Sex, Love and Videotape

On movie sex and movie love...

Category: Taboo

Nine 1/2 Weeks

YEAR: 1986
DIRECTOR: Adrian Lyne
KEY ACTORS: Kim Basinger, Mickey Rourke
CERTIFICATE: 18
IMDB SCORE: 6.0
ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 61%

SEX SCORE: 5/5
✔️ So I would definitely fuck the cast. It’s Mickey Rourke and Kim Basinger at their peak!
✔️ And it did inspire fantasies. John takes the domination too far for me in the end but, damn, it looked like fun on the way!
✔️ I would say that it is rewatchable. Hot hot hot!
✔️ I think it is sex positive. And kink positive, exploring boundaries within play and the consequences of not accepting them.
✔️ And it passes the Bechdel Test. What a film!

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

STREAMING: This isn’t streaming anywhere at the moment, which is a massive shame! Maybe buy the DVD? It’s really good!

[Content warning: bullying, emotional and physical abuse, humiliation, non-consent]

Poster for Nine 1/2 Weeks

I had a crush on Mickey Rourke long before I watched Nine 1/2 Weeks. If I’m honest, this crush has always baffled me a little because I first realised how hot he was when watching Sin City – a film where he’s so manipulated by CGI that he’s hardly recognisable! (And a movie that is on my list to review in the future.) But Rourke has an extraordinary magnetism that seems to extend beyond his looks. I still crush on him now even though he’s done awful things to his face and I just can’t explain it. But it meant that I watched Nine 1/2 Weeks for the first time with quite high expectations; an erotic movie staring Rourke as a powerful dominant when he was still young and hot without a beaten up face and wearing a lot of suits. *swoon forever*

And, spoiler, I was not disappointed!

Nine 1/2 Weeks tells the story of Elizabeth (Basinger), an art dealer who indulges in a nine 1/2 week long hot and kinky relationship with John (Rourke), a Wall Street banker with a dominant streak. Their relationship is almost entirely about sex – sex with blindfolds, sex with food, sex in alleys, sex with cross dressing, sex in the rain. Excuse me while I swoon again… As they fall deeper into this relationship, John pushes Elizabeth further and further away from her comfort zone until he comes up against and pushes straight through her boundaries. Battling between her lust for him and her new distrust, Elizabeth decides that she has to leave him, ending the relationship.

An image from Nine 1/2 Weeks of a shirtless John being embraced by Elizabeth

Before I can get into the eroticism of the film and before I can talk about the parts that I like, which I do really like, I have one huge, HUGE caveat. Sadly, it’s a big enough problem that I am almost loath to offer the movie any praise because everything that I love about Nine 1/2 Weeks – the sensitive and sympathetic way it approaches kink, the ridiculously hot chemistry between the stars – is completely wiped out by the real story behind the making of the movie and it reverses all of the good that I saw on screen.

Essentially, Adrian Lyne, the director, can absolutely fuck off. I will almost certainly be writing about other movies that he has made as he is now considered the ‘pioneer of a deeply loved and revered genre of film: the late ’80s erotic psycho-thriller’ and made Fatal Attraction, Indecent Proposal and Unfaithful, to name just a few that are on my list of upcoming movie reviews, but I hope that he didn’t take the techniques that he used on this film any further because he is an actual misogynistic abusive bastard and I don’t want him to have seen this as a success.

Lyne clearly decided before filming started that Basinger was not a good enough actress to simply act the part, describing her as ‘a bit like a child…she’s not an intellectual. She doesn’t read books.’ Instead he chose to literally abuse her to ensure that her passionate and emotional responses on screen were believable, declaring that ‘she doesn’t actually act, she reacts.’ Reading about the filming process, I was reminded of the trauma that Kubrick inflicted on Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman for Eyes Wide Shut and wondered again why this sort of behaviour is allowed. Just as critics of method acting note that despite women successfully utilising this technique, only men get to behave as twats in the name of their art, I have read too many stories about women being emotionally or even physically abused by directors to push them to perform better and it makes me so angry. It’s bullying – and most other industries have accepted that it isn’t an allowable way to get results.

As described in a pretty harrowing New York Times article from 1986, Lyne wanted to ‘play upon ”an edge of terror” in Miss Basinger, to create a more believable sense of fear, surprise and sexual arousal between her and her lover.’ He manipulated the atmosphere on set by forbidding Rourke and Basinger from becoming friends or seeing each other off set. Speaking to the New York Times, Lyne reportedly felt that ‘she needed to be scared of [Rourke]’ and so let Rourke treat her as he wanted, slapping her and physically hurting her. In contrast, Lyne treated Rourke ‘like a prince’ and would offer him whispered guidance before filming, isolating Basinger from his plans and pushing her ‘into actually experiencing some of the feelings and playing them out in raw form before the cameras.

