Sex, Love and Videotape

On movie sex and movie love...

Category: 1990s

Showgirls

YEAR: 1995
DIRECTOR: Paul Verhoeven (as Jan Jensen)
KEY ACTORS: Elizabeth Berkley, Gina Gershon, Kyle MacLachlan
CERTIFICATE: 18
IMDB SCORE: 4.8
ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 22%

SEX SCORE: 1.5/5
✔️ Showgirls does pass the Bechdel Test with lots of talk about dancing and work between the many named female characters
❌ But it’s not rewatchable. Regardless of how interesting and clever I think this film is, it is objectively bad.
❌ Extraordinarily considering how beautiful and naked they are, I don’t want to fuck the cast. They’re prickly and spiky and too too much to be fuckable
❌ And the hostile atmosphere meant that this movie didn’t inspire fantasies.
❓But is it sex positive? I’m going to leave this as a half mark of a maybe. I found it hard to decide as, superficially, it is not sex positive. There’s ample evidence of abuse, manipulation and extortion, but it never glamorises that attitude and does not shy away from showing how awful it is. It also approaches sexual taboos like period sex without any fuss. So…maybe?

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

STREAMING: YouTube (from £3.99). For a full list of streaming options, check out JustWatch.com

[Content warning: rape, sexual assault, violence]

Poster for Showgirls of Elizabeth Berkeley’s leg and a strip of her body against a black background

This is my 26th post for this blog – I’ve been writing for it for half a year! And this felt as good a time as any to admit that I have always, always wanted an excuse to obsess and analyse movies in this way. As much as sex Twitter and sex blogging is my heart and my home, movies were my gateway into the idea of Twitter and podcasts and blogs – I joined Twitter initially to follow cinemas and movie writers; my first ever blog post was an ultimately unsuccessful submission to the Prince Charles Cinema when they were looking for a movie blogger; and movie podcasts were the first that drew me to that form of media. Yes, once I found the sex and erotica, I didn’t look back, but I have carried on devouring movie media alongside.

And it was a movie podcast that lit the spark for this particular blogging project. The Dana Buckler Show, which used to be called How Is This Movie, has been my number one movie podcast for over 5 years now and most of my opinions on the business of movies, the complexities of the rating systems and the history of movies in general have come from these fabulously well researched episodes. Although I don’t always agree with Dana’s opinions on the films themselves, his insight and research is incredible and I am always fascinated to hear what he and his co-presenters think, in case it changes my opinion.

Which brings me to Showgirls – a film that is objectively trash. I know I enjoy a lot of films that others might describe as trash, but this really is awful. The acting is over done, the characters don’t talk like real people, the sex is not sexy and, although it has gained a cult following since its release on video, it was a box office failure that squashed the future careers of its star and director. This is a baaaaad film! This series of ridiculous gifs is proof enough!!

Which is exactly what I thought after my first viewing and I discarded it without much thought.

But then I saw that The Dana Buckler Show had an episode on Showgirls and I thought I would give it a listen to see what he thought. I must admit that I was listening in the shower, not quite relegating it to background noise but definitely not expecting to stop and give it my whole focus, which is exactly what I did! I stood there, soap in my hair, mouth agape as Dana and Ashley made me see the film completely differently. And then I started wondering what other films I might have misunderstood, what other films about sex might have been trashed without reason or unjustly ignored because of their sexual themes, what other erotic films might contain undiscovered lessons…and, well, that’s where this blog began!

Showgirls is essentially a modern day retelling of All About Eve, set in the glamorous world of exotic dancing in Las Vegas. Nomi Malone (Berkley) arrives in Vegas, all set to make her fortune, and starts dancing at a strip club called The Cheetah. Unhappy with her role as a stripper and wanting to be a real dancer, Nomi auditions to be a showgirl and backing dancer at the big Vegas show, Goddess. The star, Crystal Conners (Gershon), soon takes a shine to Nomi and acts as a mentor of sorts. Nomi pays her back by pushing her down the stairs so Nomi can become the star instead! But sadly, fame isn’t all it’s cracked up to be and, after Nomi’s friend is brutally raped and Nomi exacts a vicious revenge, she leaves – to try again in LA.

And, oh my gosh, there is so much to say about this film!

Because I’ve come to realise that Paul Verhoeven may just be too smart for his own good. He knew exactly what he was doing when making Showgirls and he has made exactly the film that he wanted to make, describing it as ‘probably the most elegant movie [he’s] ever done.’ Just like Kubrick and Eyes Wide Shut, Verhoeven is a very good and very precise director and he wouldn’t have allowed the film to be released if it wasn’t what he wanted: ‘As for the finished product: I thought it was perfect. Otherwise I would have changed it. I had time to change it. I could change whatever was there.’

Yet Showgirls was a huge flop. Roger Ebert felt it was ‘a waste of a perfectly good NC-17 rating’ and it only made back $20 million in US box office takings after costing $40 million to make. And I find the film to be almost completely unwatchable. It’s just too much and it’s quite unpleasant viewing in places – Elizabeth Berkley is almost a masterclass in overacting, the movie is full of cliches and parts of it are pretty distasteful. And its failure had lasting consequences for all involved. Verhoeven was never given as much freedom again to direct risky movies and Berkley was immediately dropped by her agent.

My main problem with this film is that it staggeringly unsexy. Marketed as an erotic thriller and as an NC17 film from the team who made the staggeringly hot but only R rated Basic Instinct, it somehow manages to be a film about sex that is profoundly unerotic. I have never seen so much gorgeous and beautiful nudity look so plastic and unappealing. All you need do is compare Nomi dancing in the club with the rougher but infinitely hotter dancing in Dirty Dancing to see quite how unsexy this film is.

