Through a Glass, Oldly: Nine 1/2 Weeks
We’ve exhausted the subject of the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon at this point. It’s been long established that it’s possible to become a millionaire by publishing pornographic fanfic, largely because a lot of people really don’t understand how a healthy relationship works, let alone a healthy BDSM relationship. Despite easier access to couples therapy, and with individuals more inclined to choose remaining single over settling, a distressingly high number of adults still believe that romantic relationships are supposed to involve manipulation and emotional abuse. This is why we’re still willing to put up with a lot of horseshit from people we know are bad for our mental health, because isn’t that how it works? The more you endure, the more you must clearly be in love.
Before there was Fifty Shades, there was, of course, Nine 1/2 Weeks, another erotic drama that endures largely because of its graphic sex scenes. Though it’s superior to Fifty Shades in every way possible, right down to it probably having better on-set caterers, I’d challenge anyone who hasn’t seen it in a while to remember what else happens in it besides the handful of “good parts.” Not having seen it since I was a teenager, and being fairly scandalized by it then, I recalled it as a tiresome pastiche on an uptight career gal whose whole world is turned upside down when she finally gets some good deep dicking action. Revisiting it more than 30 years later, and with considerably more relationship and sexual experience under the old belt than the first time I saw it, I can say that that is what it’s about…but not really. I can also say that, like Fight Club, (500) Days of Summer, and Falling Down, it’s a movie that is fundamentally misunderstood by viewers, and, beyond the “garters and ice cubes on nipples” sexy imagery, a disturbing, fascinating watch.
Kim Basinger is Elizabeth, newly divorced and working in an art gallery, because in New York City there are only two places to work, art galleries and publishing houses. When she’s not hanging out at the gallery with her obnoxious co-workers, she spends much of her time wandering around lower Manhattan looking perplexed and amused whenever she encounters non-white people, all of whom are being “colorful,” singing, dancing, or comically arguing with each other. Mickey Rourke is John, and he just appears behind Elizabeth from out of nowhere one day, like Dracula on vacation from Carfax. Elizabeth is immediately entranced by him, which is understandable, because we’re talking ‘84 prime Mickey Rourke here, before his face was turned into a lump of Sculpy and refashioned with a butter knife.
John comes on hard from the minute they meet, feeding Elizabeth from his fork and gifting her with a $300 scarf. Though he talks a lot about the history of Italian restaurants and hypnotism, he doesn’t say very much about himself, because John’s that most tiresome of romantic movie stereotypes, the Mysterious Asshole. We’ve all known and/or dated a Mysterious Asshole, the type of guy who thinks withholding such information as where he grew up or if he has any siblings is how he keeps the upper hand in the situation. Nevertheless, Elizabeth falls for this malarkey, and though he refuses to meet her friends (which should set off klaxons and air horns instantly), and does “fun” little things like pay a Ferris wheel operator to leave her stuck on top while she screams and begs to be let down, she becomes obsessed with him, and gives in to his increasingly aggressive demands for kinky sex.
Though Elizabeth expresses shock and repulsion when her best friend mentions vibrators, she’s maybe three dates in with John before agreeing to his order that she masturbate at exactly noon each day, which she does, at work while wearing thigh highs and stilettos that she evidently packed specifically for that purpose (because if you’re not dressing appropriately to rub one out, then why bother?). She’s turned on by John’s demands, which range from mildly naughty (letting him blindfold her) to wildly inappropriate (blindfolding her and letting someone else touch her without her consent), but also uncomfortable to the point of looking miserable in some scenes. John seems pleased with her discomfort, which, again, like Fifty Shades, shows that viewers who think this movie is romantic and sexy misunderstand the nature of their relationship. It isn’t sexy that John continuously pushes her into doing things she clearly doesn’t want to do, it’s abusive. He’s not showing her what she’s been missing after all those years of boring, vanilla sex, he’s literally being a fucking creep.
Elizabeth clearly knows this isn’t a healthy relationship, but, like a lot of unhealthy relationships that we unfortunately find ourselves in from time to time, loneliness and perhaps a touch of low self-esteem keep her coming back to John. She doesn’t have much else going on in her life besides her job and her awful friends, who don’t talk to her so much as at her, and one of them eventually ends up dating Elizabeth’s ex-husband, in a bizarre plot twist that is just mentioned off-handedly and never pursued, except perhaps as one more reason Elizabeth sticks with John far longer than he deserves.
