Sex, Love and Videotape

On movie sex and movie love...

Category: 2010s

The Before trilogy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fuck. What a journey!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next week: Death Proof

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

Easy A

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tucci looking concerned

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

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

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

Stone and Clarkson laughing together and sitting on a cat bonnet

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next week: The Before trilogy…

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

Magic Mike XXL

YEAR: 2015
DIRECTOR: Gregory Jacobs
KEY ACTORS: Channing Tatum, Joe Manganiello, Andie MacDowell, Jada Pinkett-Smith
CERTIFICATE: 15
IMDB SCORE: 5.6/10
ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 65%

SEX SCORE: 4/5

✔️ So, so rewatchable – over and over again…
✔️ Easily passes the Bechdel test – I read one comment that suggested this was deliberate but that feels like progress rather than criticism!
✔️ Sex and pleasure positive – the whole film is about how to please women and I’m sold!
✔️ Wow, the cast are ridiculously fuckable – watch the film and tell me I’m wrong.
No ongoing fantasies – it’s only really when caught up in the film’s literal magic that I find it hot as that level of muscle isn’t normally my thing, but what a testament to the film that it works so well at the time!

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

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

Magic Mike XXL poster with topless Channing Tatum dancing

There are two types of films that stick in my mind forever: those when the film itself is memorable, and those when the film watching experience is unforgettable. I could reel off a huge list of fabulous movies that I love with every viewing but I have many fewer when it was the watching itself that was special. A Frozen singalong in the perfect Anna costume. Moulin Rouge in corsets for Secret Cinema when Baz Luhrmann himself was at the showing. Participating in a standing ovation for Alan Rickman at a Summer Screen showing of Die Hard. Terminator 2 in the early hours of the morning of an overnight Arnold Schwarzenegger marathon at the Prince Charles Cinema…and Magic Mike XXL on a Friday night at the Ritzy in Brixton.

It wasn’t a special showing or even a special day but it was, without doubt, the most joyful experience I have ever had at the cinema. It was an absolutely packed screening and, damn, we had fun! Whooping and cheering, shrieking in delight and literally howling with laughter. It was hysterical and built higher and higher as the film went on until it reached an almost fever pitch where I was kind of amazed that there wasn’t dancing in the aisles. And it somehow wasn’t sleazy or objectifying; it was just so joyful.

And that’s kind of what I imagine these male strip shows are like. Or at least what Channing Tatum would like us to imagine they’re like and, having never been, I am happy to believe the illusion. Fun, bold, ever so slightly hysterical but completely shameless and in on the joke!

A gif of Joe Manganiello squeezing a water bottle so it squirts like he’s coming

Now, there is a pretty strong argument that I should be discussing the first Magic Mike film instead of its XXL sequel. The 2012 Steven Soderbergh directed movie is certainly the better film. It has a grittier plot, a message to deliver about the reality of stripping that it doesn’t sugar coat, and it is kind of seedy and hopeless. Also, it has Matthew McConaughey in it…

But I love XXL so much more!

Whereas the original was a serious story that happened to include some dancing, XXL is a series of dancing set pieces held together by the flimsiest of plots. The boys are back in town and want one last hurrah before they move on from stripping. There’s a stripper convention that they’re due to attend and they want to, well, go out with a bang so take a road trip of sorts to the convention. And that’s the whole plot!

Perhaps unlike the original, it’s a film that was absolutely made with its audience in mind. It was made for me and all of those other people who were laughing and whooping in that cinema screening. Long, lingering shots of hard, sculpted male bodies dresses as firemen, soldiers and all the stripper stereotypes that you can ask for, watched by women of diverse body types, ages and colours who look like real women. Also, it has Donald Glover in it…

Donald Glover wearing a jacket and hat but shirtless underneath, holding a microphone

This film could be used as an example of the female gaze, allowing the female characters to be viewed ‘as they really are and not the voyeuristic spectacle that the male gaze makes them out to be,’ to quote from Wikipedia, and instead turns its voyeuristic lens towards the men. In a similar way to the unrealistic body images of women seen so often in the media, the guy’s bodies are so perfect that they are almost caricatures but they are caricatures that are there to please the women. And so it’s a film that makes me feel welcome and included. It really cares about what women want!

