Sex, Love and Videotape

On movie sex and movie love...

Author: The Other Livvy (page 1 of 2)

The Before trilogy

YEAR: Sunrise 1995, Sunset 2004, Midnight 2013
DIRECTOR: Richard Linklater
KEY ACTORS: Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy
CERTIFICATE: 15
IMDB SCORE: Sunrise 8.1, Sunset 8.0, Midnight 7.9
ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: Sunrise 100%, Sunset 95%, Midnight 97%

SEX SCORE: 4.5/5
✔️ Definitely rewatchable – and I’d recommend watching the full trilogy in one sitting if you can.
✔️ The cast are definitely fuckable. Julie Delpy is all sorts of fantastic and although there is something, well, weaselly about Ethan Hawke, the chemistry between them is so hot that I still want him despite his somewhat wiry facial hair!
✔️ And these movies did inspire lots of fantasies – meeting a hot stranger on a train, fucking in a park, missing a plane home because I needed to fuck someone right there and then…
✔️ On balance, I think these movies are sex positive. This is mainly as there isn’t much sex negativity so it gets a mark by default!
❓ Only Before Midnight passes…but it’s the only one with more than two named characters after all. The films are so focused on those two characters that this test feels, well, irrelevant.

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

STREAMING: Amazon Prime (rent £3.49, buy £7.99 but not Sunset!?), YouTube (from £3.99, Midnight from £2.99). For a full list of streaming options, check out JustWatch.com

The three posters side by side - Sunrise showing them lying under a dawn sky, Sunset on a boat under a bridge and Midnight walking by a quay

Oh, what am I thinking attempting to write about the entire Before… trilogy in one post?! This may be my most ambitious (and is definitely my longest) post yet!

But having just watched all three films over two nights, I cannot imagine writing about them in any other way. Although the first, Before Sunrise, is a unique and self-contained film, the others become increasingly dependent on the previous ‘episodes’ as the series progresses and themes tend to run through them all so talking about them separately would be either repetitive or disruptive. So here goes…

The three films of the Before… trilogy follow the lives of Jesse (Hawke) and Céline (Delpy) essentially in real time. Before Sunrise, in 1995, is about their meeting on a train approaching Vienna. They are both in their early twenties and single, although newly so in Jesse’s case. He persuades Céline to get off the train in Vienna with him and they fall in love over one night, walking through the city at night and eventually fucking in a park. In a ridiculously tenuous plan that could only be made by people so young and naive, they agree to meet back on that platform in 6 months but don’t share any contact details – this was before the internet or smart phones and, anyway, it was more romantic that way.

Jesse and Céline sit opposite each other, pretending to talk on phones made of their fingers

Nine years then pass, both for the characters and for the viewers, as the next film was released in 2004. In Before Sunset, Jesse is now an author on a book tour to promote his supposedly fictional novel about a young man who meets a beautiful woman on a train and spends a night walking around Vienna, falling in love with her. Céline, obviously, attends the reading and they reunite, walking through Paris from the bookstore back to Céline’s flat. It turns out that Jesse did fly back to Vienna all those years ago but Céline could not as her grandmother had just died and so they had not seen each other again until now. Both have materially moved on – Jesse is married with a son and Céline is in a long distance relationship – but it becomes clear that they never stopped loving each other; never stopped wondering and wishing and looking. So, of course, Jesse misses his flight home to be with her.

Jesse and Céline sit in the back of a car, talking to each other

Finally, after another nine years in 2013, the final instalment was released – Before Midnight. Jesse and Céline are married with young twin girls, who are likely around eight, and on holiday in Greece. Sadly, the romantic ideal of the early films has faded and this film is about an epic argument. Jesse is worried about his son living with his estranged wife in Chicago, Céline feels trapped in a life as a wife and mother that she doesn’t want, and a romantic night in a hotel turns into a row that culminates with Céline claiming she doesn’t love Jesse anymore and storming out. Although there is the suggestion of reconciliation, the film ending with them sitting together on a quay, there is no doubt that their relationship is on rocky ground.

Jesse and Céline are sitting, having dinner. Jesse is looking at her as she makes an exclamation

Fuck. What a journey!

I both love and hate these films in equal measure. They feel too personal, too prescient, and so I have complicated feelings about how they fit into my life. The fact that I even wonder how they fit me at all says a lot about the quality of these films. Obviously, my life is nothing like that depicted on screen but the depth of emotion and realism in their interactions felt and still feels so familiar, even before I fell in love myself, that I cannot help but have a visceral reaction to the stories, more than I ever have with other movies.

I know the first film, Before Sunrise, the best and watched it often during my twenties, falling in love with both Jesse and Céline a bit more each time. They are so idealistic, so hopefully and so obviously young in their earnest discussions on philosophy and life. Similar to my declaration that the men in Y Tu Mamá También are such teenage boys, both Jesse and Céline are such early twenties students! But so was I – I recognised myself in their musings and in their youthful optimism. And I cannot tell you how much I wanted to travel and meet someone exciting and have that kind of romantic and erotic adventure. It seemed so possible and so real, and it was intoxicating.

That sense of reality is what is so perfect about Richard Linklater’s films, which, combined with his infinitely patient use of time, turns his movies into masterpieces. The films and the plots are deceptively simple, with lots of tracking shots as they walk and talk and lots of scenery and architecture, but it means that you as the viewer are firmly rooted beside them. I know I felt connected to them; to the possibility of their future that was teased by the knowledge of sequels!

And I’ve only ever seen the other films in marathon viewings, first near Valentines in 2015 and now this weekend, so I have only ever been completely immersed in the rest of their story. As Before Sunset had been out for over a decade by the time I saw it, I was roughly the same age as Jesse and Céline when I did see it. I had also just met the man who would turn out to be the love of my life and, in an ultimately futile attempt to protect myself, I was desperately trying to persuade myself that I couldn’t have fallen in love after so few dates. So I really felt every look that sizzled between them; every hopeful glance, every wistful remembrance, every time Jesse looked at Céline as if the heat of his eyes alone could melt her clothes away, and it made me hope that I wasn’t being reckless to be hovering so close to my own big love story.

Jesse and Céline are walking through Paris and he is looking at her as they walk

The anticipation in Before Sunset is just so fucking hot! Unlike the other two, it’s almost in real time. Jesse only has an hour or so before his flight back to his miserable life in America with a wife he doesn’t love and the film is just as short, lasting only 80 minutes. You can feel their love growing with every passing minute but, more, you can feel their desire. My husband, EA, told me that Céline putting her arms around Jesse’s neck and asking ‘Are you trying to say you want to kiss me?’ in Before Sunrise was the sexiest thing ever put on film, but I disagree – it’s the look on Jesse’s face as he watches Céline sing and dance at the end of Before Sunset. And when I watched it, I knew that I was standing at a similar junction in my own love life and I wanted to stop pretending, just as they had.

Which is why I found Before Midnight so upsetting and frustrating when I first saw it, writing at the time in my sex blog about my fury at the destruction of this romantic dream being thrust into my face. Why can’t they live happily ever after? Why can’t I remain deluded and just believe in ever lasting love? Why did I have to be reminded of real life and real heartbreak and why did it have to be this amazing, beautiful story that smashed my delusion? Watching it first in that marathon sitting, barely 30 minutes had passed since the end of Before Sunset when I had accepted my own romantic dreams might come true and I was genuinely devastated that this might be my future too.

But, of course, that is why this trilogy is so fucking fantastic. Time passes, real time, and everything changes. It is deluded to think it won’t, no matter how much we might wish otherwise. Watching it now, for the second time and with knowledge of what is to come, I can see beauty in this part too. There is comfort and familiarity in their conversations before the argument, as I would hope in long term relationships. And they could always talk easily with each other but their discussions of their now shared nine year history were just as heartwarming as their exploratory conversations in the earlier movies.

Jesse and Céline are in a car with their daughters asleep in the background

But that’s not to say that I didn’t find it just as devastating. I really, really need Richard Linklater to write a fourth part for 2022 – Before Noon, perhaps? I really need to see Jesse and Céline in another nine years, in their fifties, looking back at that destructive argument and that difficult time from a place of recovery. I almost don’t care if they’re still together. I just need to see that they’ve found a peace and I need to know that their complaints have been resolved.

