with Darcy says about women and what message it sends to men: ‘As modern women with our wealth of relationship experience and all the benefits brought about by feminism, we should know better.

But but but but…that’s not the Darcy that Austen wrote and that’s not the Darcy in this fabulous 2005 movie!

An image from Pride and Prejudice showing Darcy walking in the fog

Darcy is strong and sexy and powerful but he is also respectful and honourable. Compare how he reacts to Elizabeth’s refusal of his proposal with Mr Collins’s response. Darcy defends himself against her erroneous views about him but then leaves her in peace. He only approaches the subject again when he has a glimmer of hope that her opinions might have changed, and even then promises to never speak of it if his hope is mistaken. He believes her no! I cannot tell you how important and admirable that is. Mr Collins, on the other hand, assumes that Elizabeth is playing a game to tease him, as women are so tricksy, and doesn’t believe her, asking again more ardently and forcefully and not letting go.

Stealing the words of the Happy Feminist, our fantasies for Mr Darcy have ‘nothing to do with deep down wanting a patriarchal, dominating or controlling man.‘ Instead, Darcy represents that guy we admire, the one we never thought we could get, but who it turns out thinks as highly of us as we do of him. He’s the unrequited love who really does love us back, the extraordinary writer who loves what we write, the brilliant colleague who asks our advice; he’s the intoxication and joy that comes with realising someone you look up to thinks of you as an equal: ‘The fantasy is to win the utter respect, admiration and passion of a man of great intelligence and great character, especially a man who is not easily won.’ Oh, be still my beating heart…!

An image from Pride and Prejudice showing Elizabeth standing surrounded by laundry

And this leads on to another aspect of Joe Wright’s film that I think is absolutely perfect. Keira Knightley is beautiful, there is no doubt about that, but Elizabeth Bennet shouldn’t be. She was intelligent and witty and attractive because of all of these non-physical features but Knightley’s beauty shifts the balance: ‘Her radiance so suffuses the film that it’s foolish to imagine Elizabeth would be anyone’s second choice.’ But I loved this because it allows Elizabeth and Darcy to be equals again. Darcy’s good looks are never described in the novel and he is a figure of attraction because of his wealth and status. Making Darcy gorgeous while Elizabeth remains plain is just mean. (And misogynistic!)

Instead, they are equals, each bringing different strengths to their partnership – Darcy has higher social status and greater wealth, but Elizabeth is definitely emotionally superior and arguably more intelligent too. It is ‘a marriage of equals.’ And, of course, that is the secret. The mutual admiration between Darcy and Elizabeth is what I have always longed for in a partner, and is a part of my own relationship that never stops bringing me joy.

An image from Pride and Prejudice showing Darcy and Elizabeth kissing

And that is why I love this movie and why I cry with happiness that Elizbeth and Darcy are able to finally understand each other and see each other and love each other. This version of Pride and Prejudice is a remainder that ‘the best romances are between strong people who appreciate each other’s strength.’ The best romances are between people who admire each other and value each other and understand each other.

And that is why Darcy is still my ultimate romantic hero. Not the brutal, distant and brooding icon, but the real man. He is far from perfect and he would be a hard won prize but, damn, he would be worth it…

Next week: Showgirls

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 Tenor.com

Colette

YEAR: 2018
DIRECTOR: Wash Westmoreland
KEY ACTORS: Keira Knightley, Dominic West
CERTIFICATE: 15
IMDB SCORE: 6.7
ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 87%

SEX SCORE: 4/5
✔️ This movie is rewatchable. It’s beautiful and funny and interesting, and I definitely want to watch it again!
✔️ It’s easily sex positive. There are feminist issues, certainly, but all the characters have a level of sexual freedom and acceptance of each other’s needs that is admirable and not always present in relationships, even today.
✔️ It also has no problem passing the Bechdel Test. Colette and Missy talk a lot about subjects that don’t involve men, as do Colette and the other women she meets in the Paris salon scene, who are handily introduced to her when she meets them!
✔️ I would also fuck the cast without much hesitation. I have carried a torch for Dominic West since The Wire, which even a dodgy goatee and a dodgier personality can’t entirely extinguish, but Keira Knightley is the star. Colette is witty and intelligent, and Knightley gives her a spark that is frankly irresistible!
❌ But narrowly missing a 5/5 score, it didn’t inspire fantasies. Hot as they may look, I’m not gay so the lesbian love scenes didn’t inspire me beyond wanting hot sex in general, and the dress up scenes with Dominic West were definitely on the creepy end of the hot-or-not scale…

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

STREAMING: Netflix, Amazon Prime (rent £1.99, buy £6.99), YouTube (from £3.99). For a full list of streaming options, check out JustWatch.com

Poster for Colette, showing a determined looking Keira Knightley wearing a great hat!