An image from Showgirls showing Nomi licking a pole

And the sex itself is hilarious! No one ever, ever has sex like this – and I don’t mean because movie sex tends to be unachievable. I wouldn’t be surprised if Berkley gave herself a significant injury as she writhed and whipped her torso around. Roger Ebert described it as ‘masturbatory fantasies,’ commenting on how ‘eroticism requires a mental connection between two people, while masturbation requires only the other person’s image,’ and I’ve heard it described as sex written by as 12 year old boy who has never actually seen anyone have sex. The sex scene in the pool between Berkley and MacLachlan is famous for being so awful – it’s a waste of champagne, terrifying to watch, and is all over in a matter of seconds. I really hope that no one watching it thought that that was what sex was supposed to be like. As far as the overacting, fake orgasms and unrealistic positions go, it’s even worse than porn!

A gif from Showgirls showing the ridiculous pool sex

Which, of course, is exactly the point, and this was the huge revelation that I learned from the Dana Buckler Show. Verhoeven was trying to show just how unsexy the sex industry can be and how none of it is real. Just as amateur porn is often hotter than the overproduced, hairless studio versions, this feels too fake to be erotic. And none of the characters are realistic. Nomi is stroppy and unnecessarily aggressive, Crystal Connors is a cliche who talks like she has been written by a man – ‘I like nice tits. I always have, don’t you?’ – Zack Carey (MacLachlan) is too slimy, too polished and slick. All of the women are unrealistically beautiful too. Of course, everyone in movies is hot but these girls are a level above even the Hollywood norm. They are all so fit with tiny waists, flat stomachs and incredible legs, as well as perfectly sized tits that bounce perfectly when they dance. They’re perfect. On top of this, Vegas is too bright. It’s too well lit, too colourful; it’s too much. It’s all too much.

Except for the rape scene near the end. That looks real. It has a touch of the Verhoeven ultraviolence that I recognise from RoboCop and Total Recall but the sexual assault is very real. It’s incredibly shocking considering everything that came before it. And it’s made even more striking as it’s intercut with some of the softest and most romantic moments of the film, as Nomi and Zack dance in each other’s arms. When all of the previous sex has been hilarious and ridiculous and over the top, the simple but brutal reality of the rape is incredibly powerful.

Having now watched Showgirls again, knowing what I learned from Dana and Ashley, I have a new respect for the film and the message that Verhoeven was trying to impart. As I think I previously said about Basic Instinct, it’s really fucking clever! It was just released at a time when we weren’t ready to hear it.

Because Showgirls is about the #MeToo movement, nearly 20 years before #MeToo really existed. It’s about how women who work as dancers and strippers are treated like sexual objects, regularly abused and exploited, and generally not considered to be real humans. Verhoeven exaggerates their beauty to make them perfect and then they can be objectified because they are not real; they’re caricatures. We’re not supposed to find them sexy and, instead, we’re supposed to feel uncomfortable about how they are being used and abused. And because it is all so exaggerated and so blatant, we cannot possibly miss how much misogyny is built into the entertainment industry.

‘Sooner or later you’re going to have to sell it,’ says the man who gave Nomi a lift into Vegas. ‘If you want to last longer than a week, you give me a blowjob!’ says the owner of the Cheetah. And, when talking about Nomi’s nipples, the choreographer states ‘I’m erect. Why aren’t you erect?’ It’s disgusting. And it’s treated as completely normal – this sort of behaviour isn’t what the film is superficially about. All of the women just shrug and carry on. And when Nomi pushes back after being asked to privately entertain an Asian client after being paid a lot for making a personal appearance, insisting that she is not a whore, it’s suggested that she’s the unreasonable one. Yes, it’s unpleasant but that’s how it works. It’s how you get ahead. I sometimes wonder if this is why the #MeToo movement caught so many men off guard – their behaviour was neither new or unique. Everyone did it, it was how the industry worked.

A gif from Showgirls of Nomi pole dancing

And Showgirls strongly hints that this how the whole entertainment industry works, not just the sleazy and cheap underbelly. Nomi hates working at the Cheetah as she is treated like a stripper and wants to be a real dancer, but everything is exactly the same when she joins the Goddess team. Worse, she’s treated the same but they pretend that it’s different, pretend it’s classier: ‘You want tits and arse, you get tits and arse. Here they pretend it’s something else and still give tits and arse!’ It makes her exploitation all the more unpleasant to watch – she thinks she’s got out, she thinks it will be different.

As they discussed on the Fatal Attraction podcast, there are also a lot of other taboos that Showgirls touches against that are rarely seen in other films. She mentions her period more often than I can remember from other films, including a moment when she almost has period sex. It’s also pretty rare to see an interracial couple in a mainstream movie, even more so in the 1990s. It’s trying to be progressive and sex positive, and it nearly succeeds.

When I look at the film this way, it makes me really sad that it hasn’t worked. It could have been so good and so important, but it just didn’t work. It may have been exactly how Verhoeven wanted it, but it looks badly executed. He may have told Berkley to act as aggressively as she did for a reason, but the reasoning has got lost. Sadly, it’s fallen between the cracks when it comes to the success of a shocking movie – it’s not so powerful that you instantly get it and can rave about it, even if you can’t bear to watch it again; it’s not easy enough to watch that you will watch it over and over, and the message can seep in over time; and it’s not superficially good enough to enjoy without understanding it.