Because watching Before Midnight now, married with a young baby, it was the specifics of their argument that really got to me, not just that they were capable of such an argument. There was so much regret – Jesse regrets his failed marriage and subsequent impossible relationship with his ex-wife, which has been made more difficult because of the overlap with his reconciliation with Céline and is now affecting his access to his son. Meanwhile, Céline regrets the speed at while she fell pregnant and the loss of her creativity and potential in her new role as a wife and mother. None of these apply to me; I don’t have these regrets, but neither did they when they first got together and it frightened me that such core features of their relationship could become sources of regret.

Jesse is standing in a doorway of a hotel room, looking aghast

‘I fucked up my whole life because of the way you sing!’ Jesse says to Céline at one point, and I flinched. That was the moment that I loved the most and yet here it was being used against her. And the fact that such deep seated and all consuming resentments could be revealed in an argument that started because of something as trivial as not passing the phone when Hank, Jesse’s son, called suggested that they had been bubbling for a while, and I hated that. Actually, no need for the past tense – I hate that.

Because it is just so real that it hurts. How many marriages and relationships fail because of an accumulation of small dissatisfactions? How easy is it to let small issues fester and grow until they poison the whole? As a film, it’s brilliant. As an example for life, which I had clung to in the first two films, it was heartbreaking.

What made the trilogy more complete and more extraordinary is that the inevitability of their collapse is foreshadowed in the early films. There are so many callbacks that I cannot imagine watching the films individually as there is so much richness that might be missed.

For example, the trilogy starts with a German couple arguing. There are no subtitles so the reason for the argument is not known, but the bickering tone and back-and-forth suggests a well worn conflict. It is this argument that encourages Céline to change seat and sit near Jesse; it is literally what brings them together. They mock the couple, all but promising that they will never be like that and would instead love more deeply with familiarity:

‘When you talked earlier about after a few years how a couple would begin to hate each other by anticipating their reactions or getting tired of their mannerisms – I think it would be the opposite for me. I think I can really fall in love when I know everything about someone – the way he’s going to part his hair, which shirt he’s going to wear that day, knowing the exact story he’d tell in a given situation. I’m sure that’s when I know I’m really in love.’

Of course, it doesn’t end up that way.

Another big call back that really resonated with me now involved Céline’s difficulty balancing her creativity, career and motherhood. By Before Midnight, she is uncertain about her career direction, no longer writing songs or expressing her creativity, and the bitterness in her statement that she became pregnant ‘the first time they had sex without a condom’ suggests that becoming a mother so soon had not been her plan.

Her dissatisfaction at her current situation made me incredibly sad, mainly as it blandly shows that I am right to fear a certain loss of self now that I am a mother myself. I don’t have as much space to be creative now, my household responsibilities have magnified to absorb almost all of my time; I fear becoming as regretful and bitter as Céline. I’m hopeful that I won’t – EA and I talk a lot about exactly this, as well as other areas of concern that have developed for us since becoming parents, and I do believe that being realistically forewarned means that I am forearmed, but the fears do remain.

My sadness was exacerbated as Céline’s bitterness represents a loss of innocence that broke my heart almost more than the possible collapse of her marriage. Because young Céline, Before Sunrise Céline, knew the risks to her sense of self and wanted it anyway. She wanted to be loved that deeply and entirely, and yet it didn’t make her happy:

‘I always feel this pressure of being a strong and independent icon of womanhood, and without making it look my whole life is revolving around some guy. But loving someone, and being loved means so much to me. We always make fun of it and stuff. But isn’t everything we do in life a way to be loved a little more?’

It was also creativity that brought them back together – Jesse wrote his novel in the hope that she’d read it and track him down, Céline wrote a song that ensured he fell in love with her – so is it a surprise that they’re struggling if her creativity is squashed? And I have to once again complain about the patriarchy (maybe I need to make this a tag?!) as, of course, Jesse’s creativity isn’t affected. In fact, Céline has given up a lot to allow Jesse to write and be creative. She has sacrificed; he has flourished. Of course.

For me, the power of this trilogy comes from how real it is – in the way the characters speak, the emotions that they reveal, and the progression in their relationship over 18 years. Even how they’ve aged! Each film was made without a planned follow-up so the future wasn’t known when it was released. Did they meet again in Vienna and fulfil that youthful romantic dream? Did they get together after Jesse missed his flight and was the sex as good as the anticipation promised? And can they fix the rift that has now forced itself between them?

But we can’t know until the next film is released, just as we can’t know our own futures until they happen. And as someone who usually dives into movies to escape reality, I love and hate these films in equal measure for reminding me, so beautifully, that sometimes reality is a dream come true – it’s a song that sparks a lost love, a train journey with unexpected consequences – but sometimes, maybe all the time eventually, reality fucking sucks.

So please, Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy – please write another film. I really need to know what happens next!

Next week: Death Proof

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.

Easy A

YEAR: 2010
DIRECTOR: Will Gluck
KEY ACTORS: Emma Stone, Penn Badgley, Stanley Tucci, Patricia Clarkson
CERTIFICATE: 15
IMDB SCORE: 7.1
ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 85%

SEX SCORE: 4.5/5
✔️ Easily passes the Bechdel test, particularly if you consider conversations about sexual reputation as separate from conversations about men and dating
✔️ Definitely rewatchable. In fact, I watch it approximately twice a year!
✔️ I do want to fuck the cast, yes. And by that I mean that I want to fuck Stanley Tucci.
❓ This film didn’t inspire any sexual fantasies…but Emma Stone in those corsets certainly inspired me to get off my arse and do more exercise! Wanting to look more like her was one of my main inspirations for starting running, for buying more fancy underwear, for buying corsets so I’m giving it a half mark!
✔️ And I am giving it a whole mark for sex positivity. There is a lot of shame directed towards sexual characters but the film goes out of its why to show why they are wrong. It also manages to find humour in varied sexuality choices and sexual situations without mocking or judging. It’s wonderful!

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

STREAMING: Netflix, Amazon Prime (free with subscription), YouTube (officially from £2.99, although there is a full length upload for free too). For a full list of streaming options, check out JustWatch.com

Poster for Easy A, showing Stone looking perplexed holding a sign saying ‘The rumour filled totally false account of how I ruined my flawless reputation’

I intended on reviewing Easy A at some point for this blog – it’s a cracking teen movie with great lessons about reputation, sex and rumour – but then I saw this tweet and realised that I not only needed to dance around to A Pocket Full of Sunshine immediately, because it is indeed a banger, but I also needed to watch Easy A again. Soon.

Easy A is the story of Olive Pendergast (Emma Stone) – a high school student who accidentally starts a rumour about losing her virginity, helps a bullied queer student to pass as straight by pretending to sleep with him, and ends up with more and more outcasts asking her to pretend they’ve hooked up in one way or another. Such is the power of the rumour mills that Olive’s new reputation soon causes her to become an outcast. Of course she’s had sex with everyone who says that she has! Of course she’s why another student gets an STI! And Olive decides to live up to her new reputation by dressing in corsets or tiny shorts, all emblazoned with a scarlet letter A.

Emma Stone walking through high school wearing jeans, sunglasses and a black corset labelled with a red A

I love this film. I love everything about it. I love the music, I love the costumes, I love Emma Stone, I love Stanley Tucci. I love that it is a teen movie that doesn’t underestimate teenagers. I love it so much that when a Sinful Sunday erotic photography prompt was simply ‘A,’ it was the perfect opportunity to both stitch a large red A to my corset and pose in sunglasses as Olive does, but also to buy the corset in the first place. Even now, in my thirties, I kind of want to be Olive Pendergast!

You see, I wasn’t cool at school. Even with hindsight removing all my insecurities, I wasn’t cool. I volunteered to supervise Duke of Edinburgh expeditions; I was one half of a two person yearbook committee; I drove a car that managed to be older than me but not old enough to be vintage or retro – it was just old. I was not cool. But neither is Olive. I mean, she’s awesome, but she’s not cool in the way students usually are in movies about high school. She’s not a jock or cheerleader. No one really knows her until the rumours start. But she is still awesome – smart, witty, gorgeous – and I really valued the remainder that being in the ‘cool’ group isn’t nearly everything!