Today’s movie was one that I hadn’t seen before this week, and I watched it in the most wonderfully indulgent style – sat on an enormous, ridiculously comfy sofa, surrounded by cheesy deliciousness, wine and good friends. It was perfect! And I was so happy to watch it with these particular friends as Exposing 40 and Haiku are such interesting people to talk to about, well, almost anything, but especially about marriage and different types of relationships – pertinent topics when watching Colette.

Colette tells the true story of Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (Knightley), a young woman from the French countryside who marries a celebrity of sorts from Paris. Her husband, Henry Gauthier-Villars (West), better known by his nom-de-plume, Willy, is a vibrant member of the Parisian salon scene and is famous for writing stories and reviews…very few of which he actually writes, delegating that part to his ‘factory.’ When Willy’s extravagant lifestyle and infidelities catch up with him, he persuades Colette to write stories for him to increase his output and, therefore, his income. To Willy’s surprise, Colette’s novels about a young girl called Claudine’s sexual and romantic adventures become wildly successful, creating a social phenomenon, but Colette receives none of the credit. They were written by Willy after all. Frustrated and held back by Willy, Colette rebels, learns to become a mime and leaves Willy for Missy, a genderqueer Marquis who shows Colette that women don’t need to be wives or feminine to be accepted by society.

Image from Colette showing Colette writing

The true story of Colette and the issue of marital plagiarism is such an interesting one. The real woman was clearly a genius – a future Nobel prize nominee and author of many best-selling novels after divorcing Willy – but Willy was not wrong when he claimed that novels written by women are less successful as they were deemed to be harder to publish and harder to sell. It’s why Mary Ann Evans wrote as George Eliot rather than her own name in the 1800s and why, even in the 20th century, JK Rowling chose to publish under her initials rather than her obviously feminine real name. And by the time Colette wrote the famous Claudine novels, ‘Willy’ was a brand, as he claimed. His use of ghost-writers was well known within the industry and ‘Willy’ was already rumoured to be more than just that one man. Why risk their main source of income by rocking the boat and confirming what was already suspected anyway?

But, to me, these are simply excuses. And misogynist ones at that! Once the brand was established and once the character, Claudine, had built a diehard fan base, why couldn’t they come clean? In a society where women had so few opportunities to succeed creatively, why couldn’t they take that risk now? Except that, of course, revealing who had actually written his greatest works would discredit Willy. Without her novels, he would be unsuccessful and broke. He would have nothing.

And the power was all on his side and he had no desire to change that. Unless Willy himself gave credit to Colette, who would believe her? Although he does end up asking for them to be destroyed, just in case, Willy is able to look at Colette’s handwritten stories within his infrequent notes in the margin and claim that this is proof of their collaboration. Watching this with Haiku, she was reminded of a similar story from the 1970s where Margaret Keane’s husband took credit for her distinctive big eyed paintings so convincingly that a judge asked them both to paint for him under observation to prove who was the real artist. Marriage laws tend to side with the husband, essentially giving him ownership of his wife and, by default, her creative results. Which is frustrating, to say the least, and I am so pleased that Colette managed to successfully publish under her own name later in life.

Image from Colette showing Willy as the toast of the Paris salon

But while the headline plot from Colette is the trouble that she had getting credit for her writing, I was much more interested in the romantic plot and the dynamics of their marriage. Because, until Colette’s fight for professional acknowledgement drove the final nail into the coffin of their relationship, they seemed to have found a balance that sort of worked for them. They had an uneven and not entirely satisfactory open relationship, sure, but a Time biography suggested that it was Willy who finally asked for a divorce and that Colette had been happy in their non-monogamous partnership. They clearly also married initially for love – Colette even jokes that she didn’t bring a dowry. The respect and admiration that they felt for each other was visible in how Knightley and West played the characters, with the Guardian review praising their performances for suggesting that ‘Colette and Willy did enjoy something like a real love affair, and that Colette was never simply a victim, nor Willy simply an exploiter.’ As with so much in life, it was much more complicated than that!

