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Are We Sure It’s Good: ‘9 1/2 Weeks’

Or is it just better than ‘Fifty Shades’?

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

There is only one reason I want to see Fifty Shades Darker, and it has nothing to do with the film’s attempts to pander to the female gaze. (I do not understand why Christian Grey had a pommel horse, but it certainly didn’t turn me on to watch him plank on it.) My chief motivation was to see Kim Basinger, who once played the suggestion of a submissive in 9 1/2 Weeks, play the role of Elena Lincoln, the dominatrix who turned Christian Grey into the man he is. It was a clever casting move.

Sadly — nay, unforgivably — Fifty Shades Darker reduces Basinger to the bittiest of bit parts — a few wooden lines, a scene where she looks great in menswear (at least the film paid reverence to her most iconic moment), and a showdown with Dakota Johnson that was like watching two blocks … stand across from one another. It’s criminal.

Rather than waste another second lamenting Basinger’s role in the somehow-even-less-sexy-than-the-first Fifty Shades, it seems wiser and steamier to assess the movie that the Fifty Shades franchise owes its existence to (not Twilight).

9 1/2 Weeks is the story of Elizabeth (Basinger) and John (Mickey Rourke). She’s a gallery curator, and he’s a Wall Street tycoon. They meet, they fall in lust, they have weird sex and an even weirder relationship. It’s an exploration of wild love, S&M, and sexual taboos. People think of it really, really fondly. When 9 1/2 Weeks came out in 1986, Roger Ebert called the film “convincing, complicated, and sensual.” It was full of scenes that were “masterpieces” of “implication.” Friends have given me their reviews, citing it as the movie that first taught them about the concept of sex and one that made them “feel mysteriously weird” when they first watched it — probably the highest praise you can give an erotic work. This film is in the annals of sensuality and arousal, a work that sparked many a sexual enlightenment, that introduced a truly beautiful Mickey Rourke into many a sexual fantasy. It’s one of the movies that people say they wish they were watching when they’re watching Fifty Shades, which is not at all erotic. Movies like Fifty Shades make sex seem about as enjoyable as getting a hole drilled into your tooth without anesthesia. But kink is mainstream, porn is readily available, and male full-frontal nudity is demanded by film audiences (by me, demanded by me), which means that ’80s erotic thrillers are not as outré as they used to be. So we have to ask the tough question:

9 1/2 Weeks: Are we sure it’s good?

To answer that question, I guess we should immediately address the only thing that matters, what everyone came here for anyway: the sex. Is the sex in 9 1/2 Weeks good or bad?

Sorry to say it, but the sex scenes are part of what makes this movie questionable. Since we’re starting the “Are we sure it’s good?” debate with a discussion of the lackluster sex scenes, let’s just go ahead and list everything else about this movie that made me roll my eyes until I thought they’d pop out. What’s bad:

Sex Scenes

In his review, Roger Ebert wrote of the sexual relationship between Kim Basinger and Mickey “Hello, I’m So Hot” Rourke that “they advance into arenas of lovemaking often described in the letters column in Penthouse.” If you stop to think about it, is that actually that impressive? I haven’t read Penthouse ever, so I cannot speak to the quality of these columns, but I sort of feel like if you’re spending time writing about all the sex you’re having, maybe you’re not really spending time having sex … so perhaps what you define as “sex” is unrealistic, physically awkward fantasy. Weird, that’s what all the sex scenes in the movie are actually like! So at least Ebert was accurate there.

Basinger and Rourke have a lot of sex in 9 1/2 Weeks, obviously, but it’s all akin to being on the dance floor, locking eyes with someone, and thinking, “Oh, they have the motor skills to really grind” — and then they end up just sort of spasm-dancing all over you. In case that doesn’t make sense, I will now explain why the sex was so bad by listing all of the bad sex scenes. This includes every time Elizabeth and John have bad sex with each other and every time they have bad sex with themselves (TL;DR: every single time, except for when they randomly bang in a clock tower, which was fine, if not inexplicable).