Me, posing in a black corset with red A, sunglasses and pearls

These more superficial reasons aside, Easy A is a pretty great film! It’s self-aware, mocking John Hughes tropes and acknowledging its place in a long history of teen movies. It’s also intelligent and funny, and it does not patronise its target audience of young people, particularly young women.

I think it helps that it’s an update of a 19th century novel, The Scarlet Letter by Nathanial Hawthorne. It seems all of the best teen movies are versions of older masterpieces – Clueless from Jane Austen’s Emma, 10 Things I Hate About You from Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, Cruel Intentions from Les Liaisons Dangereuses and now this. I suspect that this is because it’s telling a real story. Too much media made for younger people underestimates their intelligence, and is less good because of it.

(There is, of course, the less generous argument that high school is the last time in modern society where we can spend all our time and energy focussed on romantic plotting and not having a date to the ball is the end of the world so it’s easy to transfer the themes of classic literature, but I prefer my reason!)

I’ve never read The Scarlet Letter (although I have now read the cliff notes in case they had anything interesting to add, which they did not) but the themes in the book are familiar ones – reputation, humiliation…misogyny. Whether in the nineteenth century or the present day, women with a visible sexuality are regularly shunned and cast aside. As seen in this film, men have never suffered the same and instead tend to benefit from having a highly charged sexual reputation – it’s why so many of the boys want to cash in on Olive’s reputation after all.

Stone facing the camera, holding a sign that says ‘not with a fizzle but with a bang’

It is interesting that no one ever doubts that these rumours about Olive are true. Actually, it’s not interesting – it’s the patriarchy. In a he-said-she-said world, would anyone believe her? As one of the needy boys taunted, ‘I don’t need your permission, you know!’ Olive went from being a nerdy nobody to reportedly fucking nearly everyone in school in a matter of weeks, and yet no one questions her ‘slutty alter ego.’ All it took was a rumour that she had had sex once to launch her into the spotlight.

‘That’s the beauty of being a girl in high-school: people hear you had sex once and BAM – you’re a bimbo.’

It reminded me just how hard it is to be a teenage girl! Our youth has been so sexualised that being seen as sexually active and attractive feels disproportionately important. We want to be cool, we want to be hot, we want to seen, we want to be sexual, and yet we risk gaining a reputation for being easy and promiscuous if we do. Olive’s friend Rhiannon exactly demonstrates this difficult and delicate balance – she is thrilled when it is revealed that her big tits are her identifying feature and calls Olive a ‘superslut like me’ on hearing she’s lost her virginity, and yet Rhiannon is the first to turn on Olive when the rumours start to get out of control, declaring her a ‘skank.’ In fact, the rumours essentially start with Rhiannon as she doesn’t believe it when Olive denies having sex, prompting her to just make something up.

And I know why Olive does it; why she lies and then doubles down on her lie by dressing in revealing clothes, dramatically labelling herself with the A from The Scarlet Letter to ensure no one misses her point. There is pleasure in notoriety, in being someone everyone knows and is talking about. Why do you think I joined the yearbook committee? I wanted everyone to know who I was! Admittedly, it may have been more fun and significantly less work if I’d chosen Olive’s way but I didn’t realise that until much later…!

‘How do you know I like to be thought of as a floosy?’
‘At least you’re being thought of.’

I realised watching Easy A again now that I’m looking at it differently since the birth of my daughter, but in ways that only say good things about the film. Because it is a film that I want her to see. It’s one that can teach her how to be the person I want her to be – confident, sure of herself – and it has certainly given me ideas on how to be a better parent for her.

Olive’s parents, Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson, are just fabulous in this film – they’re the icing on an already perfect film. And the real lesson that I’ve learned from them is that they trust Olive without question. Their daughter is going to school wearing underwear as outerwear but they trust her to take care of herself. They repeatedly check in and express their concerns without judging her, making sure she knows they are there for her, but they accept her words when she says she’s OK and wait for her to come to them when she needs their help. Which, of course, she does.

Tucci looking concerned

In contrast to that, my mother once told me I looked like I was asking to be raped when I wore a bikini as a bra under a halter top and, even though I know she was trying to protect me, I haven’t forgotten. And actually, 15 years later, I’m not sure if I’ve forgiven either. I love my mother and we get on very well now but I don’t like to think about the number of conversations that were cut off before the words left my mouth after that because I was afraid of her judgement, and I don’t want that to be my relationship with my daughter.

I don’t think I have the free and easy style of Tucci and Clarkson to carry off their wit and joviality, but I hope I can be as open and approachable. And understanding! I just adore Rosemary’s (Clarkson) response to Olive’s confession about her reputation at school: ‘I had a similar situation when I was your age. I had a horrible reputation…Because I slept with a whole bunch of people. Mostly guys.’ Not just don’t worry, you’ll be fine but don’t worry, I understand – I’ve been through it and I believe that you’ll be fine. And I think that’s wonderful.

Olive: Can you not see that I’m a mess?
Rosemary: No, you’re not, Olive. You’re wonderful. And you’ll handle this the same way I did. With an incontrovertible sense of humour. But you’re much smarter than I am… so you’ll come out of this much better than I did.
Olive: Thank you, Mom.

Stone and Clarkson laughing together and sitting on a cat bonnet

This complete lack of judgement is why Easy A is definitely a sex positive film. Yes, it does depict judgement but it’s from characters who are also shown to be flawed – Marianne and her religious extremists, Lisa Kudrow’s truly awful guidance counsellor. The people that we’re supposed to like and root for are all sex positive. Sex isn’t the enemy or the destructive power; it’s the lies and misunderstandings and judgement that are clearly shown to be the problem.

Roger Ebert does note that, as is often the case in movies when jokes involve virginity, the protagonist‘s virginity ‘miraculously survives at the end‘ but I don’t think this undermines the sex positive message – Olive may not have had sex yet but the film ends with the message that whenever she wants to, whether soon or not, that’s OK.

Stone licking a spoon suggestively while looking at Marianne, the religious student

I also couldn’t write about the sex positivity of this film without mentioning Woodchuck Todd (Penn Badgley). He is just the perfect gentleman and provides a great example of how consent is both hot and doesn’t break the mood, or whatever other excuses people come up with. He asks if he can kiss Olive and then accepts her no without question. He also doesn’t seem to believe the rumour mill surrounding Olive, treating her exactly the same as always. He’s a good man and a good role model.

My final point about Easy A is a sort of throwback to my recent review of Zack and Miri make a porno. One of my main criticisms of that film was that it mocked vulnerable social groups and found humour in being offensive, which I really didn’t find funny. But I do find Easy A funny. It’s fucking hilarious! And that includes jokes about being gay and about being a stripper or sex worker. The jokes work for me because they don’t feel like they’re punching down, no one is inherently superior or portrayed as better, and within the whole positive non-judgemental tone of the film, jokes on these topics don’t even feel edgy. They’re simply funny!

Yup, Easy A is brilliant. I might have to watch this more frequently then twice a year…!

Next week: The Before trilogy…

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.

Y Tu Mamá También

YEAR: 2001
DIRECTOR: Alfonso Cuarón
KEY ACTORS: Gael García Bernal, Maribel Verdú, Diego Luna
CERTIFICATE: 18
IMDB SCORE: 7.7
ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 92%

Today’s review is a guest post from the fabulous Exhibit A – sex blogger extraordinaire and my husband! If you like his perspective, do check out his blog. You won’t be disappointed!

SEX SCORE: 5/5

✔️ It just about passes the Bechdel test – there is only one significant female character but there are lots of named secondary characters that Luisa speaks to about other subjects.
✔️Rewatchable? Well I’ve seen it at least three times now, and enjoyed it on each occasion, so that’s a definite yes.
✔️Sex positive? I wavered over this for a long time. But yes, I think it is.
✔️Inspired fantasies? Yes, though the way in which it does so has changed over the years! YTMT was released when I was 20, so roughly the same age as Julio and Tenoch. Back then, it was very easy to put myself in their shoes; now the fantasies owe more to the general air of anticipation, tenderness, and exploration running through the climactic (heh) sex scene.
✔️Fuck the cast? Tricky one. I would absolutely fuck Maribel Verdú’s caustic, no-nonsense Luisa, and if offered a threesome with either Gael Garcia Bernal or Diego Luna now, I’d say yes in a heartbeat. As bratty teenagers though, they appeal rather less! I’m tempted to go with the cop-out option and give it a half-mark, but given the many wonderful and terrible things I’d do with/to Verdú alone, I think it just about clears the bar.