I do believe that they loved each other. I believed that they had a real partnership, not just a marriage of convenience or financial need. And they were sweet together! Willy referring to himself as a ‘pot-bellied stove’ when offering to warm her up in bed really made me smile and there seemed to be genuine companionship in much of their interactions and ease with each other. Having a 10-month old baby who seems to have been snotty for weeks now, there was definitely a note of familiarity in Colette noticing a stain on her dress as they arrived at a party, scratching it and joyfully declaring that it was just toothpaste, and I loved how Willy soon gave up trying to change how Colette dressed and let her wear what made her comfortable.

But despite this easy companionship and mutual respect, we still spent much of the film declaring what an awful husband Willy was! The problem comes because their relationship had such a clear gender imbalance. Willy is in charge; he is the man of the house and Colette is only able to do what she does because he allows it. Yes, he appeared to respect her but their public presence particularly did not demonstrate that Willy thought of them as equals. He would regularly order her around, demanding that they left parties when he wanted to leave, and would lock her up to ‘encourage’ her to write. And he can get away with anything he wants because that’s what men do. Once again, husbands owned their wives and could do what they wanted with them.

This also extended to Willy’s infidelities and sexual indiscretions. ‘Flirtation is what one does!’ he tells her. And later, he tells Colette that she needn’t feel threatened by him seeing a sex worker as ‘she’s no rival…it’s what gentlemen do.’ Willy benefits from the patriarchal society and doesn’t do anything to change it. And there was so much opportunity to be fairer!

Image from Colette showing Willy with Colette and another woman on his knees

As I briefly mentioned in the post on Up in the Air, I am in an open marriage myself but the arrangement that Willy and Colette have is a type of non-monogamous relationship that personally isn’t for me. Obviously, everyone’s experience is different but I’m not a fan of the One Penis Policy. This type of open relationship is not uncommon but I can’t view an agreement where the man can sleep with as many women as they want but the woman isn’t allowed to sleep with an equivalent number of men as anything other than misogynist. The woman can fuck other women, which is OK because the man gets to remain the man of the house? Because sex with women is of less value than sex with men? Because men only get jealous of other men, like they’re a new patriarch trying to disrupt the pack? Because fucking a penis infers a level of ownership that can’t be shared? Sorry, it’s not for me. And it destroys any chance that Willy had of being a progressive husband – even if he does happily let his wife fuck as many women as she wants.

And Colette is very aware of the inequality of their marriage. She asks about opening their marriage completely but Willy refuses. And, of course, this does create resentment. It does foster and maintain inequality. As Missy tells her, ‘it’s a long leash he keeps you on, but it is a leash.’

The inequality in their non-monogamous marriage is further exacerbated because Willy keeps secrets and has affairs. He doesn’t tell her who he’s fucking, which in my opinion still constitutes cheating even in an open relationship. Of course, Colette fights back against these slights, but not because she wanted him to stop; she just wanted him to keep her in the loop: ‘I want to be part of things. I don’t want to be a little wife at home.’ I completely understand this attitude. It’s not the open marriage that it’s the problem; it’s the lies. Like the One Penis Policy, they maintain a hierarchy and power dynamic that places Willy in charge and Colette as his inferior. Who wouldn’t fight back against that sort of arrangement?

Image from Colette showing Colette looking fabulous with a lady in her underwear in the background

Particularly as Colette is clearly a bisexual woman with a high sex drive, and I love how this was celebrated on screen. ‘The wild days have just begun,’ she announces when presented to Parisian society and Willy’s peers joke that he’ll have to settle down now that he’s married. She asks for sex and it is Willy who turns her down as he’s too tired; she goes after what and who she wants and is happy to make the first move; and, of course, Claudine’s adventures that make them so famous are Colette’s adventure, her school days and her memories. It is almost the ultimate expression of the patriarchy that Willy thought he could control her just because he married her!

Another aspect of this film that I really loved seeing presented so well was the handling of gender. I would be fascinated to know how this film might have looked if it had been released 10 or even just 5 years ago. Take Missy, for example – at one stage, Colette makes a very deliberate effort to correct Willy when he calls him ‘she,’ implying that Missy had changed his pronouns to a more masculine form of he/his. It was so seamlessly handled, without fuss or really much acknowledgement, that it could easily have been missed, proving to any doubters that changing pronouns is not a big deal and doesn’t need to be a major plot point. ‘Words are either masculine or feminine.’ Colette tells Willy, ‘There’s no word for Missy.’ And that’s all that needed to be said. After all, Missy’s gender isn’t why Colette falls for her, and the scandal surrounding their relationship stems from the fact that they are supposedly two women kissing on stage, rather than Missy’s gender flexibility.

