Caught in a Bad Romance: “9 1/2 Weeks”

So remember how my first impression of 9 ½ Weeks was that it was going to be a sexy, wonderful movie? Well, I wasn’t too wrong. I just missed the part where it was incredibly painful to watch.

The fact that 9 ½ Weeks was directed by Adrian Lyne, famous (infamous?) director of Fatal Attraction, probably should have tipped me off right away that this movie was going to be no sexy, but happy, walk-in-the-park romance. But it didn’t, and I began the movie, blissfully unaware of what awaited me.

9 ½ Weeks follows a recently-divorced New York art gallery assistant, Elizabeth, played by Kim Basinger. Though we never really get the full backstory, you get the feeling her divorce wasn’t only recent, but that it wasn’t pretty, either—then again, what divorce is?
Though her divorce hurt her deeply, Elizabeth is tired of being alone. So when she makes eye contact in—appropriately, for those of you who know your Shakespeare—a fishmonger’s shop with the young, handsome John, played by the not-yet-disfigured Mickey Rourke, something in her stirs to life. But before she can say anything to him, he leaves the shop, presumably never to be seen again.

But there wouldn’t be a movie if he didn’t show up again, now would there?

A few days later, Elizabeth runs into him at an antiques flea market, and things…progress…from there.

(Ladies, here’s a tip: When a man you don’t know buys you a three hundred dollar scarf, you know you’re about to be a kept woman.)

Elizabeth and John’s relationship is brutal from the outset. Though they do not sleep together the same day they meet in the flea market, John does take Elizabeth to a small cabin close to the water. There, he tells her that they are totally alone. No one could hear her, even if she called out. Elizabeth becomes (understandably) frightened, and asks to leave. John assures her he was only kidding, but you get a rather uncomfortable, queasy feeling that he really wasn’t.

When they do get around to doing the deed, it is an erotic, sadomasochistic spectacle. John and Elizabeth experiment with everything, from food play to cross-dressing to humiliation and violence. Predictably, it is John who suggests and initiates everything, since Elizabeth is, as we realize through her actions and reactions, a novice in this particular sexual field. Elizabeth becomes more and more disconnected from her professional life, and is often distracted at work. She begins to look wilder and more disheveled, and her friends begin to notice the change in her.

But, aside from a brief scene that establishes him as a successful, wealthy man of Wall Street, we have no idea what John’s life is like outside his sexual encounters with Elizabeth. And that’s what makes him so darn creepy. You see, all we get of him is the side that comes out during sex play with Elizabeth, which is to say we see him as a cold, domineering son-of-a-bitch who gets off on hurting Elizabeth emotionally. The little he reveals about himself—that he’s had many other women, hinting that he treats them all in much the same way—only reinforces this image.

So it’s kind of weird when Elizabeth falls in love with John—and he with her.

(Or so he says.)

Rourke is excellent in his role as, well, an unfeeling asshole. Yes, he is extremely attractive, but he also gives off a very unsettling air. And this doesn’t just have to do with what we see on screen during the sex scenes between him and Basinger. Something about the way Rourke carries himself, and the way he looks at Basinger with guarded, but hungry eyes, makes the hair stand up on the back of your neck. It’s truly creepy—yet you can’t help but see how Basinger’s character is attracted to him, because he also exudes the promise of excitement, and something more and different.
Basinger plays a bit more of a three-dimensional character, but this is not to say she is necessarily any easier to read than Rourke. Yes, she is much more vocal about her feelings during the dialogue of the film, but, oftentimes, one of the only ways we understand what she is really feeling is during sex play, and only then through her physical cues. And because her words sometimes do not match her actions, Basinger’s Elizabeth is as almost as unreliable a source of truth as Rourke’s character. Basinger plays her role beautifully, and though we do get more of Elizabeth’s backstory, we get only slightly more of her inner self than of John’s. Much like Rourke’s eyes, Basinger’s facial expressions are guarded; but, unlike Rourke, every now and then, she allows emotion to surface in her eyes—but only for a few seconds.

The film itself is primarily composed of John and Elizabeth’s various sexual encounters, and doesn’t actually have much of a plot outside the sex. But that’s the point of the film. The action does not and should not revolve around the characters’ lives outside their sex play. The point of this film is to show the dirty (in the worst sense of the word) side of romantic involvement. And it does this excellently. By the time the film ends, all you want to do is watch a Disney movie, and pretend that there is such a thing as a happy ending for everyone, and that love and pain don’t ever actually go together. But don’t be fooled. Sure, Elizabeth and John “love” each other—but why? In the end, it is all about the emotion. They are both in need of feeling. And isn’t it better, says the film, to hurt than not to feel at all?

(I am now going to go watch Mulan.)

Yours always,

Film Bitch