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

STREAMING: Another great movie that isn’t currently available to stream! But it’s brilliant and definitely a worthy addition to any movie collection so why not buy it.

Poster for Y Tu Mama También (And your mother too!) with Luisa looking out of the poster and both boys embracing her, looking towards each other

Until last weekend, I hadn’t seen Y Tu Mama Tambien for at least a decade. Watching it with a 38-year-old’s eyes was a bit of a revelation, and one that I initially feared would ruin my enjoyment of the entire movie. From the opening scene, I was aware in a way that hadn’t really registered before just how young and obnoxious the two young protagonists really are. I also found myself responding to one of the movie’s two central relationships – the flirtation with (and ultimate seduction of) the boys by their older companion – in a completely different way.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, the basics. Y Tu Mama Tambien follows two Mexican boys on the cusp of adulthood, as they prepare for a long summer without their Europe-bound girlfriends. Tenoch and Julio are best friends from different sides of the tracks; Tenoch (Luna) is the entitled son of a prominent politician, while Julio (Bernal) – teased for his ‘peasant’ background – comes from a middle-class family with left-wing, activist tendencies.

At a wedding, the boys meet the Spanish wife of Tenoch’s pretentious cousin. High on youthful braggadocio, they invite her to go with them to a hidden beach along the coast – “Heaven’s Mouth”. She declines, but after receiving two pieces of upsetting news she calls Tenoch, apparently on impulse, and asks him to take her with them.

That’s ostensibly the set-up for the film’s main storyline: the disintegration of the boys’ friendship as they spar and compete for Luisa’s attention, oblivious to the raw grief she carries on the road with her. However, there’s a lot to enjoy and to mull over in those first 20 minutes. I found myself furiously scribbling notes on everything from the solemn, 500-Days-of-Summer-esque narrative cuts to the way we’re immediately shown Julio and Tenoch’s relationship as something that’s instinctively tactile and hyper-sexual, even if those two elements are kept (superficially) separate at first. Both boys are horny all the time, and when they’re not bragging about how (and how often) they fuck their girlfriends, they’re masturbating into a pool together on two diving boards separated only by a lifeguard’s chair. The hugging and chasing and rough-housing feels like a proxy for all the things that sit the other side of some invisible line that they’re either not ready or haven’t yet thought to cross.

Julio and Tenoch are sitting on a poolside with their feet in the water

Meanwhile Luisa is quickly shown to be a more complicated and fragile character than her initial meeting with the boys suggests. I love the choice Cuarón makes not to show us the details of what we later learn to be her terminal cancer diagnosis. Instead, we get to see the more dramatic – but ultimately less consequential – details of her final fight with Tenoch’s cousin Jano. His betrayal spurs her into action and leads directly to her decision to fuck the two boys – or so we’re led to believe. As the movie’s final scenes make clear, it may have been a catalyst, but it certainly wasn’t the primary cause.

Luisa’s grief and fear are directly relevant to the question that didn’t even occur to me as a horny 21-year-old, watching this for the first time, but which I found myself turning over in my head again and again as the movie went on last weekend: are the things she does with Tenoch and Julio – and even more importantly, the manner in which she does them – in any way defensible? If not, does that make it impossible to think of Y Tu Mama Tambien as a sex-positive movie?

And honestly? I still don’t know the answer.

Case for the prosecution: while we don’t know Luisa’s exact age, she’s clearly 10-15 years older than Tenoch and Julio, and infinitely more experienced – not just sexually, but across the broader landscape of love, relationships, friendship…pretty much everything. She preys on the boys’ eagerness to please, and on their naïveté. She has sex with Julio only to even things up, having essentially ordered Tenoch to fuck her when he comes to her motel room in search of shampoo. While they’re all drunk in the climactic – and much-lauded – threesome scene, Luisa is the one who behaves like she knows what she’s doing (and has possibly done it before). Of course she does: she’s a grown-up! We see that the next morning, in the way her easy manner contrasts with the uncomfortable, awkward way the boys respond to what’s happened.

Luisa embraces Julio after they have just had sex in the car

Case for the defence: she’s a woman – and that matters. It almost goes without saying that if you take two 18-year-old girls, put them in a car with an experienced man in his early 30s who they both idolize and would do anything to please, and you have a very different power dynamic. Luisa isn’t a physical threat to Tenoch and Julio. You could also argue that she is vulnerable in ways that they are not. She is half a world away from the country in which she grew up, and preparing herself for death. The man she followed to Mexico – her husband – has betrayed her, and as she gets in the car with two crude, horny teenagers, she is pretty much alone in the world. When you’re about to die, it’s perhaps reasonable to worry less about the emotional consequences of your actions, especially when the people affected are grown adults. Luisa also teaches Tenoch and Julio several important things about sex – the film strongly implies that their techniques and attitudes could do with some serious work – which they’ll presumably take out into the world with them.

Luisa embraces Tenoch after they have just had sex in the motel

The verdict? Eh. It’s not brilliant – and I’m wary of anything that treats an older woman sleeping with a teenage boy as the height of male wank fantasy, rather than something potentially problematic that needs to be unpacked. At the same time, the relationships here feel real, and like they have something important to say about manhood, growing up, grief, sexuality, and friendship. Everyone involved brings their own soft centre to the table (I haven’t even touched on the class tension between Tenoch and Julio), and you could argue that they each end the film in a better place than they would’ve done without their shared road trip.

Because our sexual choices have consequences. They change us in ways we can’t anticipate, and they frequently reward a willingness to defy social convention. That is true for Tenoch and Julio, true for Luisa, and true for all of us – which is why, despite the odd hairy moment, I’m going to say that Y Tu Mama Tambien is ultimately sex-positive. It’s also dramatically satisfying, authentic (neither teenage love, nor teenage friendship lasts forever) full of heart, and still hot, even now that I’m forced to look at the wank fantasy element of it in a very different way.

All three are dancing

And the threesome at the end is brilliant. Y Tu Mama Tambien is a foreign-language indie movie, but it’s also a teen sex comedy, which gained a pretty wide and enthusiastic audience among my peers when it was released in the UK. For the most-hyped and eagerly anticipated scene to focus on a long, passionate, utterly uninhibited kiss between the two lead actors was kind of groundbreaking, and stands as another example of Cuarón nailing all his big dramatic choices as a director. As viewers, we know that Luisa is going down on them at the time (and obviously I really wanted to watch that too), but our entire focus is on the kiss – both as an erotic act itself, and as the ultimate expression of all the tension, jealousy, love, and energy that we’ve seen swirling around Tenoch and Julio.

Additional notes:
• There’s a brilliant moment early in the film where the boys appear into shot from right of camera, just as a sprinkler goes off in front of them. It’s a big, gushing ejaculation that serves as a perfect (if unsubtle) visual metaphor for the mood Cuarón’s created in those opening scenes.
• “They’re such teenage boys!” – Liv’s comment when Tenoch and Julio are running through their ‘charolastra’ manifesto. And yes, yes they are.
• The film’s title refers to Julio’s claim that not only did he fuck Tenoch’s girlfriend, he fucked his mother too. It’s never clear whether he’s serious or not, but by that stage in proceedings it doesn’t really matter!

Next week: Easy A

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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.

Zack and Miri make a porno

YEAR: 2008
DIRECTOR: Kevin Smith
KEY ACTORS: Elizabeth Banks, Seth Rogen
CERTIFICATE: 18
IMDB SCORE: 6.6
ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 65%

SEX SCORE: 0/5
❌ I struggled with this film and didn’t find it very funny. I don’t think I can watch it again!
❌ I don’t want to fuck the cast. I don’t really like any of them!
❌ Being watched is a kink of mine and I love the idea of being filmed…but somehow this film presented the idea of porn in a way that I didn’t want. Simply, none of my fantasies of being filmed are funny!
❌ This film definitely fails the Bechdel test.
❌ As usual, the sex positive question is a tough one. My immediate instinct is no – it’s porn and sex worker negative, it’s crude, it’s not funny, it’s misogynist…yeah, I can’t give it the point even though there are some redeeming features!

