Wednesday 28 December 2016

Movie Review: 9½ Weeks (1986)

A romantic drama drenched in eroticism, 9½ Weeks hints at a serious exploration of an emotionally perilous sex-obsessed relationship. But the film too often betrays its subject matter with an over-glamorized aesthetic.

In New York, divorced art gallery employee Elizabeth McGraw (Kim Basinger) meets and starts a relationship with handsome, mysterious and very rich Wall Street trader John Gray (Mickey Rourke). John expresses full devotion to Elizabeth, but also pressures her into kinky sex, including playing with blindfolds, food, cross dressing, sex in public, increasing levels of submission / domination scenarios, and threesomes.

Elizabeth is worried but also enthralled and plays along, captivated by the attention and the new experiences. Gradually she finds her limits, and has to decide how far she can tolerate John's proclivities.

Directed by Adrian Lyne and based on a semi-autobiographical novel by Elizabeth McNeill (a pseudonym for Ingeborg Day), 9½ Weeks pushed into new territory for mainstream films in its on-screen portrayal of raw human sexuality. Riding a bumpy wave of controversy, the film initially bombed in the United States but found an audience in Europe. The movie is sometimes erotic, often boring and always frustrating.

A serious and worthwhile story of a vulnerable woman falling under the spell of a charismatic all-powerful man and yielding to a sexual arrangement both thrilling and uncomfortable is hidden under layers of style emphasizing eroticism at the expense of compelling emotional drama. Lyne creates a combination of style-drenched music video and soft-core pornography, celebrating a minimalistic script, little dialogue, and plenty of silhouettes, rain spray, and gyrations to thumping music. The sets are sleek, with the SoHo art gallery and John's bachelor pad representing streamlined ideals.

The character development takes a back seat, and for a film with only the two principals, Elizabeth and John are short changed and reduced to sketches. They do exchange the most rudimentary of backstories, but these are written in shorthand and in John's case arrive way too late to resonate. Instead of investing in the characters and taking substantive risks 9½ Weeks defaults to plenty of creatively filmed animal magnetism set to sensual music, with Joe Crocker's You Can Leave Your Hat On, the soundtrack to Elizabeth's private striptease for John (no, she's not wearing a hat), best signifying the film's intentions.

Mickey Rourke does not help matters by gliding through the film on a wave of handsome visual appeal and nothing else: his perpetual smirk gets annoying after the first 10 minutes, yet never departs his face. Kim Basinger, in one of her best roles, does all the heavy lifting to convey a woman torn between the potential for genuine romance and sexual pleasure dancing on the edge of degradation and danger.

25 years later British writer E.L.James would import her own version of wealthy businessman Mr. John Gray into the Twilight young adult series, borrowing many of the themes from 9½ Weeks to create Fifty Shades Of Grey. The world of 2011 was more ready to embrace a story of a woman's fantasy bumping up against a powerful but damaged man's kinky sexual demands. Back in 1986, Elizabeth and John were the pioneers for exploring chic displays of twisted pleasure, winning points for artistic merit if not much else.

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