‘These girls have to deal with men in their lives who every day, they don’t listen to them. They don’t ask them what they want. All we got to do is ask them what they want and when they tell you, it’s a beautiful thing, man.’

The strength of this female gaze is why I’m never that surprised when men don’t get it in the same way – the male Guardian reviewer gave it only 2 stars in a scathing review that claims it needs a ‘narrative sleight of hand’ to make the film ‘romantic and fun’ rather than demeaning. In contrast, the Telegraph loved it, describing it as the ‘either the gayest straight film ever made, or the straightest gay one. And it doesn’t care either way.’ In short, it’s simply not a film that was made for straight men!

It is kind of extraordinary but Magic Mike XXL manages to be a feminist bro buddy comedy, and that just makes me so happy. The guys are supportive of each other, they have great chemistry, they’re having almost as much fun as I am watching it and not one single minute is at the expense of women. It would be so easy to mock the ‘hen party’ crowd that come to see these strippers (and see the movie) but it chooses not to do that and so becomes something wonderful!

But more importantly, most importantly, it’s hot. It’s over the top and unrealistic and staged, but fuck it’s HOT!

A dancer standing in the middle of a crowd of appreciative women with his arms outstretched, looking towards the ceiling

And it surprises me that I find it so hot – perfectly sculpted bodies don’t usually do it for me and the simulated sex should be excruciatingly cringeworthy but it isn’t. It’s engrossing and overwhelming and I love it! The intensity of their gaze, the frenetic energy of their dancing, the heavy beat of the music and dark yet flattering lighting; it’s an unexpectedly powerful mix. I find myself wanting to be the girls on the stage, wanting to be under their thrusting hips and being thrown over their muscular shoulders.

A gif of Channing Tatum and another dancer high fiving over the shoulders of two girls on their laps

It is just the magic of the show though that creates this feeling. Despite how much it turns me on to watch them on screen, I know that the reality would be disappointing and I would likely hate it. I’ve only once seen a male stripper for a friend’s birthday back at university and it was all just a bit seedy, as was so accurately portrayed in the first Magic Mike film. The baby oil smothering his skin was greasy and tacky, those hip thrusting movements were too exaggerated and the hysterical laughter from us all watching had an edge of embarrassment. The stripper was definitely not of the same quality as Mike and his crew but it was all too aggressively close to let me feel comfortable.

Which is where Magic Mike XXL manages to find exactly the perfect spot – it really is magic. The comedy and bromance makes the male entertainers seem real and human, the respect they show towards women and the integrity with which the female characters are presented creates a safe and comfortable place to watch and enjoy the spectacle, and, wow, Channing Tatum is a talented dancer. And it’s just so funny!

Don’t believe me? I challenge you to watch this and not smile!

Next week: Cruel Intentions

Copyright
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. Gifs were taken from a Buzzfeed article.

Fifty Shades of Grey

YEAR: 2015
DIRECTOR: Sam Taylor-Johnson
KEY ACTORS: Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan
CERTIFICATE: 18
IMDB SCORE: 4.1/10
ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 25%

SEX SCORE: 1/5

✔️ Passes the Bechdel test – if you can believe it!
Definitely not sex positive – oh my gosh, the shame that is built into this plot! It is so clear that EL James is not a kinkster.
Unfuckable cast – Jamie Dornan is undoubtably hot but Christian is such a knob that I would never want to fuck him. Dakota Johnson’s Ana, maybe, but only if she leaves Christian and discovers her sexuality without his toxic influence.
No fantasies – see above.
Unwatchable – I’ll listen to the soundtrack. I don’t need to see this again and I’m not rushing to see the sequels.