  1. The “food” scene: My man Ebert loved this scene; he said it was the “the scene that is likely to be the most talked-about in this movie.” Even now, when you ask people about the movie, they roll their eyes back in ecstasy and moan, “The foooood scene.” Therefore, I was excited for the food scene. Big ups to this movie for being pro-fetish, but ingesting raw eggs, cough syrup, jalapeños, and honey and then rolling around in it seems like a boner-killing tactile nightmare.
  2. The “We were fighting, now we’re fucking” scene: Elizabeth and John have a stupid fight. Instead of using his conflict-resolution words like a mature adult, John just initiates sex. Both of them are fully dressed — like, wearing their coats. (That’s not why it’s unsexy; it just seems uncomfortable.) While they’re having jerky, angry sex, the background music begins as a horror movie soundtrack but then gently dissolves into a tender love theme. It’s confusing — you don’t know how to feel about this sex, and that distracts from the ultimate goal of just wanting to see two attractive people go at it on a black, lacquered dining room table.
  3. The “We just stabbed someone, now let’s have sex in a sewer” scene: Bodies do not move like that. BODIES DO NOT MOVE LIKE THAT.
  4. The “Why are you masturbating at work? Seriously?” scene: After her sexual awakening at the hands (and lips and eyes and fingers) of John, Elizabeth goes to work and gets really turned on by slides of terrible ’80s art. Naturally, as one does during the workday, she just starts masturbating in the basement of her office. HR violations aside, it was shot to look like a really edgy Carl’s Jr. commercial, which did not make me want to have sex. Nor did the continuity errors: Why is she wearing a totally different set of suddenly sexy work clothes even though it’s the same day? Does she have a special masturbation outfit she keeps in her gym bag? Is this something career ladies were required to have?

Kim Basinger’s Striptease

I don’t want to talk about this; it was that upsetting. I hope Basinger has come to terms with it.

Mickey Rourke’s Character, John

This dude sucks. He is hot and rich and likes to cook and keeps buying Elizabeth tasteful presents, but he’s also emotionally withholding, controlling, and short-tempered. He only ever wears black; he never wants to go to parties. He makes completely unrealistic demands of his partners, like, “Wear this nice watch I bought you and touch yourself every time you look at it.” To me, that does not demonstrate respect for her career or time.

Their Romantic Relationship

Because John sucks, their relationship seems like it also sort of sucks. I know their union is toeing the line of a sub-dom dynamic, but frankly, it seems boring and intense. Elizabeth wants to go to a party, and John says, “I’d rather just bathe you.” Uh-huh. Sorry, which option sounds more fun? I suppose he did take her to a Ferris wheel, but, if you recall, that scene turned into a tool of psychosexual terror when he persuaded the operator to stop the ride and leave her screaming at the top.

If you are in a relationship with someone who makes Ferris wheels an instrument of terror, I encourage you to call me. And if your relationship leads you into a grotesque sex club in 1986 Times Square and you find yourself crying in a room with a bunch of men in trench coats, I encourage you to reconsider all of your decisions.

The Montage of Their Romantic Relationship

Because John sucks and their romantic relationship sucks, their “relationship montage” — the compilation of scenes that convinces the audience these two people have a really adorable and aspirational love life — also sucks. It’s soundtracked by Bryan Ferry’s “Slave to Love” (a good soft-rock song if you listen to it 15 times in a row) and is composed entirely of fake-fighting scenes in which Rourke looks bemused yet sexy. The camera pans to Rourke staring at Basinger in a creepy way, and then the shot turns to focus on Basinger practicing poses for her catalog shoot the next day. It doesn’t really scream “meant for each other,” you know?

It all culminates in this grand, romantic dialogue:

Elizabeth: How did you know? How did you know I’d respond to you the way I have?

John: I saw myself in you.

Thanks for making that romantic relationship all about you, John. Feels like a real partnership.

All of the Music

Most of the music was just sort of generic “sounds like the ‘80s” music, or “child farts the theme song to Jaws,” except for the wildly inappropriate usage of “Strange Fruit.” In order to impress Elizabeth, John puts a soulful, blues record on the phonograph. The song is “Strange Fruit.” To recap: “Strange Fruit” is about to be the soundtrack to their “lovemaking.” That is wildly inappropriate. Does the film wants us to think Mickey Rourke is the strange fruit? Or their relationship? Did anyone look up the symbolism of this song before putting it in a sexy scene? Guess not.

(MGM/UA Entertainment Co.)
(MGM/UA Entertainment Co.)

All of the Art

Elizabeth works in a SoHo art gallery, so there is a lot of focus on ’80s art. I’m no curator or anything, but it seems like she selects horrible artwork. The conversations between her and gallery patrons explore questions posed by the art’s subject matter, like “Dead or sleeping?” and “Dog collar or chastity belt?” Good art would not lead to such confusion,but the fact that we spend so much of this movie discussing quantifiably bad art is a guaranteed points deduction.

Kim Basinger’s Signature Bowler Hat

In one scene, Rourke grabs the hat and throws it in the street. It’s the right instinct.

(MGM/UA Entertainment Co.)
(MGM/UA Entertainment Co.)