Elizabeth sat in a bed while John feels her calf

Honestly, it reads like orchestrated emotional abuse. Lyne would instruct Rourke to treat her kindly at times so that she would feel elated and grateful, alternating ‘between harshness and kindness…to give the relationship its particular sexual tension.’ Even at the audition, Lyne forced Basinger to humiliate herself so totally that she left in tears, swearing never to work with him again. Lyne, like every gaslighting partner, ‘continued to pursue her for the part,’ sending her roses and flattering compliments until she succumbed.

And the most heartbreaking part is hearing Basinger justify his efforts, saying that Nine 1/2 Weeks was her best work and quite rightly feeling aggrieved at his low opinion of her, asking why ‘if he wanted some emotion, he went to Mickey and not to me.’ Fucking mysogynistic bullshit!

It makes me sad because I think the movie handles sex, kink and consent incredibly well, but this feels by accident rather than design when compared to how non-consensual and horrific the filming process was.

And this movie is hot! A critic in the Ringer may have felt that the bit before the sex is hotter than the actual sex on screen, claiming that Nine 1/2 Weeks is a movie to ‘make you want to have sex (as long as it doesn’t show you actual sex)’ but it’s still better than almost all other movie sex that I have seen outside of actual porn! My notes for this movie are filled with HOT written in capital letters – ice cube just inside the top of her knickers, HOT; would absolutely masturbate at work, HOT; shirtless cooking HOT; handjob in a bar, HOT; buying a bed together, HOT; striptease in front of a Venetian blind, HOT!

An image from Nine 1/2 Weeks showing Elizabeth stripping in the stripes of a Venetian blind

And, unlike Fifty Shades of Grey, the film it is often compared to, I feel that Nine 1/2 Weeks shows a more realistic version of a kinky relationship than most others that I see on screen. To compare it to Fifty Shades, the model of consent is completely different and more comparable to Secretary. John never explicitly asks her consent for what he’s doing – there’s no complex form for Elizabeth to sign and no ‘formal’ negotiation – but he slowly, slowly ramps up his control and dominance, testing her to see if she enjoys and accepts each new scene before stepping up to the next one. The difference from Secretary, however, comes when Elizabeth starts saying no!

Although negotiation and consent are vital parts of any BDSM relationship, this experimental approach feels more realistic and is certainly more like my experience. But problems arise as John isn’t really negotiating; he’s not checking in with Elizabeth, he’s pushing her. And, importantly, he doesn’t seem to care or notice when he pushes her too far. In the famous scene where he asks her to crawl on her hands and knees to pick up money, linking sex work with humiliation in a way that I don’t approve of, she has clearly reached her limit. She asks to stop, she screams at him, she even tells him that she hates it but John just laughs and tells her that she loves it. He doesn’t listen to her; he doesn’t respect her boundaries.

This is also the second time when he ignores her limits. After John follows up a flirty exchange about punishing her with a threat of spanking, she freaks out and, although he doesn’t actually spank her, the sex they have afterwards is pretty rapey. It’s exactly that movie trope where the woman is battling against her stronger male partner, fighting hard, but eventually succumbs to enjoyment. Was it assault or does Elizabeth have ravishment fantasies? We’ll never know as he never asks her. But, again, it feels real to me that she wouldn’t just leave him after that first violation and it took repeated offenses for her to realise her danger. She loved him so she trusted him. Their sex was risky and extreme and like nothing she had ever done. It had been aggressive – the best sex they appear to have occurs after she literally stabs an attacker – so it’s perhaps not surprising that she has no framework to recognise his abuse until later.

Despite my reservations about him, I loved the cinematic technique Lyne used to highlight this change in Elizabeth and this recognition. In an early blindfold scene, she is wearing a white shirt and he blindfolds her with a white scarf. They’re lit with spotlights and the flares of light created by these effects are incredibly beautiful, but they also create shadows. Later, when John brings another woman into their scene and Elizabeth finally breaks, this obscurity and mystery is gone. It’s daylight and they are fully exposed; there is nowhere to hide. Elizabeth is wearing a black negligee and the blindfold is now black too. As a metaphor for her corruption, it’s almost clumsy but I do think it’s really effective.

An image from Nine 1/2 Weeks showing Elizabeth blindfolded and John watching

Because I don’t think it was necessarily the presence of the other woman that was the step too far. It wasn’t necessarily that Elizabeth felt too degraded by that one more act, too humiliated. I think that if she had still trusted John, Elizabeth could have allowed herself to relax and then maybe the apprehension of not knowing what was going to happen would have been thrilling rather than terrifying, just as it had earlier in their relationship.