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

STREAMING: YouTube (from £2.99), Amazon Prime (to rent £3.49 or buy £4.99), iTunes (rent £5.99, buy £7.99), Ratuken TV (from £7.99)

[Content warning: this post discusses abusive relationships and sexual assault.]

Ana is pressed against the left of the image with her arms above her head and Christian leaning over her to kiss her

I have a confession and don’t judge me too harshly for this one. I don’t hate the Fifty Shades novels. Yes, they’re appallingly written and yes, Christian and Anastasia’s relationship is abuse, not kink, but they’re easy to read and gripping and, more importantly, they were my gateway into erotica. I have to look fondly back on them for that if nothing else. Before reading these books, I clung to the sex scenes in mainstream novels and it took these trash stories to prompt me to look for something better. And, wow, did I find it!

Fifty Shades introduced me to erotica, which led me to sex bloggers and dirty Twitter where I meet my husband and made some really great friends, and which eventually led me here – writing about the filth in movies! But the (justified) disdain for the novels and the 2015 film from within the kink and BDSM community put me off ever seeing the movie and so I watched it for the first time for this blog. I was curious; surely it can’t be that bad?

So what did I like? The soundtrack is fucking hot! I danced to the Ellie Goulding track at my wedding for our first dance and it can only mean love to me now, and the slowed down Beyoncé ‘Crazy in Love’ has such a languid, lazy melody over that hard bass beat that it’s just sex. It’s sex in a song.

Other than that, it proved to be the hate watch that I was expecting. God, it’s awful! And worse, it is frankly dangerous.

In a way, I feel sorry for the actors and director etc as they had nothing to go on. The word vomit of complaints that I am about to unleash are largely against the source material. I really don’t think Jamie Dornan brought his A-game to act in this and his Christian Grey is as flat as the written character. Dakota Johnson manages to create a more interesting Anastasia than EL James could ever have imagined, but her best efforts didn’t stop it being rubbish! Even the wide vistas and beautifully crafted shots couldn’t rescue the film from the drivel that is its plot…

My issues with this film fall into three overlapping areas: the relationship is abusive, Christian does NOT understand kink, and this is not how BDSM (bondage, domination, submission, sadism and masochism) and D/s relationships are supposed to work!

Now that I know more about D/s (dominant and submissive) relationships and know people who live that lifestyle, there is no doubt that Christian is an emotionally abusive partner. For a start, insisting on non-disclosure agreements should be a massive red flag as it effectively isolates Ana from her friends and family, preventing her from talking to the people who should be advising her against him! He is extraordinarily jealous, framing his need to know where she is and who she’s with as being for her own safety in a classic gaslighting technique, and his tendency to appear when he’s not invited to control and manipulate events makes my skin crawl.

Christian Grey, standing in a window looking out over Seattle

He also spends a stupid amount of money on things that she did not ask for, reducing her financial independence and ensuring she feels in his debt. I have driven some shit cars in my life but I would be absolutely furious if some random guy I was fucking sold it without asking me, even if he bought me a shiny new one and even if I was in love with him. Finally, although I could probably think of more, he takes control of her body by insisting she takes oral contraception, something renowned for causing side effects, and managing eating and alcohol intake by shaming her. Urgh…

I was especially horrified when Christian told her that her ‘body tells me something different’ when she tried to leave, claiming signs of arousal meant that he knew what she wanted better than her and, more worryingly, that her words were less important than his interpretation. Jesus, this is sexual assault! This is how rape defendants claim they weren’t doing anything wrong and it has been widely shown to be absolute bullshit. Perpetuating this myth is so so dangerous! No matter the somatic and bodily response, believe their words. No means no, for fucks sake!