An image from Showgirls showing the dancers surrounded by fire

I also think it’s fallen victim to the issues that plagued Jennifer’s Body – it was marketed as a sexy film to bring in a male audience, but that’s not what the finished product provides. In a way, I agree with Ebert’s take that it was a wasted NC17 rating – people went expecting it to be porn, essentially. Expecting it to be better and hotter and sexier than Basic Instinct but it wasn’t. And when giving a movie that rating was so risky, it’s not surprising that it backfired.

This will be a topic that I am likely to come back again, but the rating system in American movies absolutely fascinates me. Because it’s not the same as the UK version – NC17 is more explicit than the UK 18 certificate and UK 15 certificate is more lenient than the R rating. Borderline R rated movies, such as Basic Instinct, often end up with an 18 certificate without much complaint but it was a big financial risk to give a film an NC17 rating – particularly when it’s given that rating because of sex. Violence is less of an issue but sex is a disaster!

Interestingly, despite it being widely considered a flop, Showgirls is the most financially successful NC17 rated film! These films just don’t make any money but the $300 million success of Basic Instinct despite a similarly aggressive sexual plot fooled the movie industry into thinking Verhoeven could do it again. And perhaps he could have if he had insisted on the NC17 rating because he wanted to create a sexy film, but that wasn’t his intention. It was almost as if he wanted to mock the rating system by demonstrating how unsexy sexually explicit material can be. And Showgirls has proved to be very successful on home video – as The Dana Bucker Show postulated, sexuality is much more acceptable behind closed doors. It’s just a shame that neither Verhoeven or Berkley received the praise that they deserved at the time.

I can’t say that I enjoyed Showgirls, even with this new appreciation of its intention, as I didn’t – it’s unpleasant to watch, both in the exaggerated acting and cinematography, and because of the aggressive and exploitative message. I know it has its fans who value the comedy and hilarity of the whole concept but, to me, the sexual exploitation is too all pervasive and I hate that there’s no happy conclusion. Obviously. We don’t yet live in a world where that kind of resolution is anything but fantasy.

And that’s just really depressing!

Next week: Bridget Jones’s Diary

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.

Dracula

YEAR: 1992
DIRECTOR: Francis Ford Coppola
KEY ACTORS: Gary Oldman, Winona Ryder, Keanu Reeves, Anthony Hopkins, Sadie Frost
CERTIFICATE: 18
IMDB SCORE: 7.4
ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 73%

SEX SCORE: 1/5
✔️ This passes the Bechdel Test as Lucy and Mina talk about other topics than men…but really not often!
❌ But it’s not rewatchable. It’s too ridiculous and I don’t get it.
❌ I don’t want to fuck the cast – I love Keanu Reeves but his accent is too terrible and Gary Oldman, well, just no.
❌ And it’s not sex positive. In fact, its incredibly sex negative, particularly regarding women. Independent women with a free sexual spirit are punished – and deserve it!
❌ There’s also nothing to fantasise about. The idea of a man who has waited across time for you may be an old fashioned romantic ideal, but it felt really non-consensual here and unwanted.

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

STREAMING: NowTV, Sky Cinema subscription, Amazon Prime (rent £3.49, buy £4.99), YouTube (from £2.99). For a full list of streaming options, check out JustWatch.com

[Content warning: this includes discussions of abusive relationships and non-consent]

Poster for Dracula, showing a screaming gargoyle of Dracula’s face

I was 15 at the turn of the century, which meant that I was absolutely the perfect age for Buffy the Vampire Slayer! I was 12 for the first season and avidly watched it every year so I was 17/18 by the time of the fifth and sixth seasons. I mention these seasons specifically because these were the ones where I fell in love with Spike and developed some pretty strong feelings about Buffy and Spike’s violent sexual energy. He was so so hot. The ultimate bad boy, an angry and dangerous man with a leather jacket and bleached hair, who loved that damaged girl. Angel was always a bit meh in comparison – was I too young for him or was Angel just too much of a nice guy? Spike was everything.

I mention this because this early supernatural crush means that I’ve never doubted that vampires are hot! They fulfil a very particular fantasy that plagues many women of a ‘damaged, morally questionable young man who nevertheless can serve as her protector while she reforms him.’ I describe yearning for this kind of love with this kind of partner as a plague because it’s really not healthy – vampire stories are just brightly painted supernatural versions of those damaging relationships where we are drawn to the drama of a dangerous lover, kid ourselves that our love will fix them and stop them treating us like crap, but instead run the risk of falling into potentially abusive patterns. These lovers may not be vampires, but they can still drain you if everything that keeps you alive.

I’ve written before about the abusive control used by Fifty ShadesChristian Grey and his character was inspired by a vampire, Edward Cullen in Twilight. Even Spike is not really a better role model either – his behaviour in the early series is hardly something I’d want to use as a model for my own relationships and later, when he is reformed and his love means that he does recover his soul, he just becomes the exception that we all cling to when really we’re just experiencing the rule.

Because vampires are hot, but also (because?) they are dangerous. Not because they drink blood and kill; the idea of a vampire is dangerous because of what it says about female sexual agency. And, no surprise, it’s not a good message.

But I’m getting ahead of myself! I chose 1992’s Dracula (or Bram Stoker’s Dracula to give it its full name) because it is renowned for being overtly sexual and erotic. I’d seen it years ago and, honestly, I’d thought it was too ridiculous for words, but after hearing a podcaster gush about how hot it was and how attractive Gary Oldman is, I thought I ought to give it another try.