Image from Colette showing Colette and Missy embracing on stage

But I was most pleased to see this small detail in the film as they didn’t need to include it. The real Missy, Mathilde de Morny, was notorious for dressing in men’s clothes at a time when this was scandalous enough, but there is no evidence to suggest she was trans. Rumour, yes, but no facts. So I liked that the writers chose to highlight this pronoun change as it must have been a deliberate choice, and one that might not have been made in the past.

Another deliberate choice that also made me happy when I heard it was Missy’s acknowledgement that it was his financial privilege and status that gave him the freedom to dress how he wanted and act as he did. Even though he created a scandal, his life wasn’t at risk; he was able to survive. When looking back at figures in history who have been trailblazers for sexuality or who have challenged accepted gender norms, it tends to be the stories of those with this kind of privilege that make history – to misuse a quote from the film, ‘it’s the hand that holds the pen that writes history’ – and it made the story of Colette and Missy so much more powerful that this was acknowledged.

Image from Colette, showing Missy in a dinner jacket

So what and who is Colette? The Guardian felt that it was an ‘empowering and entertaining tale of a woman finding her own voice in a society in flux;’ the Telegraph described her as an ‘ahead-of-her-time queer icon with a complex attitude to her own femininity.’

For me, it is a story of progress and is almost a prolonged coming of age movie. Who says we are fully formed once leave home or fall in love, as traditional coming of age films would suggest? Colette needed Willy to find herself; she needed his encouragement to write in the first place, his sexing up of her writing to help her find her style, his freedom and (admittedly salacious) encouragement to fuck around with the women in Paris to discover what she wanted. ‘You’re the only woman I could ever love,’ he tells her. ‘And you’re at your most brilliant with me.’ Their marriage was a disaster, but it was the catalyst that Gaby, the young country girl Sidonie-Gabrielle, needed to become Colette, the pioneer and trendsetter. Colette is a ‘nuanced tale of outgrowing: not just a childish and bullying spouse, but an age of acquiescence.’ Yes, she was scandalous but she helped to change how women are perceived and what they were allowed to do – creatively and personally.

After all, ‘since when has scandal been a bad thing?’

Next week – Pride and Prejudice

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.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show

YEAR: 1975
DIRECTOR: Jim Sharman
KEY ACTORS: Tim Curry, Susan Sarandon, Barry Bostwick
CERTIFICATE: 15
IMDB SCORE: 7.4
ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 80%

SEX SCORE: 3.5/5
✔️ So Rocky Horror passes the Bechdel Test, but this is another example where it can be argued that its passing is ‘dubious.’ It does literally pass the binary test, but all the qualifying conversations between named female characters are still about sex…just sex with a woman.
✔️ It is rewatchable. But I’d recommend watching it at the cinema if at all possible – it is so much more fun that way!
✔️ And I do want to fuck the cast. They’re all either very extreme or very normal, but the characters are so horny that they have an undeniable appeal. Also, I love a man in stockings…
❓ Unsure if this really count as inspiring a fantasy as it didn’t get quite as far as a full-blown fantasy, but this film is certainly the first time that I saw a man in heels and stockings look so good and, lets just say, it changed things!
❌ But considering how revolutionary it was at the time it was released and how important it has been to queer representation, I don’t think Rocky Horror is sex positive. Frank is too predatory; Rocky is too exploited; Janet is not a slut. It’s wonderful but its sexual politics haven’t aged so well.

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

STREAMING: Amazon Prime (rent £3.49, buy £7.99), YouTube (from £3.99). For a full list of streaming options, check out JustWatch.com

The poster from Rocky Horror showing Dr Frank N Furter sitting on a pair of red lips

The Rocky Horror Picture Show is not so much a movie as an experience. A phenomenon. First released to mixed reception in 1975, it has become the archetypal cult film. Regular midnight showings are congregated by hordes of fancy-dressed diehard fans who add their own lines between those on screen and bring props to interact with the story themselves. It’s like nothing else; Rocky Horror is an institution.