Reliance on the Male Gaze

I know this is the ’80s and we aren’t really talking about that yet, but come on, we see Basinger’s nipples, like, 400 times. We could have at least seen Rourke slightly more shirtless or bare-assed. I’m not being a pervert; I’m asking for equality.

Now, let’s think about 9 1/2 Weeks like a new relationship. There are things we don’t like and the sex is lackluster, awkward, and unsatisfying, but there are elements of it that are actually good. Here are all the film’s positive attributes–are they enough to make you watch the whole thing? Let’s see:

Eroticism

The actual sex in this movie was not good, but the intimation of sex was excellent. It really luxuriated in close-ups of things that are categorically sexy: black silk stockings, clothes coming off, tawny things crossing, goosebumpy flesh, silhouettes of boobs in gossamer shirts, white silk blindfolds, a pet cat leaving the room because it senses things are about to get freaky, Mickey Rourke’s lips, Mickey Rourke eating soup, Mickey Rourke whispering things like “Does this frighten you?” or “How does it feel?” The food scene might not hold up, but that ice-cube seduction moment is — whooo — an arousing six minutes.

(MGM/UA Entertainment Co.)
(MGM/UA Entertainment Co.)

Adrian Lyne

The director, Adrian Lyne, is a pioneer of a deeply loved and revered genre of film: the late ’80s erotic psycho-thriller that made a lot of people feel “weird” when they watched it without their parents’ permission. He’s responsible for Fatal Attraction and Indecent Proposal in addition to 9 1/2 Weeks. No other person could remake Lolita as effectively as he did in 1997 with Jeremy Irons and Dominique Swain. And then, in 2002, he made Unfaithful, which is one of the sexiest movies of the past 20 years. Thank you for your service, Adrian Lyne.

Young Mickey Rourke

Wow. Wow. Wow. Wow. Wow. Wow. Wow. Wow. Wow. Mickey Rourke. Wow Wow Wow. 1986 Mickey Rourke was the epitome of hot ’80s jerk. Just the best. We can get no better. He had the plush lips, the constantly mocking expression. His body is built for the sort of destructive relationship that you’ll need self-help books to get over, but your time together is worth it anyway because you get to watch him eat pasta at an Italian restaurant, and that is enough for a decade of sexual fantasies.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Kim Basinger in 1986

I won’t say she was a great actress in this movie, or if the movie even really gave her the chance to be one, but along with Glenn Close and Sharon Stone, Basinger was an icon in the trifecta of icy hot blondes who just wanted to explore sex in a freewheeling and empowered way. We owe her so much.

Kim Basinger’s Fashions

Obviously the clothes were perfect. I’d say the oversize coats, the huge printed sweaters, and the piling on of baggy skirts and sweaters and coats would feel dated, except I spend 90 percent of my life on Instagram vintage shops trying to dress like Kim Basinger in this movie. The movie’s styling receives special commendation for the menswear moment: Basinger’s character wants to know what it’s like to be a man, and she’s given the full kit: a fake mustache, a tuxedo, boxer shorts, a cigar.

(MGM/UA Entertainment Co.)
(MGM/UA Entertainment Co.)

The Party Scenes

A crucial question for any movie of any genre: Do I want to attend the fictional parties? In this case, yes! To establish the sort of life Elizabeth has, she throws a dinner party where people get dressed up just to sit around a cramped table in a shitty apartment. Then Christine Baranski puts a spoon on her nose and lets it hang there while she drinks wine! Where is my invitation?

(MGM/UA Entertainment Co.)
(MGM/UA Entertainment Co.)

Christine Baranski

I mentioned that Christine Baranski was in this movie. She didn’t really speak — she just did the spoon thing — but it was enough. My god, it was enough.

Being in 1986

Since John “buys and sells money,” the movie really dove into the garish ’80s good life. There were fancy Japanese restaurants (sushi, so luxe), state-of-the-art sound systems, high rises with lots of weird leather chairs. But then the movie also showed you gritty, 1986 New York: cabs that wouldn’t stop even for white ladies, an artist who paints with his rectum, terrifying Times Square peep-show booths. When Drake said, “What a time to be alive!” he was obviously referring to this era.

In conclusion, 91/2 Weeks is not great, but it is still pretty good. This movie totally makes you want to have sex (as long as it doesn’t show you actual sex). If we allow for the fact that this film was made in simpler times when people didn’t have to consider the female gaze, and when people still accepted bowler hats as appealing fashion, then, yes, 9 1/2 Weeks holds up. It is way better than Fifty Shades, anyway.

An earlier version of the display copy for this piece misstated the number of years since 9 1/2 Weeks’ release; it’s been just over 30 years, not 20 years.