Though clearly they’re sexually attracted to each other, they don’t seem to like each other very much, and their “just doing couple things” scenes are weird and unsettling. When he’s not railing her on a dining room table, John infantilizes Elizabeth, brushing her hair, feeding her, and dragging her around by the hand while she shrieks and squeals like a little girl. Their romantic moments are fraught with not just sexual tension, but tension tension, the “who’s going to let go of this live grenade first” kind of tension. This is what people who think the Joker and Harley Quinn are #relationshipgoals eat up, that hot and cold, “we’re in love/no wait now we’re screaming at each other and breaking up/now we’re back together again and exasperating everyone around us who just doesn’t understand” nonsense, but thankfully Elizabeth eventually sees it for what it really is. John waits until she’s almost literally out the door before finally telling her about himself, and when he does, it sounds like he’s making it up off the top of his head. He even tries the old “I’ve never felt like this before” shtick, and he has all the emotion in his voice of someone asking to pass the butter. The film ends on a tearful Elizabeth turning to look back for just a moment, and you know that far too many viewers were hoping she’d go running back into the arms of this pushy jabroni, but she doesn’t.
It’s hard to say exactly what I thought of Nine 1/2 Weeks. It wasn’t what I expected, in that I hadn’t recalled just how dark it gets (I watched the unedited cut, which includes a scene that unequivocally illustrates John’s behavior as abusive). I can’t help but look at it with the taint of thirty years of this being “one of the sexiest movies ever made,” when really, it isn’t sexy at all. Oh, for sure there are some sexy scenes, but what you’re seeing is two people working out their various personality disorders with their genitals, which, in reality, is far more sad and potentially dangerous than sexy. It’s not the movie’s fault that it was misunderstood, but it’s hard to separate it from that.
Kim Basinger has spent much of her career playing a beautiful blank slate, but here she’s genuinely good and sympathetic as a woman who thinks she has to put herself through an emotional and physical wringer to keep a man, until she realizes one day that she doesn’t. Mickey Rourke is, of course, astonishingly handsome (and has the second best 80s movie hair after Willem Dafoe in Streets of Fire) and charismatic, but he doesn’t really do much, save for smirk a lot and talk in a low, vaguely menacing voice. Though an atrocious sequel suggested that John was devastated to the point of being suicidal over Elizabeth ending their relationship, he doesn’t look so much as even slightly put out when she leaves (and, in the sequel, he treats another woman the exact same way, so clearly he hasn’t learned anything).
Ah, forget all this, Gena, how was the S-E-X? Well, yes, there is a lot of sex in it, though curiously very little nudity save for the errant boob shot. Doing it in a bed isn’t good enough for these two fuckbeasts, every scene is standing up in a clock tower, or in the middle of a crowded bar, or one very long, extremely implausible encounter that takes place in a rainy alley, and defies human physics. At one point they’re doing what looks like a two-person spider walk backwards up a flight of stairs, and it goes on for so long that it starts to feel like a Family Guy bit—funny, then not funny, then funny again.
In fact, every scene in Nine 1/2 Weeks goes on too long, whether it’s John testing out riding crops (which he’s never shown actually using), or buying a mattress and telling Elizabeth to “spread your legs for Daddy” in full view of the saleswoman. But no scene goes on so long as “the food scene,” which, even if you haven’t seen the movie, you probably know about. John sits Elizabeth in front of her refrigerator with her eyes closed, and proceeds to feed her very nearly everything in it, including cherries, hot peppers, olives, cough syrup, and Jell-O (because who among us doesn’t have a full, ready for a Minnesota Sunday supper Jell-O mold in their refrigerator at all times?), ending it with pouring honey all over her face and thighs. Is it sexy? When you think of the mess and the waste and the possible yeast infection from all that honey getting up in god knows where, not really. Removed from the rest of the film it could be seen as a fun, wacky thing between two lovers. Taken as a whole, it’s one more way that John humiliates and degrades Elizabeth, laughing as she reacts to biting into a jalapeno or spits out cough syrup down her chin, and it’s as unsettling as everything else about the movie, and you wonder why in the world anyone would think this is romantic.