OK before we get into it, let’s try to summarise the plot! Average American couple, Brad (Bostwick) and Janet (Sarandon), have a puncture when driving through the woods in a storm and approach a strange castle to see if they have a telephone to call for help. The castle is the home of Dr Frank N Furter (Curry) and his servants who persuade Brad and Janet to stay the night by singing and dancing and, well, taking their clothes. Frank invites them up to his lab (to see what’s on the slab) where he has created a perfect man – the eponymous Rocky Horror – essentially as a sex toy. Later in the night, Frank tricks both Brad and Janet into sleeping with him and then, well, it becomes a bit chaotic! There’s a scientist in a wheelchair, cannibalism, turning people to stone, more stockings, more songs, a musical number/orgy in a swimming pool and eventually Frank’s servants, RiffRaff and Magenta, turn on him and reveal themselves to all be aliens from Transylvania. They kill Frank, release Brad and Janet, and take off in the castle-spaceship to return to Transylvania. Phew…

Image from Rocky Horror, showing the main characters dancing a chorus line in stockings and suspenders

Now, Rocky Horror is a film whose legend is almost bigger than the film itself, and I knew all about it and its following long before I had ever seen it. My mother used to tell me stories of going to see it in the 1980s, singing and bringing along water pistols to create rain, and it sounded like the most incredible thing I had ever heard. I’m a huge fan of immersive cinema now but it was so new when I heard stories about these midnight showings that they sounded like magic and I was desperate to be a part of it. I wanted to see the movie so much – and I wanted to see it in the cinema, late at night, wearing fishnets and throwing pieces of toast into the air. Except that I was about 10 at the time my mother told me these stories and living in deepest darkest countryside so I couldn’t go even if I were allowed!

Sadly, years and years and years then passed and I still had not seen the film so when I spotted it on TV, I thought I’d give it a watch. And, honestly, I thought it was really weird. It was so bizarre and I didn’t get it. At all. I was so disappointed! But when I mentioned this to my mother, she wasn’t surprised – it is a strange film and it does make no sense, and that’s because it can’t easily be watched in isolation. As Roger Ebert wrote, Rocky Horror is a movie that ‘played as a backdrop to the stage show by the fans.’ It needs the fans and the interaction to make sense! So I tried again. I found a proper showing and, although I didn’t dress up as I was there by myself and wasn’t ready for that, it had everything else and it was in-credible. Over the top and immersive and hysterical, and I loved it. And now I won’t watch it any other way!

An image from Rocky Horror showing Rocky wearing gold hotpants

For me, this was the first introduction to how powerful community can be, particularly kink, queer and sex positive communities. Although Rocky Horror isn’t perfect, it was one of the earliest mainstream representations of queerness on screen and these midnight showings ‘provided a place where the socially and sexually marginalised could gather each week and rejoice in each other’s company.’ Even in otherwise pretty conservative cities, showings of Rocky Horror would allow people to gather together and express themselves in a way that would often be frankly dangerous in other circumstances: ‘It was a family. A loose, cliquish one divided into participants and gawkers, to be sure, but a community nonetheless.

The importance of this community cannot be overstated. It was a safe space at a time when there weren’t enough of these available. Frank is a sweet transvestite from Transexual, Transylvania and he is awesome! He’s wearing make-up and stockings and heels and he is powerful. And within the hyperactive and bizarre context of the movie, he isn’t a joke; he makes sense. I cannot imagine how freeing it must have been to ‘see someone like Frank-N-Furter be the leader of a society and be unapologetically confident and sexually ambiguous.’ Not only him, there is gender queer representation all over the place with femme and masc presenting observers among the TimeWarp dancers. Alongside this, Brad and Janet represent the more vanilla, mainstream attitudes so everyone could feel welcome: ‘It is an opportunity to see oneself in a film, it provides a place for self-expression, and it gives meaning to peoples’ lives…Brad and Janet embody the more conservative audience of the film, while Frank-N-Furter and his servants give a voice to those who have never felt represented by characters in film or television.’

An image from Rocky Horror showing a dancing troupe dancing to the Time Warp

I am very fortunate because I have never needed a safe place like this as being myself has never carried the same risks as those faced by LGBT people in the 1970s and 1980s, but I still recognise how much having a community of like minded people has changed and supported me. Interacting with people who share my less mainstream values on sex, non-monogamy or kink has given me the confidence to accept those parts of me with less shame or concern than I would have if I’d faced them alone. So I can completely understand how watching Dr Frank N Furter up there on screen and then making friends with others in the audience who experienced the same challenges would have encouraged a sense of belonging and confidence that helped people accept themselves, and maybe accept themselves enough to come out.

