More than 25 years since its theatrical release and burgeoning popularity on home video, 9 ½ Weeks can easily be assessed as the first American erotic film for the MTV generation, but it’s also a harbinger of the two distinct talents involved - director Adrian Lyne, and co-writer / co-producer Zalman King - in what stands as a landmark in adult-oriented entertainment released by a major studio.
Fresh from the blockbuster music-drama Flashdance (1983), Lyne had shown a sharp knack for crafting sexually charged montages set to pop music, and a implementing a visual style wholly commercial – more so than fellow Brit Ridley Scott, whose own visual style seemed more intrigued by blending abstract images and symbolism to sell his movies (Alien), or perfume (Channel No. 5).
Lyne’s visual approach to Weeks ensured footage from any sequence could easily be recut into a music video to sell the film’s soundtrack album, but the videos actually sold a different movie – more dancing and teasing fun instead of the intense and destructive relationship between art dealer Elizabeth (Kim Basinger) and arbitrage whiz John (Mickey Rourke). A chance encounter immediately instills a fascination between the two characters, and little by little John tests his companion with dares, orders, and demands, and while she does question and defends herself, Elizabeth increasingly gives in, and almost loses sight of her friends and job before John’s aggression finally causes her to question their masochistic relationship, and she breaks it off.
Their co-dependence as master and concubine doesn’t begin overnight; screenwriters Sarah Kernochan and writing team Patricia Louisiana Knop and Zalman King (who also co-produced) map out specific points where John’s aggressive steps test and break down Elizabeth’s defenses, in terms of her ability to fend off an arrogant & overconfident jerk, rejecting fine gifts she knows, when worn, represent his ownership of her life after (and eventually during) working hours; and giving in to challenges that ensure she’ll accept more daring erotic adventures.
Amid the brooding masochism – which is generally up front – Lyne also indulges in music video montages that admittedly pad the film’s simple story and arguably make it more palatable to American audiences: had the film been directed by a European filmmaker (such as Nathalie’s Anne Fontaine), music would’ve been purely source sounds, and the emphasis would’ve been on the characters, with less stylized sexual interaction. It’s also fair to presume by propelling the film with sex & music montages – endless running down streets, climbing to a clock tour for rafter-wall-bashing sex, or fleeing from thugs and tearing each other’s clothes off to boff under a busted water mains – it tempered the MPAA who probably objected to just basic graphic nudity and singular frames instead of whole scenes.
In terms of the leading actors, both Rourke and Basinger never looked more beautiful onscreen, and they’re perfectly cast according to their look, and performance subtleties: Basinger captures Elizabeth’s conflict in being intrigued yet terrified of John’s chilly domineering behaviour, which often displayed with a quiet, slightly immature voice and command-style dialogue. Rourke gives John an aura of confidence, but from his fixed gaze and ongoing analysis of Elizabeth’s behaviour, we know most of the time he’s bluffing; his power lies in Elizabeth’s malleability, and the moment she says ‘enough’ he knows he’s lost the game and will need to find / acquire a new playmate.
Lyne’s influence is clear in the visuals, the sleek use of music to kick-start erotic montages, and a high raunch factor where the actual sex scenes begin with slamming, tearing, and writhing (plus the inclusion of at least one puzzled house pet, as in Flashdance and Fatal Attraction), but there are specific moments that are typical of King and Knop’s writing – if not in dialogue, than quiet character exchanges consisting of contrived introspective character observations.
The best example is a small scene where Elizabeth goes to the rickety country shack of a hermit painter, and asks him how he creates art. The dialogue is absurdly cryptic, and has both characters hooked in a kind of trance: Elizabeth desperately wants some gem philosophy she can apply to her own upturned life, and the painter mumbles quasi-prescient words while de-scaling a freshing caught fish. It's either ripe with symbolism, or filler material with the density of rice paper.
There’s also the essential King premise of a woman who discovers her strengths through an intense cathartic series of sexual escapades: by the end of the drama, Elizabeth is no longer naïve and is in possession of life skills which will defend her against the next ‘John,’ yet the film ends with a hint that she probably harbors a small yearning for the rush that enabled a ecstatic high like no other - a common hook (and wrap-up) in filmed erotica, softcore S&M like Radley Metzger's The Image [M] (1975), or sadistic sleaze like Nello Rossati's Erotic Escape [M] (1985).