Image from Dracula showing young Dracula dressed as a dandy, wearing a top hat and round purple glasses

Dracula is very faithful to Bram Stoker’s novel, even maintaining the epistolary style with letters and diary entries marking time. It begins in 1492, telling the story of a young, heartbroken count (Oldman) whose bride has just killed herself. In his grief, he calls on demonic forces to avenge her and curses himself forever. Jump forward 400 years and Jonathan Harker (Reeves), a lawyer from London, is sent to Transylvania where he meets a creepy old man who traps him in his mysterious castle, leaving him at the mercy of his three horny wives who fuck and feed on him. Meanwhile, Dracula travels to London to find Mina (Ryder), Harker’s fiancée who Dracula believes is the reincarnation of his bride. Once in London, and looking more like his younger self, he wreaks havoc, killing a young woman, Lucy (Frost), and turning her to a vampire for no apparent reason, kidnapping Mina and prompting a chase across Europe where he is eventually killed.

From a film buff perspective, Coppola made some really interesting choices for the cinematography, deciding to use only traditional practical effects and utilising actual magic tricks in some places. It’s no surprise that among its Oscars win for costume and make-up was one for sound effects. These techniques give the film a very real but knowingly dated feel that I quite liked. It feels appropriate for 1897, a time when cinema was first beginning.

Sadly, from a feminist perspective, I stop agreeing with Coppola’s creative choices. I’m sorry for those who rate this film as I really did not like it! It’s so over the top that it’s essentially a caricature and is only a hair’s breadth away from actual farce. Disconnected shadows mimicking strangling Harker and Dracula admitting that he doesn’t drink [dramatic pause] wine feel straight out of Leslie Nielsen’s spoof movie, Dracula: Dead and Loving It.

Image from Dracula showing Oldman in full elderly vampire make up, bouffant white hair and long fingers with his hands dramatically over his face

But my main concern with his exaggerated style comes when looking at the sexual content. Because Coppola chose to make his Dracula a dramatic romance, rather than a horror, and ‘his accent on romance has dissipated Dracula’s single overwhelming force: evil.’ Are we supposed to sympathise with Dracula? Understand his plight? His horrific and frankly abusive actions in the novel or other retellings were more palatable somehow when he was clearly the enemy but he envisioned here as a tragic hero.

Problems with this characterisation arise because I can completely ignore everything supernatural about him, and Dracula is still fucking creepy. ‘Many women are flattered when a man says he has been waiting all of his life for them.’ Roger Ebert claims, ‘But if he has been waiting four centuries?’ It’s creepy! It’s manipulative and creepy and patriarchal and I don’t get it. How is this romantic? Maybe Dracula is a horror movie after all!

Except there are no jump scares, no tension or dread. At its core, this is much for of an erotic film. For example, Harker becoming a meal for the vampire brides is definitely an orgy – three beautiful women, including Monica Belluci, are topless and writhing all over him, kissing his neck, tearing off his clothes and biting his wrists and neck. There are long, lingering shots of licking tongues and at one point, I’m almost certain they’re feeding off his cock – shots of belts being removed are followed by a vamp woman kissing down his stomach, at which point Harker jumps up screaming. Is he screaming because someone has bitten his cock, or because he is being sexually assaulted?

Image from Dracula showing Reeves on the bed with three vampire women kissing him

Dracula himself also feeds in a very sexual way. When feeding on Lucy, he either is in the form of a wolf, mounting her like he’s fucking her – a ‘literal sexual predator’ – or he appears as a mist, covering her writhing body as she struggles and moans beneath him, sounding more and more orgasmic as her transformation progresses. Oh, and her tits are out too. Even Mina, straight-laced and conservatively dressed Mina, becomes more naked as Dracula’s hold over her increases. She becomes more wild, more bedraggled, which of course needs gaping clothes.

Image from Dracula showing Dracula in his wolf form mounting a scantily clad Frost

Now, my issue isn’t really with the nudity – although it does feel gratuitous and there’s not enough male nudity in response. In fact, so gratuitous is the nudity that Roger Ebert describes it as ‘an orgy of visual decadence, in which what people do is not nearly as degraded as how they look while they do it.’ But I mainly take issue with this choice as at only serves to exaggerate the already concerning sexist tones that are implicit in the Dracula story, creating an ‘overt, intentionally discomfiting’ sexual atmosphere.

As I alluded to above, the study of vampires has long been the story of female desire and how terrifying it is to men and the patriarchy. Talking to NBC, Anne Stiles, an assistant professor of English literature at Washington State University, described how obvious the ‘sexual undercurrents’ were in the original novel: ‘You have penetration, an exchange of bodily fluids. He has mesmeric powers. He is very seductive. It’s an easy, veiled way to write about sex without censorship.’

And the moral judgement associated with having sex and being sexual is made clear through the two female characters, Mina and Lucy. Mina is modest and chaste, wearing dresses with high necklines and holding out for marriage; Lucy has a more ‘aggressive sexuality,’ wearing more revealing clothes, dreaming about sex and flirting with her three suitors. The simple act of courting three suitors invokes judgement from Mina, and so the audience who are experiencing events through Mina’s words. Lucy is supposed to be shocking, indiscreet, even indecent, and so she is punished.

