Wow, so I watched 9 1/2 Weeks (1986) yesterday after this friend suggested it. Sometimes I question this person’s sense of normal, so I was hesitant to watch the movie at first. The description on Google contains some hints of kink and that alone puts me on edge. But I found the movie easily enough on Netflix and I had nothing to do on a Tuesday night, so I figured why not?
The movie stars Mickey Rourke as John, a Wall Street trader, and Kim Basinger as Elizabeth, an art gallery assistant. It is set in the 80’s. Admittedly, I kinda both hate and love the 80’s. I hate that nearly every male protag of that era is a white Wall Street guy. I also hate that it is around the time when being worryingly skinny becomes quite stylish for women. In all the scenes where Elizabeth is in her underwear, you can totally see her hip bones. Basinger wears preteen-sized panties in which my South Asian thighs would probably tear a hole. But also, it’s a great decade for fashion. Basinger is often dressed to the nines in lacy tops, translucent camis, flowy skirts, garter straps, high heels, lipstick, heavy gray eye shadow, and heavy dark eye liner. Then on top of that, she’ll wear a giant shaggy man-sized coat, or something with shoulder pads the size of the Empire State Building. It’s fantastic. In one scene, she’s literally in men’s clothes. I love the androgyny, and also the extreme dissonance of masculine and feminine aesthetic in the same outfit.
I also love the music choices in this crazy movie. The brilliance of using a Eurythmics song, a band that conjures images of disillusionment about love, to a scene where Elizabeth is masturbating. I think the opening song is “I do What I Do” by John Taylor–another great choice. Those haunting questions–“Do I touch the way you want to be touched? Have you heard the words you wanted to hear?” And I think “Bread and Butter” for a kinky food scene was really funny.
I love the gorgeous long scenes that focus on the female lead. The masturbation scene comes to mind (holy shit, the fact that they put a masturbation scene in this movie. A person with a female body giving herself pleasure in major motion picture?! Even by 2019 standards, that is groundbreaking). I really liked the dance scene, too. Basinger is fantastic in this sexy dance number. She isn’t touching Rourke at all–in fact, while you can tell she’s doing this for him, she also seems to be enjoying herself, doing something that she thinks is funny. It’s as much about her. In fact, if we pretend he isn’t watching, Basinger almost just looks like she’s had slightly too much to drink and is letting loose for a bit. It’s so much less contrived than music videos of this decade, and the focus is not on women giving pleasure to men. To me, it’s more about how a woman chooses what she wants to do with her body–if she wants a man to enjoy it, that’s her choice. If she wants to show it to the whole world, that’s also her choice. But this other human doesn’t have a say in what she does with her body. In fact, John seems to derive enjoyment because Elizabeth is doing what she wants.
I actually thought the scene where Basinger is dressed as a man is very radical. John buys Elizabeth men’s clothes and “suits” her up so she can see what it’s like to be a man for a night. He also kisses her openly while she is still wearing a fake mustache. John doesn’t seem to give a fuck about the fact that Elizabeth passes for a man in this moment. In addition, when they are walking home, two men attack them because they believe they are “faggots”. In the fight scene that ensues, Elizabeth gets them to back off by picking up one of the attackers knives and, I kid you not, poking the other attacker in the ass with it. They run off screaming. In my experience, women rarely get to have a proper fight in an action movie, let alone a romance movie. This one was humorous, but effective.
I would argue the movie does not focus solely on sex, either, though it is a romantic drama. There are no sex scenes. There are intensely sensual moments. Rourke portrays a man who enjoys deeply physical experiences. There is a scene where John asks Elizabeth to stay in his house, and when he comes home to find she has been snooping in his things, he says he is going to spank her. She becomes enraged, and they have sex. I know in this decade, people would argue about whether or not that scene was a rape scene. My theory is that John is trying to get Elizabeth mad on purpose. He wants that heightened state because the sex is more intense that way. I’m not sure I’d say the ends justify means in this case–how do you consent to being made to feel angry for sex? Is John showing that he cares for Elizabeth in that moment, or is it a selfish act? I actually really appreciate older movies for including scenes like that. It shows that the rules for consent are not as black and white as contemporary academics want them to be, and that there is way more to discuss than the modern thinkpiece might suggest.
There are moments in which John still comes off as a little creepy–like that moment when they first meet and he’s just staring at Elizabeth while he’s right next to her. But I also think it is radical that he usually names what he is going to do before he does it. This allows Elizabeth to express when she is uncomfortable and she can leave the situation. For example, when he brings her to his apartment for the first time, John makes a comment about how she is taking a risk because she doesn’t know what he will do. Elizabeth realizes her discomfort and says she wants to go home. In another scene, he blindfolds her before rubbing a cube of ice on her body. Elizabeth gets kind of a “warning” of what’s to come–he shakes the glass filled with ice before he begins. I haven’t seen many other movies about kink (I’ve heard a little too much about how 50 Shades of Gray is an insult to human intelligence to want to see it), so I don’t have much to compare this to. But I will say, this is more communication than I see happening in the average post-2000s rom-com. Those sex scenes usually go like this: lots of kissing, suddenly the protags are having sex. There is no build-up to the moment. I like that Adrian Lyne really took a lot of time to lead up to a sex-related moment. It is as if foreplay is the climax of the movie.
The second John fails to provide adequate information, Elizabeth decides to end the relationship. The scene where John attempts to add a prostitute to their sexual encounters sends Elizabeth into a jealous rage. She leaves John a few days later, claiming they both knew neither of them would stop seeing the other unless one of them explicitly said to do so. I think that’s a profound thing to propose. It is a reference to something Elizabeth tells her friend, Molly, earlier in the movie. She says that usually, you can tell what will end a relationship, and you store it in the back of your mind until it resurfaces one day, and you cannot pretend you are happy any more. She says she cannot figure out how her relationship with John will end. Molly suggests that perhaps it is true love in this case.
I would disagree with Molly. I think the fact that women will so frequently put up with people who they know they don’t want is because society sets them up to think this is the only way they will be happy. The world gives women messages about how they must accept whatever man floats their way because apparently, a woman is most valuable when she is kind to men, regardless of how horrible and selfish the man is. Having men look at you is the pinnacle of being a woman. But perhaps if you can truly say no, if you can walk away and not encounter some kind of social backlash, this indicates you are actually on equal terms with the other person. Maybe that is why it is a strange feeling to Elizabeth–she feels she is on equal terms with John. She is not choosing to be with him out of pity or fear or boredom. She genuinely wants to be with him. Thus when she leaves, it is not because she has been pretending to be happy the whole time. She was happy, and he crossed her boundaries too many times. It was an honest end to a relationship.