Last of the Monster Kids

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Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Director Report Card: Adrian Lyne (1986)

3. Nine ½ Weeks

Following the surprise success of “Flashdance,” I imagine Adrian Lyne had his pick of projects. I know he was offered “Starman” around this time and many other films, I bet. What he chose for his next movie was “Nine ½ Weeks.” The source material, an autobiographical novel by Ingeborg Day, was a rough and unflinching depiction of a sadomasochistic relationship that quickly became abusive. Lyne would transform this into a movie that would largely change the direction of his career. With one exception, every film Lyne made after this point concerned itself with sex and relationships, frequently veering in the direction of erotica. The question to ask is if this was a positive change or not.

The film follows Elizabeth, a recently divorced woman who works at an art gallery in SoHo, Manhattan. Through a chance encounter at a marketplace, she meets rich Wall Street broker John Gray. She immediately feels attracted to him. Soon, she agrees to go out on a date with him. Their first date concludes with him blindfolding her and teasing her with an ice cube. He plies her with expensive gifts while his sexual fantasies become more extreme and controlling. Elizabeth finds herself increasingly obsessed and disturbed with the demands John asks of her.

After watching “9½ Weeks,” I wasn't surprised to learn that it was based on a fact-based memoir. The movie is almost plotless. There's very little drive to the story. The narrative is largely shapeless. The pacing listlessly marches from one episode to the next. Just like real life, I suppose. What makes up most of '9½ Weeks” are John and Elizabeth's antics in the bedroom. It's a film largely devoted to their sexual adventures. To the point that, whenever the movie goes outside their lovemaking, you can feel the filmmaker's interest waning. It's hard to imagine these characters lives existing outside of their sexual misadventures.

Making a movie all about sex is fine. It is, after all, one of the most common human experiences. However, “9½ Weeks” doesn't seem very interested in exploring the mechanics of desire. What exactly draws Elizabeth to John is never stated. He mysteriously floats into her life and she is drawn to him, for fuzzily described reasons. What the two have in common or why they are attracted to one another is left vague. Occasionally, it seems like “9½ Weeks” may probe darker themes about the limits of desire. John's demands sometimes frighten Elizabeth. Such as when he calls her and accuses her of snooping in his apartment. Or when he almost whips her with a belt, when she refuses to crawl across the floor to him. Other times, however, she goes right along with his games without a problem. This back and forth is never explored, Elizabeth's interior thoughts and own sexual desires largely remaining a mystery.

Mostly, “9½ Weeks” is a prototypical example of the “erotic thriller” genre. Like many of the films that would haunt late night Cinemax in the nineties and 2000s, to the delight of insomniac masturbaters everywhere, the film is preoccupied with elaborate fuckery. John and Elizabeth tease, play, and couple in increasingly unlikely ways. The infamous (and, admittedly, relatively effective) ice cube sequence is a precursor to a later scene, where John hand-feeds Elizabeth various foodstuffs. Dripping milk, spurting Perrier, and goopy honey stand in for more pornographic fluids. Soon, the two are banging on tables and in clock towers, bouncily and enthusiastically. This peaks during a frankly ridiculous love scene in a rain-choked alleyway, where the two cycle through a dozen positions in the cramped area. That seems more awkward and uncomfortable than erotic.

As in “Flashdance,” “9½ Weeks” shows Adrian Lynn struggling to balance his two tendencies as a director. The film continues the director's fascination with American cities. After focusing on Californian suburbs in “Foxes” and Pittsburgh in “Flashdance,” Lynn looks at Manhattan here. Some of the film's best scenes has Lynn's turning his camera on the crowded streets of SoHo. Elizabeth looks at doodads at a street market. She watches a Reggae band with John. Later, the two goof around in the streets, tossing a hat into the wind. These scenes, due to Lyne's naturalistic direction, end up feeling more intimate than most of the movie's love scenes.

