Three decades before 50 Shades of Grey made a ripple in pop culture, Nine 1/2 Weeks sent a shock wave through the movie industry. It cannot be denied that this film certainly broke some boundaries in what mass culture would tolerate and pushed the limit of what was considered too risqué to venture outside the realm of porn. The film was also long on style and continues to be a touchstone for the aesthetic of the 80's.
the happy (??) couple - image: hot flick
The basic premise of the story is a brief, but very steamy affair between a naïve divorcée and a man with a taste for light BDSM. Elizabeth (Kim Basinger) and John (Mickey Rourke) are both well cast in this film and are both in the prime of their youthful glow. They are easy to watch on the screen even when some scenes border on ridiculous, and the chemistry is obvious. It has been well documented that the sexual tension apparent in the film was a result of the deliberate manipulation of Basinger by both the director, Adrian Lyne, and by Rourke (as per the director's instructions). Lyne has defended this questionable treatment of the actress by stating that in order to get Basinger to convey a convincing blend of terror and titillation, he needed her to be truly on edge around Rourke.
Their short intense affair kicks off after a few chance encounters leads to lunch followed by a trip to a friend's houseboat. Elizabeth gets understandably spooked when John seems to take it as a given that they will have sex there and points out how much she has compromised her own safety by coming to this remote location with him - a veritable stranger. She decides it is time to leave, but oddly enough a bunch of roses sent to her gallery the next day is all it takes to get her to agree to a second date. I think that first encounter was a test of sorts. By agreeing to the second date, she indicates to him that there is a certain amount of menace she will tolerate.
Things escalate from there and each time they are together, Jon assumes a little more control over Elizabeth and her life, while not really allowing her any glimpse into his own life at all. It starts rather subtly at first, but as she gets more drawn into the courtship, she finds herself less and less in control of herself and even her thoughts - at one point in the film telling a friend, "I think I have been hypnotized".
If you are watching the film simply for the steamy sex scenes, I think you will be disappointed. I think the real merit of the film is about the shallowness of the characters' relationship to each other: John's inability to connect on an intimate level and her easy relinquishment of control because she is so overwhelmed by infatuation. It is obvious that this is destined to burn out, but the stylish cinematography and the luminous quality of the lead actors make it easy to see through to the end.
The Set and Atmosphere
The sets and cinematography of the film definitely add to the storyline. Although a similar story could have been told almost anywhere, it lends itself well to the persona of John to be a successful businessman in a city like New York, which has been noted to be a place where you can feel alone while surrounded by so many people. The stigma of urban emotional isolation is a credible place for someone like him to flourish. Various scenes of classic New York are sprinkled throughout - Chinatown, Coney Island, the gallery where Elizabeth works in Soho, Governors Island Ferry, and many more. John's expensive but austere and emotionless apartment is decorated with Breuer and Meier furniture. I think there is a calculated reason why he does not bring Elizabeth back here in that early scene. Not only is he reticent to reveal anything personal about himself at all, but I would imagine that his cold and empty living quarters would give most women the creeps. It really has a striking resemblance to the vibe of Patrick Bateman's apartment in American Psycho.
All in all the set really lends a good backdrop for the film and the characters' story, but also provides great surroundings for the clothes...
Elizabeth in front of the Spring Street Gallery - image: hot flick
Why is it a Fashion Film?
The costumes and styling set the tone and provide important clues about the characters and the development of the storyline. Elizabeth is a gorgeous and available woman, but it is notable that her character initially dresses in a less alluring way. It is not coincidental: her baggy clothes and casual appearance, although aligned with the style at that time, also speak to her innocent nature. Her appearance reflects her naiveté and she seems a bit oblivious to how sensual she is in appearance. Beginning scenes have her wearing bowler has, oversized duster coats and dirndl skirts or wide palazzo pants reminiscent of early Comme des Garçonnes, usually with flats. There are also some very 80's silhouetted sweaters. The neutral palette that both she and John prefer - she in mostly white, taupe, tan, and he in mainly charcoal, grey and black - only accentuate how beautiful they both are.
date at Coney Island - image: hot flick
Later on in the film, she takes on a more glamourous and sophisticated appearance in white silk blouses, and tailored black skirts. At one point John brings her to a high end store in Soho to buy her a snug, tailored black skirt suit. It fits her like a glove and is very flattering, but the real takeaway form this scene is that this purchase is not really a gift - he is not interested in whether she wants it or not, this is what he wants to see her in. There is a pivotal scene in which John demands she crawl on the floor, she is wearing a body skimming black knit dress and has evolved to wearing smudgy black eyeliner and a red lip. Lastly, the playful scene where he has her dress in drag and meet him at the Algonquin for supper is also an important one. The role playing which is such and integral part of the film is undeniably supported by the costumes.
The outfits and styling of the film are such and important part of the film that they still resonate with viewers and designers today and are a hallmark of 80's style.
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