Image from Dracula showing Mina and Lucy, and their differing levels of exposure

In ‘Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers,’ Sady Doyle argues that Lucy’s transformation into a vampire symbolises the transformation from girl to woman, and Lucy’s sexual desires certainly become more explicit the closer she becomes to being a vampire. She is no longer flirting with faux-innocence and innuendo; Lucy is asking directly for what she wants and who she desires. So, obviously, she’s a monster now. She’s terrifying. The girl needed to be saved, the woman needs to be destroyed.

It’s also never explained why Dracula chose to transform Lucy into a vampire. He could have just fed on her – but again, it feels like an unnecessary risk when there are so many other random people in London who wouldn’t draw such attention. Unless you take Van Helsing’s (Hopkins) view that she was asking for it. Lucy was outrageous and sexual and flirty so she called Dracula to her; she deserved what happened to her. Oh, rape culture, so good to know that it still existed in 1992 (and 1897 for that matter!).

Professor Abraham Van Helsing: Hear me out, young man. Lucy is not a random victim, attacked by mere accident, you understand? No. She is a willing recruit, a breathless follower, a wanton follower. I dare say, a devoted disciple. She is the Devil’s concubine!

Except that Lucy never expressed a wish for Dracula or for the darkness or the Devil. She was just flirty with a high sex drive and the privilege of enough independence to choose how she wanted to live her life and who she wanted to marry, which is terrifying to the patriarchy.

The other aspect of the vampire sexual cannon that Coppola maxes out here is the idea of the dominant vampire and helpless victim. Whether using mind tricks or just their animal magnetism, the vampire’s victims feel compelled to follow, compelled to wander out into the night and into the arms of their attacker. This, again, gets my feminist hackles rising as it’s intended to rob women of their own sexual agency. ‘It’s the idea that women can’t be blamed for desire,’ can’t be blamed for falling under the spell of a more powerful man who is ‘virtually unassailable in terms of power, and generally intellectually superior due to the centuries of wisdom he has accumulated.’ Women can’t be blamed but they can be still be punished, because giving in to their desire is accepting the demonic influence of sex. It’s not our fault, we’re too weak and inferior to cope with such strong emotions. Urgh…

An image from Dracula, showing Mina drinking blood from Dracula’s chest

But even beyond this, the use of mind control has huge implications when considering whether Mina in particular consents to what Dracula does to her. It’s pretty clear that Jonathan doesn’t and I’m highly suspicious of Lucy’s ability to give informed consent, although I guess she could be so horny that she follows a random wolf-like stranger into the garden on the promise of sex, but I don’t believe Mina fell in love with Dracula in any kind of normal way. He forces himself upon her, he stalks and manipulates her, she feels his presence everywhere. When she finally capitulates, does she love him? Or is she under his spell?

The final feature of Coppola’s Dracula that makes me angry is the explicit connection that Coppola makes between being a vampire and AIDS. 1992 was a difficult time in the history of HIV and AIDS. The AIDS epidemic had been spreading throughout the 1980s and by the early 90s, the virus was known and the method of transmission was known, which meant that the stigma associated with HIV was also in full swing. AIDS was a disease that predominantly killed gay men, intravenous drug users, and other groups of people who were vulnerable and marginalised. Treatment options at this time were limited at best. Being diagnosed with HIV was synonymous with developing AIDS as there was no way to prevent the progression of disease. Sufferers became increasingly unwell, becoming thinner and weaker, almost as if some unseen force was sucking their life away until they died.

And it’s all about blood. Blood and penetration, and sexual indiscretion. ‘Does Dracula have AIDS?’ asked a panel of AIDS experts, in an early example of clickbait; ‘I’m not living in the dark anymore’ stated an AIDS leaflet from Illinois that used Dracula as its figurehead and warned against going ‘batty’ over someone. As the AIDS crisis escalated, it was suggested that Dracula could be ‘more terrifying as a political metaphor for the spread of contaminated blood.

Coppola makes sure the connection is forced home by including clips of microscope images of blood cells when Dracula is feeding and talking about infected blood – vampirism is a blood-borne illness, he seems to be insisting, passed on by these hyper-sexual dominating monsters who prey on those who are weaker or infect those with a rampant and uncontrolled sexual desire who willingly taste his blood. ‘Love and blood equals…oo-er, death’ mocks a review in the Independent, such is the clumsy, overloaded nature of the analogy. To which I say, fuck you. Even in 1992, we knew better than this. Fuck you for perpetuating stigma by suggesting a link between AIDS and evil, fuck you for belittling the suffering of AIDS victims by insinuating blame or weakness. Just fuck you.

Actually fuck you to this entire film.

I cannot believe that 1992 was so long ago that these exaggerated patriarchal depictions of female sexuality or clumsy metaphors for the dangers of sex were acceptable. Is it satire? Is it farce? Frankly, I hope it is – otherwise it’s just offensive.

Sorry. This one isn’t for me…

Next week: The Rocky Horror Picture Show

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.

Practical Magic

YEAR: 1998
DIRECTOR: Griffin Dunne
KEY ACTORS: Sandra Bullock, Nicole Kidman
CERTIFICATE: 12
IMDB SCORE: 6.3
ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 21%

SEX SCORE: 4/5
✔️ It is indeed rewatchable, but it took me a long time to get there!
✔️ With so few significant male roles, I’d worry if this failed the Bechdel Test but luckily it passes with ease!
✔️ Considering this film has a predominantly female cast, and I’m quite underwhelmed by the men on screen, and I’m straight, this perhaps shouldn’t get a mark from me but even I can’t deny that the cast are fuckable. 1990s were a successful time for them both and arguably their hotness peak so yes, fuckable!
✔️ I almost didn’t give it a mark for inspiring fantasies but I couldn’t ignore that kiss. Sally and her husband’s kiss to Faith Hill’s famous song, This Kiss, is everything.
❌ But despite much soul searching as I love the feminism of this film, I can’t give it a mark for sex positivity. ‘Since when is being a slut a crime in this family?’ Gillian asks but she does suffer. She is the more promiscuous sister who is shown to party with millions of friends and makes jokes about locking up husbands on her return, and she ends up in an abusive relationship. She suffers for her sexuality, and it saddens me that this is the case because it is otherwise a hugely positive and feminist movie.