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

STREAMING: Netflix, YouTube (from £2.99), Amazon Prime (rent £3.49, buy £7.99). For a full list of streaming options, check out JustWatch.com

The poster for Zack and Miri make a porno, with Seth Rogen looking worried standing next to Elizabeth Banks who is looking coquettish

I watched this film on the recommendation of a friend. Perhaps I shouldn’t have as I knew before I started that it wasn’t for me. I struggle with comedies, particularly this type of comedy – I don’t think my tastes are that obscure or unique but I don’t get most comedies and I definitely don’t get the gross out stupid ones that have been so popular in the last few years. I didn’t enjoy Anchorman. I don’t get 40 Year Old Virgin. I really don’t like Meet the Parents. Too many make me want to cringe and leave the room, or make jokes about subjects that I don’t think should be mocked. Pertinently for this film, I haven’t yet seen a Judd Apatow film I’ve enjoyed. It’s just not my sense of humour. Kevin Smith is also hit and miss (Dogma – hit, Chasing Amy – miss. Don’t @ me). So watching a movie about making porn made by Kevin Smith starring Judd Apatow regulars, Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks? There was a reason I’d not seen it before…

…and I wasn’t wrong. I really hated this movie.

The plot is simple – Zack (Seth Rogen) and Miri (Elizabeth Banks) have been friends forever. They’re now living together and are completely broke. They can’t pay their bills and as more and more utilities are cut off, they decide to make a porn film to pay their debts. All is going well until they have sex with each other and realise that they are in love after all.

Zack and Miri are dressed as Princess Leia and Han Solo. They are embracing and holding fake weapons decorated with sex toys

This all sounds very sweet but, unfortunately, I found the whole thing really problematic. It’s another film where I wonder if time has been unkind and it wasn’t so offensive in 2008. That may only be 11 years ago but so much has changed that it could be a lifetime. 2008 was before #MeToo – this is a Weinstein Company movie after all – and before so many social movements became mainstream. From trans rights to Black Lives Matter, the world is a different place to the one this movie was made in.

Which does bring up questions about considering and judging culture within the context of the time it was made, but I’m not sure that these jokes were considered inoffensive when the movie was made. The whole point was that it was crude and offensive and edgy. A contemporary Time Out review described it as going ‘out of its way to unite the basest preoccupations of a decade of gross-out comedy: bodily functions, gay jokes, race relations and the hilarious marital habits of black folks, all tied up in a torrent of filthy language that would make Eddie Murphy blush.’ It’s supposed to be offensive; it’s just that the subjects were considered to be fair game to be mocked, and I strongly disagree.

The rest of the stars of the porno stand around the camera

It could be argued that I just haven’t got the joke. It could also be quite fairly argued that my discomfort makes me a snowflake, although I don’t believe that that’s an insult, and I am on the offended side of the ‘new divide between those who think that comedy shouldn’t offend, and those who insist offending is at the heart of good comedy.’ But it doesn’t change the fact that these jokes are picking on groups that remain socially vulnerable and I don’t like that.

Justin Long is excellent but I don’t think we’ve reached a place yet where homosexual stereotypes can be mocked and caricatured without containing an edge of cruelty, without punching down. The same can be said for the sex workers and porn stars in this movie – they’re shown to be funny but only because we are looking down on them from a position of moral superiority. Miri says that other people don’t resort to making porn because they ‘have options…and dignity!’ Because making porn is undignified, a last resort, humiliating…and so it’s funny? Even those jokes that so nearly get it right ended up annoying me, such as a bit about inequality of sex toy acceptability between genders descending into jokes about how pathetic male masturbators are – ‘Why would you want a pocket pussy? That’s so sad!’ – which is unlikely to make those of us with penises feel happier about buying them.

This is a bit of a tangent from a movie review but I am fascinated by offensive comedy and why something intrinsically horrible and unkind is so popular. Robin Ince writes about it in his excellent book about the humanity of comedy, I’m a Joke And So Are You. As he discusses, it is difficult to find the right balance when running the ‘gauntlet between humour and offence’ and working out what is funny and what is just cruel. Ince found that interrogating his own jokes, working out which he was still happy to defend and which he felt weren’t funny enough to risk offence, helped him isolate his own position on this balance, particularly as ‘it is almost impossible for the entire audience to receive the joke as intended’ and someone somewhere is bound to be offended.

But there are levels and there are limits and, for me, this film goes too far. As Ince correctly questions, ‘why are the victims in the jokes by “edgy” comics so frequently people who are more likely to be victims of abuse in real life, too?’ Yes, there is a thrill in the shock of some outrageous humour as we ‘revel in the “naughtiness” of laughing at what [we] shouldn’t’ but it comes at a price. Maybe I am being too sensitive, or maybe this film is too shocking for me and goes too far.

Or maybe Zack and Miri just isn’t funny enough to pay the price for that shock. Comedy can be inclusive and still be funny. It can still be edgy and shocking without being at the expense of those who are more vulnerable – it just takes extra thought. Sofie Hagen is a comedian who works hard to ensure that she is as politically correct as possible, even getting activists to check her language, but she is insistent that being so politically aware and non-offensive doesn’t mean that she is nice: ‘I will fight to my death for your right to feel safe, but I’ll be a fucking cunt to your face.

Whatever the reason, most of the jokes in this movie left me cold. Which isn’t that great for a comedy!

I had one other big problem with this film. I really didn’t like Zack. For a start, he embodies another problematic Hollywood trend – the attractiveness gap. Obviously, beauty is subjective but I don’t think I’m stretching too far to state that Elizabeth Banks is hotter than Seth Rogen. Like in so many rom coms and TV shows, the ridiculously hot woman ends up paired with a pretty average guy. Interestingly for this film considering its cast, this is a trope that Judd Apatow uses repeatedly – fulfilling ‘the male fantasy that you, too, can be a lazy zhlub with barely any redeeming qualities and still get a super-hot wife willing to put up with it.’ I don’t like it. It’s great for the men, not so much for the women, and it promotes an inequality that helps no one.

Miri is looking hot in red heels, a denim skirt and her shirt tied open to reveal a black bra. Zack looks ridiculous in a postal workers outfit of brown shirt, shorts and boots

That’s not the main reason why I dislike Zack, however. I dislike him because he is so patronising to Miri. (I wanted to say ‘and the other women in this film’ but it is so light on female characters that I actually can’t think of another significant interaction with a woman!) There’s obviously a lot of crude buddy-buddy banter between them, because that’s the type of friends they are, but Zack repeatedly tries to make decisions about who Miri gets to have sex with. It’s so possessive and patriarchal. When sorting out the scenes for their porno, everyone has sex with more than one other person, except Miri because Zack didn’t think she’d want to. He didn’t ask, he just assumed – and not even assumed that she wouldn’t want it; he assumed that she couldn’t handle it. And having persuaded him that she could, her sex scene with Lance comes just after her and Zack’s mammoth and plot defining row, so Zack just presumes that she won’t be up for it after all. He doesn’t want her to do it so he decides that she doesn’t either. It’s paternal and I hate it.

It particularly grates as Zack has previously shamed Miri for the number of partners she’s had, using it as a reason why she is capable of demeaning herself by doing porn (the film’s inference, not mine). He doesn’t think of her as an equal sexually – her casual sex is shaming, his is empowering; he is able to make decisions about what to do with his body, she is not. Urgh…

So I really didn’t like this film!

But luckily, before finishing this review, I spoke to my friend Kate (who writes incredible erotic fiction by the way) about why she liked it so much. She agreed that it has flaws, but she still thinks that Zack and Miri’s sex scene is one of the most beautiful she has ever seen.