An image from Rocky Horror showing Brad and Janet opening the castle door and shaking hands with RifRaf

But the world is different now and so is Rocky Horror’s place in it. In 1975, Rocky Horror was released into a pre-AIDS world where homosexuality had only been removed from the American Classification of Mental Disorders two years previously (something the WHO wouldn’t do until 1992!) and where Pride movements were still in their earliest stages – the rainbow Pride flag would only be adopted three years later. In 1975, queer communities needed this movie and this safe space as they had so little else.

Now, in 2019, while there is obviously still much work to be done, society is more accepting of queer and trans people, and so Rocky Horror has lost some of its power. You could say that it’s done its job! But now that it’s no longer a ‘boundary breaker,’ what is it?

Well, as dominant cultures tend to do, it’s been appropriated by the mainstream! Rocky Horror has been described as ‘LGBT cosplay for straight people’ and as a ‘chance for the comfortable to dip their toes in their perception of LGBT culture.’ It is no longer a groundbreaking safe place; Rocky Horror is a circus act.

And when viewed in this way, it starts to look much more problematic. Take Frank N Furter as an obvious example – he is extreme and over the top, but outside of the over the top context of the movie and the historical context of the time, he is just a predator. His aggressive form of sexuality can even make him look like ‘a caricature of the LGBT predator conservative lawmakers are so intent on convincing us is real.’ He manipulates Brad and Janet into sleeping with him by hiding his identity until the last minute, a clear consent violation; he builds Rocky to have sex with and literally chases him around the castle when Rocky tries to escape, suggesting Rocky doesn’t really consent to fucking Frank either. And don’t forget that Frank kills and then eats Eddie when he looks elsewhere. He is a monster! As the Houston Press so descriptively put it, ‘remove the singing and he is basically Buffalo Bill with better fashion sense.

Image from Rocky Horror showing a snarling Frank N Furter

In fact, Jef Rouner, writing for the Houston Press in 2017, now has very strong views about the problematic nature of Rocky Horror in the modern world, describing how his relationship with the movie has changed. He went from regular performer and disciple to hesitating to share the movie that means so much to him with his daughter as he’s not certain it contains messages he wants her to hear. ‘Screaming “slut” whenever anyone says Janet’s name is arguably the single most basic call line in Rocky Horror history,’ he explains, and even though she has no more sex than the other main characters, she is the only one to get labeled.

An image from Rocky Horror showing Janet and Rocky wrapped in a blanket

When asked to justify the use of this sort of language, Rouner used to respond with ‘righteous indignation,’ citing tradition and the ‘unique cinematic experience’ of Rocky as reasons why the complaint held no merit. Now older, he has realised that he had been wrong to disregard their concerns: ‘Looking back at it now, I sounded like freakin’ GamerGate. I sounded like every other aggrieved son of privilege beating his chest because his toys made other people uncomfortable. It’s a weirdly conservative mind-set for something that was supposed to be about breaking boundaries.’

So what is Rocky Horror now?

Well, to me, it’s a testament to progress. It is dated and it is problematic – but as are so many other movies from the 1970s. The 1970s were a problematic time! We do live in a different time now, thank goodness, and we can’t expect media from the past to represent current attitudes. It can still be enjoyed if we look at it critically and understand what was important and what is important, and what we can and have learned from it.

And it is definitely ‘encouraging that the world no longer needs Rocky Horror the way it did in decades past.’ So maybe it is now just the ‘richest sources of holiday costume ideas’ to come out of the history of cinema. And maybe it is an excuse for the conservative and conventional to drag up and maybe it too problematic to be anything other than a bit of fun.

But, oh, what fun it is! I still love watching this film and still love to dress up and sing along. And maybe, just maybe, there are still people who will benefit from seeing ‘two conventional young sheeple having their eyes opened to all the possibilities of absolute pleasure’ by going to the movies and spending ‘two hours in the dark with a bunch of other weirdoes!

Next week: Colette

Thank you to ‘Rainbow Revolutions‘ by Jamie Lawson and Eve Lloyd Knight for providing a great history of the fight for queer rights. Definite recommendation!
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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.