Sex, Love and Videotape

On movie sex and movie love...

Category: Marriage and long term relationships

Gone Girl

YEAR: 2014
DIRECTOR: David Fincher
KEY ACTORS: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike
CERTIFICATE: 18
IMDB SCORE: 8.1
ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 87%

SEX SCORE: 2/5
✔️Rewatchable. God, is it rewatchable. I can’t drag my eyes away.
✔️And it passes the Bechdel Test. Admittedly, much of the talk between named female characters is about Amy but it passes the rest!
❌ But I do not want to fuck either of them, no matter how hot they are! They’re terrifying and deeply, deeply unattractive because of it.
❌ And there’s nothing here to prompt fantasies for me. It’s messed up!
❌ Finally, it’s not sex positive at all. Sex is a weapon; relationships are a lie. It’s. Messed. Up!

As always, this contains spoilers so watch the film before you read on. Seriously, I’m going to reveal all sorts of plot twists so if you’ve managed to avoid them, please watch it before reading as the reveal is incredible!

[CW: rape, abusive relationships, murder]

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

Gone Girl poster showing Ben Affleck under a cloud of smoke hiding Rosamund Pike’s eyes

This week is usually the week for a ‘bad’ film – one with a bad message or one that’s really sex negative. It’s previously been a chance for me to rant about offensive humour or the patriarchy. This week’s movie, however, is not a bad film at all. In fact, it’s a pretty incredible film! But Gone Girl still gets to go in the ‘bad’ movie slot as it only scores 2 out of 5 – from a sex positivity perspective, it is a bad film. And although I couldn’t give it marks for its sex content as, wow, all the relationships are weaponised in a grossly unhealthy way, Gone Girl does have some fascinating and pertinent things to say about marriage and, you’ve guessed it, the patriarchy!

Gone Girl begins when Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) discovers that his wife, Amy (Rosamund Pike), has been abducted from their home. Investigations suggest that she’s been murdered and soon Nick is the prime suspect. He’s been having an affair, there are money problems, and Amy’s diary reveals that their marriage has been on the rocks and she is afraid of Nick. He has been violent towards her, he has pushed her to the ground; she fears he might kill her. Except that Amy isn’t dead at all. And, other than the affair, none of the terrible things she accuses Nick of are true either. She’s planned the whole thing to frame Nick for her death as revenge for being such a terrible husband. It was going exactly according to plan until she is robbed and has to turn to an old lover for help. Unfortunately, Desi is as bad a person as Amy and keeps her locked up in his lake house, nominally for her own good and acting like a blueprint for how to be an emotionally abusive partner. Amy can only escape by murdering Desi after framing him for rape as justification for her act, at which point she returns to Nick and manipulates him into staying with her.

Nick at a vigil got his missing wife, speaking from a microphone

It’s so fucking messed up!

Before I properly get into what I find interesting about this film, there are a couple of problematic themes that I want to cover, and these certainly contribute to why this isn’t a sex positive film. The first, and most potentially harmful, is the idea that a woman would lie about being raped for her own gains. Ouch. Twice Amy ruins the life of someone who has wronged her (one of whom she kills) by fabricating a rape – and she is believed. It’s because of exactly stories like this, and the always present power of the patriarchy, that he-said-she-said disputes rarely side with the accuser. How do you know she’s not making it up? they ask. Can you prove it? And to add fuel to the fire, here Amy does have evidence but she’s made that up too. It makes a great story, without doubt, but it saddens me every time I see it as it’s just one type of story but it drowns out the millions of real ones; the one falsehood that rape deniers bring up as evidence when they don’t want to believe an accusation of assault. And now we have ‘proof’ that evidence should be distrusted too, even physical and DNA evidence can be manipulated. This is not a good message and one that I wish would stop getting airtime.

My other potential problem is one more of language than theme, because I don’t know how to talk about Amy: she’s a psycho, she’s insane, she’s batshit crazy…she doesn’t have a diagnosis of a mental health disorder, she’s just not a good person. Although Amy’s choices and decision making processes aren’t rational or potentially that healthy, I am very aware of the damage that can be caused by resorting to language associated with mental health conditions to describe bad people. It perpetuates unhelpful stereotypes and encourages stigma. So yes, Amy is horrific; she’s arguably one of cinema’s greatest villains, but I’m not going to call her a psycho.

Amy looking to the right, standing in front of Nick who is looking at the floor

So…Gone Girl. Wow.

