A Different (and Better) Shade of Grey: Reconsidering ‘9 1/2 Weeks’

Given the mainstream’s preoccupation with kink, it may be time to give 9 ½ Weeks the credit it deserves as a pioneering meditation on desire and power.

Due to the recent popularity of 50 Shades of Grey, Adrian Lyne’s 9 ½ Weeks has, after a long vacation, reentered the landscape of popular culture. Unfortunately, its return has been largely in the way of footnotes, a little due diligence done by journalists looking to place this latest BDSM blockbuster in a genealogy that extends further than the memories of most of its fans. For those of us who hold onto the embattled position of being genuine fans of 9 ½ Weeks, the 50 Shades phenomenon has been nothing but a source of bitterness.

9 ½ Weeks’s consignment to the bargain bin of ’80s blockbuster failures has, unfortunately, allowed the near-plagiarism of 50 Shades to go unnoticed. Though generally accused of being a Twilight fanfic knock-off, 50 Shades is eerily similar to 9 ½ Weeks, from the name of the titular character (John Gray/Christian Grey) down to the idiosyncratic ending. The charade has gone on long enough, and it’s time to set the record straight: 9 ½ Weeks is a good film, and it deserves our respect.

Its storyline should seem rather familiar: a young, naïve, but willful young woman (Liz McGraw, played by Kim Basinger) meets an aloof, devastatingly handsome young millionaire (John Gray, played by Mickey Rourke). Sexual chemistry is immediate, and an expensive courtship ensues. However, while Liz expects all the usual milestones of intimacy, she is instead confronted with increasingly intense sexual power games orchestrated by John. As she retreats further into their affair, Liz gradually awakens to a sexuality that is both empowering and frightening. Eventually, she is forced to choose between her self-respect and the sexual dynamic that threatens to erode it.

While largely billed as a BDSM erotic melodrama, there is surprising little bondage or sadomasochism. There are suggestions, of course. A riding crop is purchased at a leather goods store and some handcuffs make a cameo appearance, but ultimately the film is concerned with everyday human aspects of sex and love that both attract and repel us.

While critics have (legitimately) taken issue with the film’s gender politics and director Adrian Lyne’s treatment of Kim Basinger, most retrospective criticism of 9 ½ Weeks has emphasized that it hasn’t aged well. Setting aside the question of whether such a vague idiom represents a legitimate critique, it is interesting to consider when and how it is applied. A thing is considered to have “not aged well” if it seems of a particular time and place, if it doesn’t possess the indefinable characteristic of timelessness. Implicit is the idea that for a film to have lasting value, it must somehow transcend the moment of its creation.

It’s curious, though, how unevenly we judge which films have aged badly, and the pronouncement that a film is dated seems largely a product of when it was made rather than how it was made. In essence, not all moments of creation are made equal. It’s not the case that, for example, Douglas Sirk’s 1950s classics are dated despite their being deeply marked by a mid-century aesthetic.

That few ’80s films seem to have withstood the test of time suggests that somehow there is no intrinsic value to ’80s film aesthetics, or worse—that their intrinsic value is negative. To be fair, our association of ‘80s visual style with cheesiness is most likely due in large part to the TV movie boom that filled our late nights with truly terrible and derivative flicks. For every theater release that had its merits, there were dozens (if not hundreds) of low-budget imitations making use of the same generic conventions and visual cues, creating a natural association between ‘80s aesthetics and bad content.

All of this is to say that perhaps our cultural and temporal proximity to ’80s pop culture has impacted our ability to really give films like 9 ½ Weeks a fair shake. This could account for the very different reception that it received in France, where it ran in theaters on the Champs Elysées for two years after opening to resounding critical disappointment at home. It was still playing in French theaters four years later, long after it had migrated to the seedy underworld of hotel pay channels in the States.