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

STREAMING: Amazon Prime (rent £3.49, buy £7.99), YouTube (from £3.98). For a full list of streaming options, check out JustWatch.com

[Content warning: this review discusses bereavement, abusive relationships, effects of trauma]

Practical Magic poster showing Bullock and Kidman looking out of the poster above a cluster of lit candles

I remember when I first watched Practical Magic. I was fourteen and at a sleepover. We’d put aside our usual action films and chosen a selection of horror movies from Blockbuster instead, in aide of Halloween. This was the first film that we watched and it terrified us (me) so much that we couldn’t watch anymore and had to return to Die Hard again to recover. Witches, possession, reincarnation; it was too much. This used to be my benchmark for years – I couldn’t watch Practical Magic and that was only a 12! How could I watch any real horror film?

And I didn’t watch it again for years. Until last year, in fact, when all of the 20th anniversary articles made me realise that it may have just been too much for a fourteen year old and I should try it again. Honestly, it is even more terrifying now but in a completely different way, and I loved it. I loved it!

Practical Magic is a film about the Owens family, a matriarchal line of powerful witches who live under a powerful curse – any man who falls in love with an Owens woman dies young. Gillian (Kidman) and Sally (Bullock) are sisters whose father dies because of the curse and whose mother then dies of a broken heart. They move in with their spinster aunts who are more open with their witchcraft, providing curses and love potions to needy villagers. Despite being so afraid and trying everything to avoid love, Sally does get married and has two daughters, before her husband is killed. Gillian, choosing pleasure, runs away and falls for a dark enigmatic man, Jimmy, who ends up abusing her. While trying to escape, Sally and Gillian accidentally kill him, raise him from the dead, and then kill him again. Jimmy ends up haunting them, possessing Gillian and it takes an entire coven of women to rescue her. (This summary is much too simplistic – go watch it!)

Gillian dancing next to a pool surrounded by admiring men

Practical Magic terrified me so much more watching it as an adult because it is essentially a story about how dangerous love can be – dangerous if you fall for the right guy as he could die and leave you heartbroken, and dangerous if you fall for the wrong guy as he could abuse and hurt you. Love is pain and despite the message that it is possible to survive, there is so much hurt in this movie that it terrified me.

I am in a hugely fortunate position as I have never been in an abusive relationship so I cannot personally relate to Gillian’s experience and I have not been significantly bereaved so I don’t know Sally’s pain, but I could imagine it; I could feel it. I was sobbing within the first 25 minutes of the film as Sally wailed that ‘he died because I loved him too much.’ That’s the fear. That’s the big one. I definitely have an optimistic outlook but it is based on a knowledge, or even perhaps a morbid expectation, that it could all come crashing down at any time. In the back of my mind, meeting and marrying the man of my dreams only means that I’ll be even more destroyed should he die; a potential pain that I would never experience if I were alone. It sometimes seems the only way to balance out the extreme joy and happiness I have experienced, so Sally’s bereavement because of her love projected my ultimate fear onto the big screen.

Of the two sisters, I am definitely Sally. Gillian ran headlong into love, wanting to feel so much that it was worth any pain, but Sally was more realistic and tries to avoid the risk. She even uses logic to wish for a man so perfect that he couldn’t exist because ‘if he doesn’t exist, I’ll never die of a broken heart.’ Cold logic, it’s the best way to proceed!

Sally looking into a candle flame

Magic is used so powerfully in this film to signify unavoidable emotional experiences. Sally tried and tried to avoid falling in love but she couldn’t. Yes, she was pushed towards her husband by an incantation from her aunts but once she’d open her heart to it, their love was real. Devastatingly, that’s why her husband was killed. In the film, it’s magic; in real life, is the force behind love any less powerful?

This use of magic as a metaphor for emotion is even more powerful if Gillian’s possession is viewed as a metaphor for trauma. She has fought to leave an abusive and harmful relationship but she cannot escape, even when her abuser is dead. She is literally haunted by her relationship, literally haunted by her past. And when Jimmy possesses her, she acts and speaks and feels in ways that aren’t how she would usually behave – they’re remnants of Jimmy, they’re her trauma made real. She’s exhausted by it; she’s almost destroyed by it. And she needs her people to save her. She needs her family and sister and community to help her break free, long after she has physically left her relationship. And, as Refuge discussed with Stylist magazine last year, ‘it hammers home the point that “leaving an abusive partner can be very dangerous…Women are at the greatest risk of homicide at the point of separation or after leaving a violent partner.”’ It’s exaggerated, it’s magical and supernatural, but it feels so real.