It’s why I was really interested in the discussion on Fatal Attraction podcast about the first time John took control in a sexual way, wondering which of his controlling actions first influenced their subsequent sexual relationship. Half of the group felt it was the watch – and, oh my gosh, that was a fucking hot move if ever I’ve seen one! ‘Wear this watch and think of me touching you when you look at it.’ *fans self* – but I agree that the first time his actions hinted at the sexual connection that he was looking for was when John took Elizabeth to a remote cabin and told her exactly how much danger she was in being there with him, a stranger, listing exactly how isolated they are and how vulnerable she was. For me, it was the first indication that John was looking for more than simple, vanilla sex. He was telling her that she needed to trust him, that he would take her to dangerous places but she needed to accept that he would keep her safe, and it was meltingly hot.

But without that trust, nothing that they do together is fun anymore. ‘How does it feel to be out of control?’ John screams at Elizabeth when she runs out of his home, crashing into a theatre showing porn and kissing strangers. And it obviously doesn’t feel good; she’s having an emotional crisis and a breakdown. But John says it as if Elizabeth is the one to have lost control, and it’s another sign to me that he is a terrible dominant! He is supposed to be looking out for her, he is supposed to be taking care of her and ensuring that she’s safe. He’s supposed to be in control – that’s how she can trust him at all.

Honestly, I’m so happy to watch these films again now that I’ve accepted my sex nerd status and know so much more about non-traditional relationships because I understand so much more about why I love films like this. Yes, it’s hot, and Rourke and Basinger are hot, but I love to watch the exploration of kink more. Because that’s what Basinger is doing – she’s discovering that she has a humiliation kink but also that she has boundaries. She has to explore to find where these limits are, which is something Christian Grey never allowed Anastasia, but sadly, John isn’t the right man to guide her.

John and Elizabeth lying on a bed

It is interesting to see how many red flags are written into the story to warn us about John, and I do think it’s important that Elizabeth leaves him in the end. He doesn’t want to meet her friends and would rather she stayed at home with him; he won’t introduce her to his friends or tell her about his family; and he wasn’t happy when she turned up unannounced at his work. All of these maintain his control over her as a mysterious source of power, isolating her from others, but they do not make him an attractive long term partner. As discussed in that episode of Fatal Attraction podcast, movies like Fifty Shades or Secretary or even Beauty and the Beast give women an unrealistic expectation that they can change a dangerous man by loving him. Elizabeth can’t change John; she has to leave. And that’s why this movie is both great and important.

For me, Nine 1/2 Weeks is a movie where the kink itself is almost irrelevant to the plot. As Roger Ebert wrote, ‘that’s what makes the movie fascinating: Not that it shows these two people entering a bizarre sexual relationship, but that it shows the woman deciding for herself what she will, and will not, agree to.’ For me, the humiliation and degradation are what grabbed the headlines – it’s shocking, it’s erotic, it’s transgressive – but that’s not why Nine 1/2 Weeks works as a movie. Instead, Nine 1/2 Weeks is ‘a more humanistic [film], in which it is argued that sexual experimentation is one thing, but the real human personality is something else, something incomparably deeper and more valuable – and more erotic.’

A photo from Nine 1/2 Weeks of John and Elizabeth

And of course, the movie works for me because Mickey Rourke is beautiful. Deeply, painfully beautiful: ‘1986 Mickey Rourke was the epitome of hot ’80s jerk. Just the best. We can get no better. He had the plush lips, the constantly mocking expression. His body is built for the sort of destructive relationship that you’ll need self-help books to get over, but your time together is worth it anyway because you get to watch him eat pasta at an Italian restaurant, and that is enough for a decade of sexual fantasies.

A decade of sexual fantasies. Oh yes, that’s about right…

Next week: Her

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.

Lolita

YEAR: 1962
DIRECTOR: Stanley Kubrick
KEY ACTORS: Sue Lyons, James Mason, Peter Sellers
CERTIFICATE: 15
IMDB SCORE: 7.6
ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 93%

SEX SCORE: 1/5
✔️Lolita does pass the Bechdel Test.
❌ But that may be the last mark this movie gets in my sex score!! It certainly didn’t inspire fantasies – the sexual premise is not supposed to be attractive!
❌ And I don’t want to fuck the cast for similar reasons. Lolita is too young and Humbert is too distasteful!
❌ While this film doesn’t overtly judge the character’s sexual choices, instead leading the audience to make that judgement themselves, it is not sex positive. In its simplest form, it is about a non-consensual sexual relationship.
❌ It’s a good film; better than I expected. But it’s not rewatchable. It made me too uncomfortable to want to watch again.

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