This is because when Zack and Miri finally have sex, it’s pretty awkward. When seen from the perspective of the others in the room, it’s really nothing special. In fact, it looks actively bad! As I watched, I noted the lack of foreplay with all the usual emphasis on PIV as ‘sex,’ plus I scoffed at the idea that she’d come from sex like that, chalking this up as another example of sex being all about the guy.

But when that sex is seen from Zack and Miri’s perspective, it’s extraordinary! Music is playing, the lighting is gorgeous; they both look so happy, and they both look like they’re having a fucking great time! And that’s the key, Kate explained – what sex looks like from the outside to people who are watching and not doing bears almost no resemblance to what that same sex feels like to the people actually having it. Sex isn’t like porn! This is something that I believe so strongly and I yearn for more realistic depictions of sex in porn and movies, but I still missed it when it was right in front of me. In my defence, this nuanced revelation was out of tone with the rest of the film and the contrast was played for laughs, but the sex itself wasn’t a joke. It was real first time sex. As Kate told me, ‘that scene gave me hope, it showed that even with someone you love and trust, first time sex is still often awkward even if it’s also glorious.’

I can’t forgive this film for its numerous flaws. The bad bits are just too horrible. But I’m so happy that Kate showed me this little diamond amongst the shit because, if nothing else, it’s shown me that I too look at sex scenes too superficially, wanting them to be traditionally hot and letting the fact that this means they’re often not real get in the way. She’s right – it is a beautiful sex scene. Not because of the lighting or choreography or anything like that, but because of its reality.

I still don’t think it’s funny though.

Next week: Y Tu Mama También

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.

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.

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.

When Harry Met Sally…

YEAR: 1989
DIRECTOR: Rob Reiner
WRITER: Nora Ephron
KEY ACTORS: Billy Crystal, Meg Ryan, Carrie Fisher
CERTIFICATE: 15
IMDB SCORE: 7.6/10
ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 90%

SEX SCORE: 3/5

✔️ Passes Bechdel test…just! Although most conversations between the named women are about men and dating, Sally and Marie talk about wedding dresses at one point and there are conversations at the wedding that don’t include men!
✔️ Rewatchable and still wonderful – despite my criticisms!
✔️ Inspired romantic fantasies more than sexual fantasies, and not always in a good way as it certainly encouraged me to see and believe possible futures with hot friends when I shouldn’t…
But I don’t want to fuck them – they’re all much too neurotic for me!!
And it’s not really sex positive. Sex is something men do with people they don’t like and where women must fake enjoyment in search of love..

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

STREAMING: Netflix, YouTube (from £7.99), Amazon Prime (rent £3.49, buy £7.99), iTunes (rent £3.49, buy £8.99)

The poster for When Harry Met Sally with Ryan and Crystal looking at each other in Central Park

So it seems that my plan to start a blog looking critically at the sex content in movies was not as original as I thought – not only have I discovered a podcast on exactly this theme but also two days before I published my first review, my favourite sex educators and podcasters, Meg-John and Justin, released a special episode of their brilliant podcast that followed roughly the same idea. They watched When Harry Met Sally and recorded their live commentary, discussing the key themes within the relationships on screen, and I would definitely recommend listening to their thoughts as you watch the movie.

I was particularly pleased that they’d chosen this film to start as I’d always thought of When Harry Met Sally as a film about love but this rewatch has shown me that it’s much more a film about sex – and I have learned so much about sex and relationships from Meg-John and Justin that having their input definitely helped me see nuance that I might have otherwise missed.

Talking of favourite podcasts, I was also reminded of an old episode of the Allusionist that I was listening to recently that blew my mind a little. It claimed that dictionaries should be descriptive rather than prescriptive and describe current word usage rather than what might be considered the correct use, exemplified by the new definition of ‘literally’ to add emphasis. This crucial difference sprung to mind when watching this film – did Nora Ephron describe attitudes as she saw them in 1980s or did she create them?

Because this film is full of what would now be considered cliches about how men and women interact – women want love, men want sex; women are desperate to find The One amongst an ever shrinking pool of available men. And the main point of Ephron’s film is, of course, that men and women can’t be friends because they are too different. They approach sex and love too differently to relate to each other – as Harry puts it, ‘the sex part always gets in the way.’

But is that still true now? Was it even true then? Aside from being ridiculously heteronormative, it seems too simple, too stereotypical, and yet those are the stereotypes that exist in this film and are the same ones that we still have to fight against now. Women still bemoan how their age is reducing their attractiveness while men become more valuable, and friendships between opposite sexes are still often viewed with suspicion. So did the film describe how we already were or did it help create these divisions?

Now, I must emphasise that I do love this film and could happily watch it every day, but I also feel that it is starting to look dated and parts of it are certainly at odds with current attitudes. For example, this is another film where, on rewatching now, the male protagonist proves to be a bit of a creep! I have always struggled to like Harry and, while I can see why they’re friends, I now equally struggle to see him and Sally being happy long term. They’re just too different! She’s blonde, light and breezy while he has a dark side. They are optimist and pessimist, innocent and sexual, controlled and emotional, and as much as I enjoy this film, I just don’t think Harry is the nice person he’s supposed to be and it makes it difficult to like him.

I may be accused of making generalisations here but I think a lot of people know a guy like Harry and a lot of women know to be wary of him. He talks about sex even though he barely knows you, he lets you know whether or not he’d want to fuck you even though you’ve just met and now have to spend a long car ride alone together, he doesn’t listen when you say no and still sits next to you on a plane anyway or buys you a drink when you don’t want one. He feels that lying to or subtly manipulating the people he’s dating is just part of the game – ‘I don’t have to lie because I’m trying to get her into bed. I can just be myself.’ He mocks and negs you, making you feel grateful for every compliment. He’s funny but often at someone’s expense and he’s astonished when people don’t like him or when partners leave him.

Harry in a book store, pretending to read but staring somewhere else

Harry and Sally’s inevitable sex scene is both the culmination of the plot and the key moment in my understanding Harry’s character, because the fact that they had sex shouldn’t have been inevitable and it certainly shouldn’t have happened when it did. After controlling her emotions for so long, Sally’s breakdown at the news of Joe’s marriage does demonstrate how close a friendship she has with Harry as he is able to support her and actively listen to her, not ridiculing her for her hyperbole and just being there for her. But this means that he should have understood how vulnerable she is and he should have stopped the escalation to sex. As Meg-John questioned, was their friendship ruined afterwards because they had sex or because they had sex in a poorly consensual way? Harry knows that Sally hasn’t had sex since Joe, he knows that she doesn’t see sex as casually as him and yet he doesn’t stop. Even though he questions how she values sex – ‘I’m not saying it didn’t mean anything. I’m just saying why does it have to mean everything!’ – he knows how she feels about it. He is able to see clearly, he has the power; he took advantage of her.

Harry and Sally in bed together. She looks happy, he looks horrified

So Sally’s distress afterwards is understandable – to put it mostly bluntly, she’s been violated by her friend – and Harry’s persistent demanding of her attention to try and fix his mistake is practically harassment. Again, Meg-John and Justin’s view here was really interesting – why do they need to fix their relationship by doubling down on their mistake? They both agreed that the sex didn’t feel right so why do they want to fundamentally change their relationship to a more sexual one? Perhaps Harry should have apologised and given Sally time to allow their friendship to recover instead. As Meg-John so succinctly put it, you can’t just show up and say I love you and make everything alright. In reality, can we expect the same fairytale ending?

Despite my concerns about Harry, however, Ephron does write about women in a much more positive and inspiring way. In her book about 80s movies, Hadley Freedman notes that the women have strong careers that are equal to their male counterparts – Sally even has same job as Harry’s friend Jess, both working as journalists for New York magazine. This is just not how professional women are now depicted in movies. They’re either bitches that need a man to put them in their place or work in safe, female friendly professions such as bakery, florists or fashion. The women in When Harry Met Sally are smart and capable, but it’s hardly even relevant. It’s just how it is and that’s kind of wonderful.

And although it is used as another way for Harry to mock her, Sally’s specific ordering habits do suggest a level of self-awareness that is admirable and, if I’m honest, somewhat enviable. It took me a really long time to know what I want and even longer to be able to ask for it, and I still sometimes struggle, but Sally is able to ask confidently for very complex meal orders right from the start. ‘I just want it the way I want it,’ she says and I would hope that this also translates to knowing what she wants sexually too! (This was another insight from Meg-John and Justin that makes a lot of sense!)