Gillian and Sally performing a resurrection spell on dead Jimmy

Practical Magic handles the issue of Gillian’s abuse with a lightness that could be misinterpreted as disinterest, but I think actually creates a much more realistic story. Buzzfeed felt that this is why critics didn’t like it when it was first released, and I think it’s 21% Rotten Tomatoes rating might be the lowest I’ve posted yet: ‘Many of them didn’t understand the tone of a film that smirked and made jokes and leaned into love even as it took on a story about abuse and the hurt that comes from it.’ But women have a long history of laughing off abusive behaviour from partners, both to minimise it to themselves and to others, and to protect themselves from recrimination. Gillian jokes that she drugs Jimmy so she could get some sleep at night but we all understand that this strongly hints that he doesn’t accept her refusal or believes in consent and suggests that he has also sexually abused her. Her quiet ‘he’s strong. So much stronger than me’ at Sally’s concerning questioning broke my heart. But the film doesn’t overdo it. We know what’s happening and it’s enough to see the effects. It’s even perhaps more powerful for that – we believe her without seeing.

Gillian looking resignedly forward, trying to brush off Jimmy’s attention as he tries to kiss her neck

Despite these difficult and heartbreaking themes, Practical Magic ends up being a really life-affirming and heartwarming film – and not because Sally gets a happy ever after. That plot line with her too-perfect-to-be-real police officer is almost an annoying distraction, although Buzzfeed’s review did correctly note that it’s the light and dark next to each other that enhance both: ‘The movie acknowledges that abuse and trauma are things that happen. But it puts a love story side by side with that hurt, a reminder that life does go on even after it tries to tear you apart.

But, for me, the true happy ending is between the women themselves and between the witches and the community. As Aunt Frances, played by the fabulous Stockard Channing, states, ‘we need a full coven.’ Gillian is saved by her bond with Sally but it took everyone to put her in a position to do that. And that includes the community that shunned them. I loved this idea that finally ‘coming out,’ as one character dubs it, is what brings them together. Distrust and division are perpetuated with secrecy and insincerity, and although there was definitely a risk in revealing themselves, it is a great feminist message that women don’t need to fight or fear each other and are much more powerful together.

Which, of course, brings me on to the fact that they’re witches. As my first Halloween themed post in a feminist movie blog, it had to be witches!

Gif of Gillian and Sally dresses as witches

Witches are the ultimate feminist hero and embody everything that the patriarchy fears: ‘Witches, sluts, and feminists are the trifecta of terror for the patriarchy…[they] embody the potential for self-directed feminine power, and sexual and intellectual freedom’ historian Kristin J Sollee explained to The Guardian in 2017 to promote her book on this subject. Most witch traditions seem to stem from groups of women who didn’t need men, who defied the patriarchy and so must be evil and untrustworthy. Only someone in league with the devil could survive without a man! Buffering the Vampire Slayer, my favourite Buffy podcast, tells the story of the Alewives – women who brewed ale and were financially independent because of this. They were important members of the community, didn’t need men to survive…and traditionally made the ale in large cauldrons while wearing pointed black hats, suggesting they were an early source of the idea of witches. And, even more terrifying to the patriarchy, these groups of women can’t be controlled, which in some countries is still ‘enough to sentence her to death.’ And so they can be blamed for anything, for everything.

Practical Magic presents an interesting perspective on the story of witches as they sit on the border between horror and fantasy. Some witches are evil and terrifying and come from darkness – crones, hags etc – whereas some witches are good and fluffy and light – Sabrina, Wizadora etc – but Sally and Gillian are neither and both. They’re friendly and sunny with the ‘thickest, most lush movie hair’ yet seen and grow herbs to make lotions, and yet are capable of murder and reincarnation and both know deep, deep darkness. I mentioned Sady Doyle’s book ‘Dead Blondes and Bad Motherslast week and she writes about how witches have always lived ‘on the razor’s edge between benevolence and malevolence, horror and fairytale,’ which is why they are so terrifying – they are unknowable. Are they helping or harming? Are they good or bad?

Except, of course, that there is one eternal truth of witches: ‘they kill men who harm women.’

Next week: Jennifer’s Body

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

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.

Basic Instinct

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stone looking up at Douglas

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

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

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

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

Stone and Sarelle, with their arms around each other

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

Tripplehorn looking at Douglas, who is looking elsewhere

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fancy that.

Next week: Secretary

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

Eyes wide shut

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

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

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

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

[Content warning: discussion of professional and emotional abuse]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Because it’s all a dream.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A large circle of men in clocks and masks surround Cruise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes. That’s exactly it.

What a weird film.

Next week: Basic Instinct

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

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

#F4TFriday

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

The Thomas Crown Affair

YEAR: 1999
DIRECTOR: John McTiernan
KEY ACTORS: Pierce Brosnan, Rene Russo
CERTIFICATE: 15
IMDB SCORE: 6.8/10
ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 70%

SEX SCORE: 4/5
✔️ Fuckable cast – Brosnan is at his hottest and Russo is literally on fire
✔️ Sex positive themes – borderline case as Denis Leary’s sex negative ‘And you don’t care what that makes you?’ cop isn’t shouted down as much as I’d like, but they relish sex and pleasure so much that it has to pass
✔️ Definitely a source of fantasy material – I even wanted to fuck on marble stairs because of this film
✔️ Endlessly rewatchable
Fails the Bechdel test – the only two named female characters don’t say a word to each other, despite sharing scenes. Shame.

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

STREAMING: Netflix, YouTube (from £7.99), Amazon Prime (to rent £3.49 or buy £4.99), iTunes (buy £8.99)

The Thomas Crown Affair poster, showing Pierce Brosnan in profile in front of Rene Russo facing forward against an orange background

The remake of The Thomas Crown Affair came out in 1999 when I was fourteen. Some teenagers do discover their sexuality at a very young age but I was not that teenager. I was sixteen when I had my first kiss, eighteen when I had sex and nearly thirty before I had sex that I consistently enjoyed. A friend once described me as ‘a bookish strawberry blonde who liked chemistry, sailing and Alistair MacLean novels,’ which paints an uncannily accurate image of who I was!

