Watched Adrian Lyne’s 9 ½ Weeks again the other day.
Thirty years on, the world has changed. Especially since Fifty Shades of Gray.
Now, I haven’t read the latter. I picked up my wife’s copy once, read a couple of chapters, and decided it was not for me. I didn’t think it was all that well written, but that’s neither here nor there. But that’s just me. That doesn’t say anything about the book, which sold over 100 million copies. Certainly that makes for some sort of quality label.
Anyway, 100 million copies sold (and it’s safe to assume even more people read the book) means that all these people got hooked on the eroticism of the series. I mean, they buy the first installment, and then go on buying #2 and #3. One has to assume they do so because they like #1. Unless, of course, they’re all completists. But I digress.
All this to come down to the crux of the matter: how well does 9 ½ Weeks stand up today?
Remarkably well, I would say.
First of all, it very simply is a beautiful movie. I love the opening shots, when Elizabeth (Kim Basinger) walks to work in the morning. Telephoto lenses, warm-hued filters convey the feeling of early morning light, a funny scene with a lady, poop-scoop in hand, walking (or rather: trying to walk) her dog, the commuter crowd, the garbage truck, the back alleys, it’s all very graphical, very real, and above all beautiful. The walk ends with Elizabeth sitting on the doorstep of the art gallery where she works, reading her paper, a gorgeous shot in itself. There are great views of New York, the Hudson River, the ferry, her lover’s apartment.
It just sets the scene (pun not intended) for the rest of the story: the background for the story is the real world: New York City, Elizabeth’s job, her friends, her boss and colleagues, her clients. This is in shrill contrast with the scenes where Elizabeth and John (Mickey Rourke) are together: there are hardly any other people involved (even in the scene where Elizabeth, dressed as a man/stockbroker, has dinner with John, the other restaurant-goers are just props). As John says when Elizabeth wants to introduce him to some friends, he doesn’t want other people involved in their relationship. It is as if they live their moments together in splendid isolation, in some disconnected world.
The contrast plays out between the main characters as well. Elizabeth is very much a real-world person. We see her at her job, dealing with colleagues and clients, dealing with her boss, having guests for dinner, preparing a show at the gallery. Mostly, these scenes are catchy, well-paced and often funny, with good dialogues. Like the one where she introduces one of the gallery’s painters (a Matthew Farnsworth) to a client and his dog. Of John, we know and see almost nothing. We get a glimpse of his office, and all we see of his assistant are a back-lit silhouette and her ankles. And what he tells Elizabeth of his parents and his youth at the end of the movie feels contrived and doesn’t ring true.
The same goes for the actors. Kim Basinger gives the viewer a very real, very credible Elizabeth. She’s no Merryl Streep, but you find she makes you like the real-world Elizabeth, who’s a hard-working, intelligent, nice and fun person. Whereas Mickey Rourke’s John looks like some poor Bruce Willis impersonation. In all fairness, the part doesn’t provide lots of opportunities for character acting. Nonetheless, John isn’t much more than a cardboard figure.
Now, is this an erotic film? By today’s standards, some might think that it isn’t, or that it no longer is. Some might think it’s too soft, too subtle. Except of course for the one scene were Elizabeth and John actually make love in the rain, in some dark humid stairway. That one isn’t subtle, as the characters’ antics seem to defy the laws of gravity and the limitations of the human anatomy. But it isn’t meant to be, as the love-making really is a relief from the tense and nerve-wracking nightly chase down dark streets after a violent brawl with some unknown characters earlier on.
I do think the eroticism still works. Somehow Elizabeth, who has been divorced for three years, and seems to want to avoid emotional entanglements, is drawn in by John and his mysterious games. It begins the very first time they meet, in a shop. She feels someone behind her, she turns, and their eyes meet. He smiles, she smiles back, she turns her attention back to the shopkeeper. (It is very much reminiscent of F.S. Fitzgerald’s Last Tycoon, when Stahr meets Kathleen Moore: “Their eyes met and tangled. For an instant they made love as no one ever dares to do after. Their glance was slower than an embrace, more urgent than a call.”) When she turns back to him again, he’s gone. Even though she becomes gradually more reluctant to go along as his demands become more bizarre, she caves in each time, creating genuine sexual tension. And yes, there’s very little explicit sex, just intimations of sex and sexuality. I think it still is very erotic, very subtly so, and beautifully captured on film.
There’s one actor deserving of a special mention: New York City. It’s always there, in the street scenes, the parties, the river views, the never-ending murmur of the city. Adrian Lyne has turned it into a gorgeous, almost three-dimensional backdrop, lending the story solidity and veracity, despite the unconvincing Mickey Rourke.
I still liked it, thirty years on.