Watching When Harry Met Sally during the BFI’s ‘Love’ Season, it’s always worth a chuckle when Harry confidently asserts that Sally’s problem is how she hasn’t had “great sex”. Released three years prior, Nine ½ Weeks, starring Mickey Rourke and Kim Basinger, is only interested in “great sex”.
Nine ½ Weeks was the Fifty Shades of Grey of its time and, rather than become a bestseller, it become a box-office flop in the US with critics only coming around to its charms after its release. The central relationship between Rourke and Basinger, though a little creepy at times, is often balanced by Basinger’s comfortable laugh and relatable shock at some of his suggestions. Ignoring the clear gender imbalance, there is something we recognize in Basinger’s performance and it only draws us into the film further rather than push us away.
Speed-walking streets of New York, Elizabeth (Basinger) is cat-called and flirted with, something she bats off with a flick of the wrist. An independent woman, she works in an art gallery and her friends are open-minded, with conversations around the dinner table of artists who paint with a brush up the bum and friends who flirt outrageously with the newcomer. This comfortable lifestyle all shifts when, while in a market, Elizabeth meets arbitrage Wall Street banker, John (Rourke). He’s sexy and confident, immediately whisking her back to his place and applying the fresh bed sheets before propositioning her. Excited, but fearful, she turns him down initially but he comes back, romancing her with flowers and taking her to dinner. Leading back to her place, he asks to blindfold her and, again, she is excited and fearful – but, knowing him better, trusts him. This arousing and icy love-making session paves the way for the future and the steamy and passionate relationship plays out over the coming weeks.
It is strange seeing Rourke in his prime. Like Robert Downey Jr, both were poster boys of their time and they fell into drug and alcohol addiction, forcing them out of the limelight. While Downey Jr fell back into favour via Marvel (though refusing to openly discuss his demons), Rourke came back in an illuminating and shocking return in The Wrestler, scarred and unrecognizable when compared to his pretty-boy look in Nine ½ Weeks. This was a man with the demeanor of a young Bruce Willis, the smile of Ryan Gosling and the image of Ryan Reynolds. Modern audiences who know him as Whiplash in Iron Man 2 and the tattoo-clad biker in The Expendables may be unaware of the extent of the abuse his body has undergone in the intervening years. Bravely, Rourke in The Wrestler showed an autobiographical element that Downey Jr has refused to expose.
Of course, Nine ½ Weeks was amongst the erotic movies of the 1980’s era following Dressed to Kill in 1980 and Body Heat in 1981. It stands shoulder to shoulder with Sea of Love and Adrian Lyne’s follow-up Fatal Attraction, famously recut with an audience-acceptable finale. Nine ½ Weeks, on the other hand, didn’t follow audiences test-screening advice. According to The New York Times, in 1000-seated preview screening, only 40 viewers remained when the credits hit. Of those 40 who remained, 35 revealed they “hated it”. America despised the sex-savvy film but it did take Europe “by storm”, earning over $100million during its five-year run (only $7m in the US).
Nine ½ Weeks has dated. Apart from the Duran Duran tracks and electronic-score, the themes are deeply misogynistic and, though looking like the perfect sexual fantasy, are practical nightmares. A scene as the two writhe around on a dirty stairway in the pouring cold rain is clearly ambitious at best, simply impossible at worst. As part of the BFI’s ‘Love’ season, this is the love that we dare not speak of; the lust that buries itself deep into our mind. Either you will laugh and blush as the scenes play out or you’ll buy a box of strawberries and honey as you head home. Nobody needs to know why.
BFI LOVE runs until 31 December 2015 at BFI Southbank and various venues across the UK. To find your nearest LOVE event visit www.bfi.org.uk/love.