However, these more realistic moments are shoved between ridiculously over-directed sequences.  One laughably overwrought moment involves Elizabeth masturbating while clicking through a slideshow of various paintings. A mildly clever idea – the shutter speed increasing as she reaches climax – is pushed into laughable territory by the use of rough zooms and harsh editing. That odd choice crops up a few other times as well, near the end. But no moment in “9 ½ Weeks” is more over-directed than the striptease Elizabeth performs for John, set to “You Can Leave Your Hat.” The scene goes on for far too long, as Kim Basinger or her body double contorts in front of mood lighting, the camera randomly cutting away to a laughing Mickey Rourke.

These overblown moments of attempted eroticism dominate the film. They nearly push out the more interesting moments. A completely unresolved subplot involves a painter client of Elizabeth, an elderly and eccentric artist that appears to be developing dementia. There's a oddly still and moody scene of Basinger visiting the man at his home. Another effective moment is when Gray has Elizabeth dress up as a man. This gender-bending scene escalates into the two getting into a fight with some tough guys. It's probably the most thrilling scene in the film, one of the few times when there actually appears to be some stakes to the plot.

If “9 ½ Weeks” has anything really going for it, it's two solid lead performances. This is Kim Basinger's first lead in a theatrically released movie. Lyne supposedly used manipulative tactics to get a stronger performance out of Basinger, isolating her from her co-stars and deliberately alienating her. Whether or not you agree with that approach, it seemed to have worked. Basinger does well in “9 ½ Weeks.” Even if the script refuses to expounds on Elizabeth's feelings, Basinger shows the struggle and internal conflict on her face. Her body language conveys the mixture of humiliation and excitement she feels. Basinger agreed with this assessment, saying this was the first time she really felt like an actor.

“9 ½ Weeks” was also made during that early eighties golden period where Mickey Rourke was actually considered a sex symbol. John Gray is a good fit for the actor, who combines handsome good looks with an off-putting dark energy. No matter how smoldering or sexy Gray may be, Rourke always adds an intense and unhinged glare under his eyes. It's an approach that works for the character, who is increasingly revealed as a remorseless manipulator. That status comes into sharp focus with Gray's pathetic attempt to humanize himself to Elizabeth at the end.

Soundtrack wise, it still feels like Adrian Lyne is in “Flashdance” land. “9 ½ Weeks” opens with its titles on a black screen, scored to Al Green's haunting “Love and Happiness.” That effective mood is immediately shattered by the cheesy, eighties pop song that plays over the rest of the opening credits. Some songs are used better than others. “This City Never Sleeps” by the Eurythmics has enough simmering energy to it to fit Elizabeth's self-love. Bryan Ferry's “Slave to Love,” on the other hand, seems like a rather literal choice for a montage depicting Elizabeth's increasing dependency on Gray. The film's two theme songs, “I Do What I Do” and “Let It Go,” are both big slices of stinky eighties synth cheese. Jack Nitzsche's electronic score has its moments.

Whatever you think about its quality, “9½ Weeks” would prove to be an influential film in its way. The movie would initially flop in American theaters. A more uncut version would be a hit overseas before becoming very popular on video. B-movie star turned screenwriter Zalman King would spin the film's success into a mini-empire of softcore smut. In addition to a Mickey Rourke-starring sequel and a Rourke-less prequel, King would produce or direct countless other horny motion pictures. Such as “Two Moon Junction,” “Wild Orchid” (also starring Rourke) and its sequel, and long-running softcore TV series “Red Shoe Diaries.” And if you're really wondering how far “9 ½ Weeks'” reach is, look no further than mommy porn phenomenon “50 Shades of Grey.” That hugely popular franchise has a nearly identically named male lead and a very similar premise.

Taken on its own, “9 ½ Weeks” didn't do much for me. Even assessed strictly for its puerile value, I found the movie lacking. Its sex scenes are more laughable than arousing. While the performances are decent, an incredibly thin screenplay and distractedly flashy direction detracts from the movie's positive elements. The movie's place in the history, and the huge influence it would have on future wankable cinema, is ultimately more interesting than its actual content. Now “9 ½ Weeks” is a relic from the days when Mickey Rourke was a sex symbol and a simple blindfold was considered the kinkiest bedroom accessory. [Grade: C]

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