The supporting characters in Weeks are reduced to peripheral figures and really have no importance other than representing the normal world of John and Elizabeth; the former has a staff and secretary, and the latter has friends, a roommate, and an ex-husband all of whom feel like passing cars and wallpaper. (A silly relationship between Elizabeth’s ex and roommate / co-worker Molly feels completely contrived, and one can suspect this invention came from King and Knop.)
If King gleaned anything from Lyne, it was an assurance in following his own dream of exploring his own brand of American erotic cinema, but King’s best work constantly revisited his fascination with the American ingénue – a young girl or impressionable woman plunged into a drastic situation where she emerges a woman.
King also adopted Lyne’s commercial look and use of kinetic montages, but King’s fixation was on the slow tease, and if there was any raunch, it was generally captured through softly lit, jazzily scored montages. Even in Lyne’s later work, there’s a combative nature to his leading characters who tear up their own staid lives for raging impropriety, whereas in King enjoyed exploiting his heroine’s introduction & seduction into naughtiness, be it the rebel girl in Two Moon Junction (1988), the ‘cunning linguist’ and administrative aide in Wild Orchid, or the diverse female adventures read by a widower in King’s popular Red Shoe Diaries cable TV series.
For Lyne, Weeks freed the director to indulge in flagrant raunch, albeit within the confines of three characters fighting to maintain or become the dominant couple. The director would revisit his three-character battles in virtually all of his subsequent films: a marriage is upset by an obsessive temptress in Fatal Attraction (1987); the hallucinations of a scarred Vietnam War vet convince him his wife is having an affair in Jacob’s Ladder (1990); a couple’s fidelity is challenged by a wealthy manipulator in Indecent Proposal (1993); a professor pretends to love a loud woman to woo her teen daughter in Lolita (1997); and a woman’s adultery adversely affects her marriage in Unfaithful (2002).
It’s worth noting that neither Rourke nor Basinger were major sex symbols when the film was released, so it was natural each actor moved on to a diversity of action, suspense, and dramatic character pieces, but perhaps due to the film’s popularity on video, their need to find deeper dramatic roles was more imperative. Rourke subsequently distinguished himself in Barfly (1987), whereas Basinger was a perfect fit in Nadine (1987), but Rourke’s own career choices – the I.R.A. thriller A Prayer for the Dying (1987), the historical figure in Francesco (1989) – weren’t so solid or commercial, so he not only gave in to appearing in King’s commercial hit Wild Orchid (1989), but also appeared in the direct-to-video sequel Another Nine & a Half Weeks / Love in Paris (1997). Rourke wisely had nothing to do with the in-name-only prequel The First 9 ½ Weeks (1998), co-produced by My Bloody Valentine’s John Dunning.
Weeks is an important film because it represents a major point when Lyne, King, and the main cast took risks to create a commercial form of American erotica, and it’s managed to outlast both the cheap imitations as well as King’s own variations for TV and home video. The performances are simple yet affecting due to the stars’ natural eroticism, and the film’s look isn’t wholly representative of loud eighties flash and colour. Lyne’s use of colours are muted and soft, and as the story’s locations increasingly favour John’s world (notably his sleek, steel and glass apartment), the film’s colour scheme becomes increasingly grey and black, as does Elizabeth’s wardrobe – hand-picked without compromise by John.
Warner Home Video’s Blu-ray is a bit of a mixed bag, because while the details are sharp, there’s the occasional moment where diagonal lines have slight jaggies – visible in the main title sequence, via the diagonal lines of buildings, bridges, and the text credits. The film’s grain hasn’t been scrubbed away, so Lyne’s use of fast film stock is still potent, giving the film a slight docu-drama feel which works well for the story. The uncompressed audio is also quite punchy when the music kicks in.
Sadly, there are no extras (trailer excepted), and it’s a shame a film historian (or Lyne himself) weren’t engaged for either a commentary track, or a featurette covering the film’s production, Elizabeth McNeill’s original book and its impact, an overview of American erotica in film, or the cast (which includes virtual cameos by Christine Baranski and Julian Beck at a dinner scene, and an uncredited cameo by The Rolling Stones’ Ron Wood at a gallery reception).
© 2011 Mark R. Hasan