I also loved James Bond. I loved James Bond with such a nerdy passion that it could easily have been my Mastermind specialist subject as I knew All The Facts. I had, however, never seen a Bond film at the cinema. Despite being technically old enough to see 12-rated Tomorrow Never Dies in 1997, my parents still felt I was too young and wouldn’t take me so I was literally gagging for the release of The World Is Not Enough in November 1999.

But before then, in August 1999, came The Thomas Crown Affair, a slick heist movie with current Bond star Pierce Brosnan in the eponymous title role and directed by Die Hard’s director John McTiernan no less. There was no way I was going to miss it! (And yes, I appreciate the irony that I wasn’t allowed to see TND when I was 12 and yet could see a 15-rated film at fourteen, but never mind…) So it was that fourteen year old sexually naive me went to the cinema to see what still ranks as the sexiest mainstream movie I have ever seen! Fuck me, this movie is hot!!

It was released before EL James ruined the reputation of the playboy millionaire and the whole movie had a frisson of deliciousness that dazzled me from the start. It has a mischievous and glamorous aura that made everything feel desirable and luxurious, and I was hooked. I wanted the clothes, the boats, the style. Everything!

Thomas Crown (Pierce Brosnan), the eponymous hero, is a bored millionaire who concocts the perfect art heist, stealing a Monet in broad daylight from the Metropolitan Museum in New York. So clever is his scheme that the NYPD are struggling to unravel it and it falls to Catherine Banning (Rene Russo), an insurance investigator, to kickstart the investigation. And, wow, the chase that ensues! Banning and Crown seduce each other in the most magnificent cat and mouse game, neither quite able to tell if the painting, the game or the person is the biggest attraction.

Watching them, I wanted to play that sort of game. Their verbal sparring is electric and, although I read some criticism of their chemistry, I believed it. It’s all part of their game so of course it’s a little contrived. They’re both too clever for their own good but it’s hot as hell to watch them play with each other!

I don’t really want to dwell on the original movie (as I didn’t really like it), except to say that my mother still claims that the chess game between Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway is one of the sexiest scenes ever filmed. I’m not so sure; for me, it is too contrived. Dunaway running her fingers suggestively over the chess pieces and close ups of fingers against lips may have been risqué in 1968 but now it feels like a sledgehammer!

It’s funny – the oxymoronic blatant subtlety of the 1968 version feels overdone but the rawness of the 1999 version hides nothing and yet is so hot and really works. Just the dance scene alone is enough to get my pulse racing! Never mind Dirty Dancing, Crown asking Banning if she wants to dance or if she wants to dance ensured that I always think of dancing as a potentially highly sexual act.

I mentioned in the sex, lies and videotape post that seeing that movie in the early 2000s was the beginning of the end of thinking that movie sex was in any way real but I had not yet come to this realisation when I saw this. And although time and experience have taught me that fucking on a marble floor and staircase probably isn’t as hot as it looks, their sex still turns me on; it’s still what I’d want. The laughter, the sweaty exhaustion, their chemistry and obvious comfort in their nakedness is just kind of wonderful. They look like they’re having fun and I think that’s what sex should be!

Brosnan dances with another woman with Russo tapping on her shoulder to cut in

This all also meant that Rene Russo became a kind of feminist hero for me, although for reasons that would shock Piers Morgan! She was 45 when the film was released, which seemed so old when I was fourteen, but I absolutely definitely wanted to be her when I grew up. Successful, intelligent, well-dressed, beautiful in a way that didn’t try to mask or minimise her age, and with the kind of sexual confidence that means she could turn up to a black and white ball in a see-through dress, no underwear and red scarf, and fucking get her man! She is just incredible. From her first appearance with hot tousled hair, big sunglasses and stockings, I was in love. Coming in the same year as Britney Spears apparently showing us what was sexy in her ‘Hit Me Baby One More Time’ video, this alternate and much more appealing image of female sexuality was frankly revolutionary.

Rene Russo and Pierce Brosnan, leaning in towards each other to kiss. Both are topless with a towel wrapped around their necks

Until recently, that’s as far as my thoughts on this film went. Russo is fabulous, the sex is hot and the chase is electrifying! Except I now realise that it’s not that simple.

It was only when writing this post that it occurred to me that all they really had was the chase, and this probably wasn’t the romantic ideal that I thought it was. Although the film ends with the two of them flying off into the sunset, I don’t know how much faith I’d have that they are still together now, ten years later. [Edit: oh my gosh, 1999 was actually twenty years ago!!!] The seduction was everything! And they know it. Crown even calls Banning out on this, asking why none of her relationships lasted. Once the chase was won, did they have enough to hold onto? Each had to ask the other if it was just about the painting, each is presented as being too independent to settle down and the fact that he successfully uses jealousy to unsettle her suggests that she wouldn’t be happy in an open relationship. So without the energy of the chase, would they still be happy?

As is so often the case, it all comes down to trust. After everything they’ve done, to each other and to themselves, can they trust each other? As Faye Dunaway’s psychiatrist asks Crown, under what extraordinary circumstances would he allow that to happen?

Whatever their future, it doesn’t change how fucking sexy this film is or my enjoyment watching it. Hottest movie sex scene of all time – I challenge you to find better!

Next week: Fifty Shades of Grey!

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