This is going to sound strange considering the fucked up and murderous conclusion of the film but there is a lot about the film that is really quite relatable.

Not the conspiracy or murder, obviously, but in how our true selves are revealed as we progress through long term relationships and marriage, and how disappointing this can be. In her book, ‘Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers: monstrosity, patriarchy and the fear of female power,’ Sady Doyle suggests that Gone Girl – book and film – were so successful because ‘that kind of rage bubbles underneath the surface of many “normal” marriages, and behind the smiles of many seemingly happy women.’ Through Amy’s extreme actions, women were able to ‘vent their daily indignities and unspeakable anger safely and without consequence.’ Now, I don’t mean to suggest that many, or any, married women are suppressing an anger of that degree, but it’s not such a stretch to imagine a large proportion of women who find out many years down the line that their marriage isn’t what they expected.

Because who among us hasn’t worked to only show the best of themselves in a new relationship? Who hasn’t pretended to be more interested in their potential date’s hobbies, or pretended to be someone slightly different to who they really are to make themselves more attractive? And this might not be a conscious effort; sometimes we just don’t share our whole warts and all selves straightaway. But we can’t keep up the charade forever so what happens when the NRE (new relationship energy) and shine has gone and we realise that we don’t like who our partners really are or who we are with them?

Amy and Nick in a bookshop

And this is again is where the influence of the patriarchy can be felt. In a traditional marriage, women are much more likely to be the ones to change and make sacrifices for the marriage, fulfilling their role as housewife. Once children arrive, this divide between who we were before the marriage and who we are now widens, with women tending to take on the majority of childcare responsibilities. It’s really not hard to imagine this as a situation that breeds resentment and anger. And I say this as someone who is very happily married! As Sady Doyle put it, Gone Girl is a reaction to the ‘daily, grinding violence of subservience and loss of self’ associated with an unfulfilling marriage: ‘if you’ve been through enough, the difference between making a man better and making him sorrier can be tough to figure out.’

Viewed in this context, Amy’s anger and violence could almost be a direct attack on the patriarchy, and is perhaps more understandable for that. Discussing it on the Unscrewed podcast, Jaclyn Friedman felt that Gone Girl ‘takes seriously the suffering of misogyny’ – all those little slights, little oppressions and little dismissals, all those micro-aggressions, that wear us down or wear us out. Or in Amy’s case, fire her up.

And, obviously, Amy takes this way too far! Nick may not be that great a guy but he doesn’t deserve what happens to him. But I think that’s why Amy is such a fantastic and horrifying villain. She’s not a megalomaniac, she’s no Bond baddy in her evil lair; she’s a fucking genius but her end goal feels oddly suburban, even in the context of her incredibly complex plan. She could be any disgruntled and disaffected housewife; she could be anyone of us. Her complaints aren’t irrational, her reaction is. So what’s stopping more women responding in this way?

Terrifying attack on the patriarchy aside, I do think this film has some very interesting perspectives on relationships in general. Although Amy’s version of events prior to the beginning of the film is manipulated for her own gain, she does state that the start was real – ‘it had to be.’ And the beginning of their relationship is just adorable. It’s exactly what Hollywood has led us to believe new love should be – softly lit, with flirtatious humour and beauty all around. They look good together, they have adorable in-jokes and literally sweet familiar gestures like the lip swipe after walking through the sugar snow: ‘We’re so cute. I want to punch us in the face!’ It’s perfect; they’re perfect. There was a lot about their marriage at that stage that made me wonder if I wasn’t making enough effort in my own – I’ve never made a treasure hunt for our anniversary, for example! ‘We were the happiest couple we knew,’ Amy boasts.

But she also makes it clear that this perfection isn’t real and isn’t without effort: ‘I forged the man of my dreams.’ And not just in her efforts to mould Nick. This, of course, is where the famous Cool Girl monologue comes from:

Oh, this is a powerful idea. And I’ve written about it before because it was such a familiar idea to me. I have spent so much of my life trying to be the Cool Girl and always feeling like I didn’t make the grade. Knowing and recognising the Cool Girl, and knowing and recognising how easy it is to fall into the trap of being the Cool Girl is such an important part of new relationships. She’s a movie trope, like the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but that doesn’t stop men from wanting her, and wanting women to be her.