But I suspect that this was an accidental element of sex positivity as the female characters are generally shown as wanting love, rather than sex. Harry is able to have sex with people he doesn’t even like while Sally waits for someone she loves. The women are just so desperate to find The One – Marie, played by the wonderful and much missed Carrie Fisher, carries her Rolodex with potential dates on index cards with her and whips it out as soon as Sally announces that she’s single again, making jokes about literally finding someone before they all die. As a 34 year old women, I thought it was interesting choice to make the characters over 30 when the main action takes place. It adds a definite note of desperation to their search as their biological clocks keep ticking while the list of potential partners gets smaller and smaller. Is that why Harry and Sally are happy to risk having a sexual connection that isn’t perfect as they don’t think they have time to find better? Or do they just not see how they could stay such good friends if they’re not lovers?

Harry and Sally, smiling at each other at a party

There is a sense that Great Love means sacrificing great sex and Ephron uses Casablanca, a movie I might write about soon, as an analogy. Should Isla have stayed with Rick, claimed to be the best sex that she’s ever had, or gone with Victor, her steady and safe love? Young Sally chooses Victor, much to Harry’s disgust – ‘You’ve obviously never had great sex’ – but older Sally understands Rick’s appeal. Of course, Isla does choose Victor, perhaps just as Sally chooses Harry.

The loss of sex is longer term relationships is also almost stated as a fact without any critical judgement or contradiction. Initially Sally doesn’t want marriage or kids so that she and Joe can fly off to Rome at the drop of a hat or have sex on kitchen floor. She wants to keep all of the hot sex and freedom, even if she admits that she doesn’t utilise it, until her desire for a family trumps those needs. I risk being called hopelessly optimistic and as a new mother of a 6-month old I’d rather you didn’t contradict my hopes, but why can’t we have both? Surely it’s not too much to hope that we can fit our wish for a family into a relationship that otherwise satisfies us? Yes, spontaneous holidays may be a thing of the past but there are other ways to scratch that itch!

OK so I’m running out of space and oh my gosh, there is so much more that I could write about this film! Why are the men only able to talk intimately when they’re doing masculine activities, like playing baseball? Isn’t it clever that the film is set in such beautiful locations and yet the characters never notice them, just as they don’t notice the possibilities of love with each other? And because I can’t ignore the fake orgasm scene entirely, why do we always equate orgasms with good sex? Harry’s partners may have had great sex, even if they didn’t come!

So after all this, can men and women be friends?

It’s an area where my opinion has definitely changed over the past few years. I think I knew about When Harry Met Sally long before I actually saw the movie, so much so that I can’t actually remember when I first saw it, because my parents had a similar love story and were also friends for years before falling in love. As I wrote in my sex blog in 2015, this gave me a pretty skewed opinion on friendships between men and women because I always believed that everlasting love was a possibility. I argued that the sex part does get in the way and that friendships were always unbalanced, even if that was never acted on or acknowledged.

But I can see now that it’s actually a really messed up way to approach friendships! I fear it may be why I had so many unrequited loves in my twenties – they wanted friendship, I wanted more and, deep down, expected more and couldn’t see how weird that was. I do blame When Harry Met Sally for perpetuating this myth and giving hope to dreamers like me.

Because although it may be possible to fall in love with your best friend, it is much more valuable to understand that romantic relationships aren’t necessarily the top of the hierarchy. Deep, intimate but not sexual friendships can exist and can be wonderful. Feeling a strong emotional connection to someone doesn’t mean that they have to be a sexual partner, just as thinking they’re hot and wanting to fuck them doesn’t mean that they have to become a great love to stay in our lives. Changing relationship boundaries doesn’t need to ruin a friendship if it’s consensual and communication is open and equal. One person doesn’t have to be everything all the time.

We can have it all; we just have to be willing to ask for it and accept that some relationships have limitations. Or am I still being an optimistic dreamer?

‘You’re right, you’re right. I know you’re right.’

Next week: What Women Want

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.com.

Cruel Intentions

YEAR: 1999
DIRECTOR: Roger Kumble
KEY ACTORS: Ryan Philippe, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Reece Witherspoon, Selma Blair
CERTIFICATE: 15
IMDB SCORE: 6.8/10
ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 54%

SEX SCORE: 4/5

✔️ Rewatchable – it’s a film that I would stop to watch if it was on TV even if it was already an hour in!
✔️ Definitely want to fuck the cast! Sebastian and Kathryn would definitely be on a list of dream movie threesomes, although that is a long list…
✔️ Yes to fantasies – mainly romantic ones as a teenager when I still believed that bad boys could be fixed by love, but they weren’t all that clean!
✔️ Bechdel test easily passed – lots of named female characters and lots of talk of school and reputation so no trouble with this one.
But is it sex positive?! I’d say no – the villains are sexual and are saved by love. The good are chaste and innocent, and risk being destroyed by sex. Not such great messages… It’s also very homophobic!

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

STREAMING: Netflix, YouTube (from £7.99), Amazon Prime (cost to be updated), Rakuten TV (from £2.49)

The Cruel Intentions poster, showing conspiratorial faces from Ryan Philippe and Sarah Michelle Gellar as they look down on an innocent looking Reece Witherspoon

If ever I wanted proof that how I first experience a cultural phenomenon changes its lasting impact on me, I need look no further than my first viewing of Cruel Intentions. It was 2000 and I was in year 10. Our classroom was in a separate block designed for language lessons and, in a move that confirms my own privileged upbringing, the language teachers rarely locked the cabinet that contained the video player. So, when someone brought in a VHS copy of Cruel Intentions, we all watched it, and news spread around the block. Soon the classroom was full of fifteen year old girls, sharing chairs and perched on tables as we avidly watched what was by far the sexiest thing I had ever seen.

Not far into the film, our German teacher wandered into the room, pottering in the cupboards at the back and getting out reading materials for the afternoon’s class. You could have heard a pin drop. I don’t think my year group has ever sat so still and so quiet, hoping beyond hope that she wouldn’t notice what we were watching.

This was at the moment of the film where Kathryn and Sebastian are setting out the terms of their wager. No one in the room had seen the movie before so we didn’t know the precise danger waiting just around the corner. Sebastian has agreed that, if he loses and isn’t able to seduce righteous virgin Annette, he’ll give Kathryn his car. And if he wins?

‘I’ll fuck your brains out.’

‘Oh!’ gasps our German teacher, ‘What films you girls watch!’

And she was gone!

Honestly, I struggle to remember another time when almost, almost, being caught doing something naughty felt so fucking good! The adrenaline, the sex on screen, the rush of relief and astonishment that we’d got away with it…it was quite an awakening. And that was before Sarah Michelle Gellar and Selma Blair kiss and before Ryan Philippe gets his arse out and before that iconic scene when Reece Witherspoon is going up that escalator and Philippe appears at the top, all while Counting Crows ‘Colorblind’ is playing, and she says ‘I’m impressed’ and he says ‘Well, I’m in love!’ and my teenage heart exploded.

Of course, my memory must be playing tricks with me. Our lunch break was less than the length of the film and so we can’t have watched it all, and although it’s possible that that same level of sexual tension was maintained over a few days, it feels unlikely. Instead, I can only assume that it’s just this film; it’s hot and always will be and, according to a piece in the Telegraph earlier this year, I wasn’t the only one who felt this way – it seduced a generation!

Describing it as a ‘sexy cinematic firebomb, one dressed up in a blood-red bustier and dripping in quasi-incestuous dirty talk,’ Adam White suggests that this movie, and its subsequent recent comeback with a TV sequel and musical heading to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this year, taps into ‘our generational thirst for schadenfreude.’ After a soft and sunny 90s filled with dewy-eyed romantic comedies, we were ready for something harder. Something more cynical. And sadly, the future in store for that generation – the much maligned millennials – has proven that it was good to be prepared. Or did this film and how much we enjoyed it, pave the way for today’s call out culture? Both Sebastian’s pattern of only destroying hypocrites and the revelation of Kathryn’s real character in the finale echo our current glee in ‘knocking undesirables off a pedestal of unearned privilege’ and discovering the seedy truth behind anyone claiming to be good.

