Sex, Love and Videotape

On movie sex and movie love...

Category: 2000s

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.

Y Tu Mamá También

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

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

SEX SCORE: 5/5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All three are dancing

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

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

Next week: Easy A

If you’d also like to write a guest post, click here for details on how to get in touch!

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

Zack and Miri make a porno

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So I really didn’t like this film!

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

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

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

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

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

Next week: Y Tu Mama También

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

Secretary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lee crawling across the floor with a letter between her teeth

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

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

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

Mr Grey, lying on the floor and looking alarmed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next week: Zac and Miri make a porno

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

What women want

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mel Gibson holding items from a box including a bra

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

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

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

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

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

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

A publicity shot of Helen Hunt

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next week: Eyes Wide Shut

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