Christian is facing Ana and holding her face in his hands

Of course, I shouldn’t be surprised that Christian doesn’t get this as his understanding of consent is laughably poor for someone who claims to be into kink. Although I’d say that his requests are too extreme to be practical, everything he asks for might be acceptable if Ana agreed, including the borderline non-consensual sex. Except. Except she did not agree to any of it. She never specifically says no but this is too much and they don’t know each other well enough for him to make assumptions in the absence of a yes. Christian is so insistent on his ridiculous contract but he does not allow her to seriously negotiate the terms and he definitely does not see how the control that he is incapable to releasing would affect her ability to consent.

In case it needs to be said, consent is situation specific, consent changes with circumstance, consent can be withdrawn at any time and consent is not valid if it is coerced. Also, I really think consent should be enthusiastic! Ana’s inexperience and naivety is practically her only character trait but this will definitely effect her ability to consent to a circumstance that she literally had to google to understand. Does he really think that she is capable of clearly seeing through the rose tinted blindness of her first love to make a decision like this when Christian is telling her it’s the only way they can be together?

‘What would I get out of this?’
‘Me’

His use of contracts is also really messed up! Some D/s couples do have contracts but I don’t know of any that are this strict or this all encompassing. Also, he’s asking her to agree to sexual practices that she’s never tried or heard of. She even asks what butt plugs are for crying out loud! If she’s never heard of butt plugs, how is she going to agree to fisting?!

All of this so far has made me very, very angry, and I could have ranted for much longer, but it’s the limitation and misrepresentation of kink and BDSM that just makes me sad. Sex is supposed to be fun! It’s supposed to be a exploration that they do together. And even if fun isn’t the emotion that you’re looking for, pleasure should at least play some part on it!

A view unto a mirror showing a top less Christian looking at Ana, who is walking away wearing his white shirt

Throughout the film, Christian doesn’t seem to be enjoying this kinky sex that he’s so insistent on. It appears more like a release – he’s so wound up that he has to let off steam to release the pressure and then he can go back to hating himself. It’s framed as a character flaw that is the result of childhood abuse and something about which to be ashamed. It’s also not clear what gives him pleasure – as Ana asks ‘Is this what you want? To see me like this?’ Does he get off on seeing her in pain, full stop, or in giving her the pain she wants? The first is psychopathic; the second is more recognisable within a consensual BDSM scene.

This is where Dakota Johnson is so good in her portrayal of Ana – she looks like she’s enjoying the spanking. She looks like she’s discovering a kink of her own and is gaining pleasure from what Christian wants. Except that he wants more straightaway. He isn’t willing to wait until she’s ready for more; he doesn’t train her or discover her tolerance to pain or explore together what will give them both what they need. God, he’s such a cunt!

Also, having met many people who identify as dominant, I’ve learned that one of the commonest misconceptions is that being a Dom gives them the right to be an arsehole! Although the submissive is more obviously in service of the Dom, the Dom is supposed to be looking out for their sub and taking care of them, even in Master/slave dynamics. Everything he demands is supposed to make the sub happy by giving. It’s why communication and proper consent are so vital! Otherwise, it’s just abuse.

Again, urgh…

The Fifty Shades series – books and movies – have been an entry point to kink and BDSM for so many people and, sadly, not everyone looks elsewhere to find out how to do it safely and properly. I hope I’ve communicated how this film is dangerous and I’d recommend reading real life stories or better written erotica to get a more accurate idea if how to be safe, how to explore and how to have fun! This GOTN post from 2014 when the film was first in the news is a good place to start (as is her blog in general), Kayla Lords writes beautifully about her D/s relationship, and Bibulous One’s blog gives a hotter and safer view of pain play and BDSM. I’d also recommend erotica anthologies edited by Rachel Kramer Bussel, such as the Best Women’s Erotica of the Year series. Let me know if you want more recommendations – there is SO much better writing available than Fifty Shades of fucking Grey!

Next week: Magic Mike XXL

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MovieStillsDB has a broken page for this film so images are free downloads from GetWallpapers and taken from old reviews. Images may be subject to copyright.