Philippe and Gellar dresses in black with dark glasses, holding a letter

But cynical extrapolations aside, this film certainly had a huge effect on me as it was just soaked in sex and, importantly for me, sex for my age and generation. Cruel Intentions retold Les Liaisons Dangereuses for a modern audience, with Kathryn Merteuil (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and her step-brother Sebastian Valmont (Ryan Philippe) plotting to destroy the reputation of virginal Annette Hargrove (Reece Witherspoon) by manipulating her into having sex before the new term at school starts.

Somehow the film managed to feel relevant to my life despite the huge gulf between the wealth and sexual experience of the characters and mine. Annette’s struggles with her virginity when faced with love was relatable, Cecile’s naivety clashing with her obvious sexuality was an exaggeration of my own turmoil, and the ongoing, all pervasive obsession with reputation was certainly understandable. The fear at being the person at school that everyone was talking about was almost as strong as the fear of being the one nobody talked about.

But in thinking about this film, I have struggled to decide if it’s sex positive or not, if it was a good example for my teenager self – and my difficulty is mainly due to the identification of heroes and villains. The moral arc of the film clearly defines Kathryn as a villain but the fact that she owns her sexuality and sexual needs feels more sex positive than Annette’s pledge to wait for marriage, eventually downgraded to waiting for love but which is still problematic. Although Kathryn’s manipulation and selfish scheming are undoubtedly (deliciously) evil, it could be argued that if she were allowed to be as sexual as she wanted without damaging her reputation, all of these plots would be unnecessary. As she says, ‘God forbid I exude confidence and enjoy sex!’ and yet as she is dumped for ‘innocent little twots’ who are a more superficially attractive type of women, she has to lie to maintain her chaste and moral reputation. Is this sex positive? I don’t think so!

Sarah Michelle Gellar understood this complex division and recognised the importance of playing this role, inhabiting this sexuality and depicting this type of women. It was her decision to dye her hair a dark brunette, creating a definite split from her blonde, innocent previous roles – most famously Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It would require a whole other long, long essay to unpick the depiction of female sexuality in BVS (and the podcast Buffering the Vampire Slayer does a very good job of this) but I think it’s pretty telling that when Buffy loses her virginity to the man she loves, he loses his soul and becomes the Big Bad of the season. Buffy creator Joss Whedon certainly didn’t understand Kathryn, referring to the film as ‘porny,’ to which Gellar responded that Cruel Intentions was her ‘best work to date.’ Talking to Premiere, she said that ‘brushing it off by calling it ‘a porny’ is unbelievably hurtful to me. He owes me flowers. And that’s on the record.’

Gellar looking hot in her underwear on her bed, trying to seduce Philippe

Because Kathryn is hot. She’s hot and she’s powerful and she’s a seductress and, as much as I’d wanted to end up fucking Sebastian, I secretly but definitely wanted to be her more than I wanted to be the other female characters. I was so jealous of her acceptance and joy to in her sexuality. I was jealous of her confidence and ability to just be sexy. Just as Laura San Giacomo taught me what it was to be sexy in the 80s, Kathryn showed me how to be sexy in my own generation.

A black and white image of Gellar lying back against Philippe

And I believed her that sex was something that everyone was doing, just that ‘no one talks about it.’ Being at an all girls school with staggeringly few male friends, I could completely believe that there was another world just around the corner where All The Sex was happening and I’d have loved it if someone had introduced me to it, as Sebastian does for Cecile.

For me, Cecile’s character is the only one that doesn’t stand up to a rewatch now. She’s too child-like, too naive, and my now adult eyes cringe at her sexualisation. Of course, as a teenager I saw myself in her – at the start of the film, she is definitely a child, wearing T-shirts with big animal prints and doing headstands to impress her crush, but by the end she is an adult, asking for what she wants sexually and owning her fate, and I wanted that arc so much. Kathryn and Sebastian’s aim may have been to destroy her reputation but Cecile’s face at the end as she hands out copies of Sebastian’s journal to her peers suggests that it’s not done her any harm at all in their eyes.

Blair, wearing a koala T-shirt, sat next to Christine Baranski

The importance of maintaining the ‘right’ reputation is, after all, the whole point of the film – Kathryn as a saint, Sebastian as a whore, Greg the gay footballer as a macho straight jock, Annette as a good girl. All of them go out of their way to ensure these reputations aren’t damaged, Sebastian even leaving Annette after Kathryn mocks how much dating the headteacher’s daughter would stop him being seen as a bad boy who fucks around. But this is perhaps the only way that I could take a sex positive view on this film because sex doesn’t actually destroy anyone. It allows Cecile to grow up, it shows Annette that losing her virginity isn’t that big a deal. Even Sebastian learns that sex doesn’t always need to be a weapon. Yes, Kathryn ends the film in tears but it feels more like the lies and manipulation are her undoing.

But despite this, I cannot conclude that Cruel Intentions is sex positive film because of the homophobia. Being gay is definitely a potential source of humiliation and, although Joshua Jackson’s character Blaine was probably the queerest mainstream character I had seen on screen by that point in my life, he’s not a good person and it’s more than a little appalling that he was the queerest mainstream character that I had seen by the age of 15! Roger Ebert found the dismissal of homosexuality to be at odds with the characterisation of these sexual young adults, feeling that ‘kids as sophisticated as those in this story would be less homophobic.’ I, however, feel that it fits perfectly with the sex negative undertones. If having sex full stop could damage reputations, it’s sadly hardly surprising that gay sex is worse.

This movie also introduced me to the connection between sex and power, and who is seen as powerful, although I am less keen on the implication that women can only maintain this power by withholding sex from men – Kathryn is able to use her sexuality as a weapon, wielding her power over Sebastian because she knows how much he wants her, and Annette has a similar amount of power over him, initially because her virginity seen as a challenge and later through love and a wish to avoid disappointing and hurting her.

Of all of them, Sebastian’s character arc is one that I can see much more clearly as an adult. As a teenager, I lusted after his bad-boy-turned-good-by-love sexiness, a very dangerous rom com trope, but I missed the nuance. My now more experienced observation can see pick-up artistry in his moves, initiating touch early, negging, and creating false closeness through manipulating circumstances so they meet often and appear to share interests. He really is a creep! He’s the ultimate fuckboy and not the cold-hearted but misunderstood lothario that I thought he was.

Philippe whispering In Witherspoon’s ear

Teenage me wholeheartedly believed that Sebastian could be ‘fixed’ by love and that he would have been happy with Annette forever. I now know that that’s a lie, sold to us by the romance industry. Kathryn’s bleaker view of his boredom is more accurate and Sebastian’s death was arguably the only good ending for his character. The type of seventeen year old boy who drives a vintage sports car and has a leather-bound scrapbook of his sexual conquests is not likely to stay faithful to his high school love forever, even if he believes it himself. People do change if they want to, but it doesn’t happen overnight.

Maybe that’s why this film seduced my generation so fully. Like reading Catcher in the Rye, you have to watch it as a teenager otherwise the characters all look unbelievable. But if you’re the right age when you see it, it’s overwhelming and seducing and hearing those opening bars of Bittersweet Symphony will unleash a wave of nostalgia for a time when finding Ryan Philippe waiting at the top of an escalator was all I ever wanted.

And that’s it! That’s all I have to say about Cruel Intentions, except for that one scene…

I don’t know that I like it… As much as even my Kinsey 1 straightness really wanted to be taught to kiss by Sarah Michelle Gellar, the male gaze is too strong and has difficult implications. ‘Haven’t you ever practiced on one of your girlfriends?’ fits into the same tired trope as female friends having pillow fights in sexy underwear – unrealistic and unnecessarily sexualising women even when they’re alone.

So Cruel Intentions is not sex positive, it’s pretty homophonic and definitely filmed for a male gaze…but I still fucking love it! It’s hot and it’s one of the personal and generational catalysts for sexual awakening, and it’s just such a great story!

Next week: When Harry Met Sally…

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.com
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