(As an aside, I actually only stopped trying to be the Cool Girl when I essentially gave up dating and met up with the man who would be my future husband for sex! He wasn’t supposed to be important so I didn’t bother to pretend – we wanted to fuck each other and luckily that didn’t change the more we got to know each other. As a dating strategy, it was hugely liberating and I’d definitely recommend it!)

Amy’s take on the Cool Girl is also interesting because she doesn’t see it as a universally bad idea. She and Nick both became better people for pretending to be exactly what the other wanted. It made her smarter, it made him better – hence forging the man of her dreams! But forging really is a violent and explosive metaphor that suggests a lot if energy and effort, and Nick’s unforgivable sin was no longer making the effort to maintain the delusion. Although Amy clearly resents what she had to do to be the Cool Girl, it was worth it to be part of the whole. Their marriage looked good from the outside so it was worth it. Except Nick stopped pretending and Amy realised that she didn’t like who he’d become – or perhaps who he really was: ‘He actually expected me to love him unconditionally.’

And this is where Amy’s ideas about marriage, in my opinion, do split from reality and where her true villainy lies. Yes, Nick may not be the same as when they married, but she isn’t either. Her dismissal of him without taking any responsibility is irrational. Also, Nick’s version of events don’t exactly paint her as the ideal wife – and I don’t mean ideal as in Stepford. Her anniversary treasure hunt quite obviously does not bring Nick joy and yet she persists. She’s trying to force him to remain that person he was pretending to be, even when it’s obvious that it’s making him unhappy.

And is that fact that Nick barely knows his wife his fault or hers? Maybe he wasn’t paying attention or maybe she was keeping too much hidden. Whatever the truth, they did not communicate enough for the relationship to work. Long term relationships require constant adjustment and compromise, especially when the two of them have gone through such significant life changes by losing their jobs and moving from New York to Missouri. How could they stay the same?

My final point on this movie is about how it plays with the idea of appearance vs reality. This is, of course, Amy’s main complaint in their marriage, but it extends beyond this one area. Amy has always had to maintain an outward appearance of success and overachievement because she has constantly been in competition with her fictional alternate in the Amazing Amy books her parents wrote. Appearances were important to her – which may be why Nick’s actions were so unforgivable.

Nick standing next to a ‘Missing Amy’ poster with a ‘shit-eating grin,’ to quote Amy

The film also dwells a lot on public appearances with regard to the murder investigation and trial. Nick’s reflexive smile when on camera or when taking a selfie mark him out as insincere and suspicious; Andi, the young woman Nick was fucking, fundamentally changes her appearance once his infidelity is revealed to make him look worse: ‘Why is she dressed as a babysitter? The girl with the giant come on me tits?’ The main role of Tanner Bolt, the fancy lawyer that Nick hires, seems to be to manage the optics of the situation as it got further out of control, reminding Nick that ‘this case is about what people think of you. They need to like you.’ The truth doesn’t matter, Bolt seems to imply. It’s how he appears.

Which, of course, is the crux of the whole plot and how the movie ends.

Nick and Amy are back together; she’s persuaded him to stay by becoming pregnant and using the guilt of his own absent father to convince him not to leave her. And his tour de force performance to persuade the American public that he wasn’t a murderer worked so well that Amy sees some hope in him after all. Their marriage filled with resentment as their real personalities were revealed has become a knowingly sham marriage where they keep up appearances and, I can only imagine, torture each other forever more!

‘Promise me we’ll never be like them,’ Amy asked Nick early in their relationship, eager not to be one of those drab and predictable couples who argue all the time.

Well, they’re certainly not like other couples…

Nick Dunne: You fucking cunt!
Amy Dunne: I’m the cunt you married. The only time you liked yourself was when you were trying to be someone this cunt might like. I’m not a quitter, I’m that cunt. I killed for you; who else can say that? You think you’d be happy with a nice Midwestern girl? No way, baby! I’m it.
Nick Dunne: Fuck. You’re delusional. I mean, you’re insane, why would you even want this? Yes, I loved you and then all we did was resent each other, try to control each other. We caused each other pain.
Amy Dunne: That’s marriage.

Wow.

This movie is messed up…

Next week: Practical Magic

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

The 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.

Eyes wide shut

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

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

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

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

[Content warning: discussion of professional and emotional abuse]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Because it’s all a dream.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A large circle of men in clocks and masks surround Cruise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes. That’s exactly it.

What a weird film.

Next week: Basic Instinct

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

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