This may be due to the fact that the highly stylized, slick, advertorial feel of ’80s American cinema made a big impact on young French filmmakers, who distilled its conventions into a popular (if contentious) film movement known as cinema du look. While well-respected enough today to be taught in film history courses, at the time cinema du look was sharply criticized for prioritizing spectacle over narrative, and for being a vapid celebration of artificiality—major divergences from its French New Wave parentage. Cinema du look’s privileging of beauty over content was often juxtaposed with realist displays of consumer capitalism’s underworld, and not unlike the soft-core porno feature, it offered to viewers a cornucopia of voyeuristic pleasure in both the desirable and the disgusting aspects of modern life.

9 ½ Weeks is interesting in large part because of where it sits in relation to more respectable art film movements (like cinema du look), and thoroughly reviled genres like soft-core porn (which can’t even get a break from the raincoat brigade!). Clearly, 9 ½ Weeks is a film meant to sexually titillate its audience, but it’s also a film looking to do more with its sexual spectacle than just show it off. That 9 ½ Weeks came from the minds of the most influential figures in soft-core is both surprising and not: it exemplifies all of the genre’s defining characteristics while avoiding all of its moralism.

Written by Zalman King (The Red Shoe Diaries), and directed by Adrian Lyne (Flashdance, Fatal Attraction), 9 ½ Weeks is neither a Penthouse Forum revelation of a secret, shameful fantasy nor a cautionary tale about the murderous nature of unbridled female sexuality. Rather, it is an extended, aesthetic meditation on philosophic questions of power, desire, intimacy, and the everyday that became urgent in the ’80s as women entered the workplace en masse.

John and Liz’s sexual adventures are both set off against, but also closely tied to, Liz’s work life. In one domain, she has confidence and control; in another, she has little or none. One environment is about self-sufficiency and competence; the other is about self-submission and naiveté. The frequency with which this basic plotline was rehashed in the ‘80s and ‘90s suggests that at the time, there was a very real ambivalence in the cultural imagination about women’s power. Could women be assertive in one sphere of their lives while still enjoying “submissive” sex in the other? What did this mean for men, who were historically used to being dominate in both spheres?

Unlike the soft-core features 9 ½ Weeks was contemporaneous with (and often condemned as being), the film never really resolves this dilemma in one direction or the other. Scenes of Liz’s successful work life are interspersed with scenes of her sexual games with John, giving the impression that their relationship is a conscious form of escapism for both. This is underscored by John’s resistance to becoming too familiar with Liz—he doesn’t want to meet her friends, tells her nothing of his past, and is aloof when she surprises him at his office—even as they admit that they are falling in love.

This tension between excitement, fear, and familiarity was consciously and painstakingly crafted by Lyne, whose directorial methods, though unorthodox, produced the kind of sexual chemistry that ought to go down in the annals of cinematic history. To create an authentic air of fear and excitement between his stars, Lyne forbade Rourke and Basinger from speaking outside of their scenes together. After the film wrapped, public accounts of what seemed like manipulation bordering on abuse came to light, and the film’s star, Kim Basinger, spoke candidly about how much of a negative psychological impact the director’s methods had on her. At the same time, she was very clear that Lyne pushed her to do some of the best work of her career. Even Roger Ebert, in his surprisingly positive review of the film, lauded Basinger’s subtle and human delivery of a character that could have easily been cartoonish.

The distinctive grain of 35mm film and characteristic saturation of this 1980s production is perhaps the most dated aspect to a contemporary viewer used to the juxtaposition of realistic hues and super-realistic high-definition rendering. But these characteristics only help the film to achieve a corporeality that both mimics and enhances the key features of the story. Light, in 9 ½ Weeks, is never just visual; it is also physical, filling space and intimating texture. The film’s director of photography, Peter Biziou, often uses the physicality of the film’s light to triangulate the gaze of its two voyeurs (John and the audience) on its object—the body of its heroine.

One of the scenes that demonstrates this dynamic clearly is when John takes Liz clothes shopping at a chic, modernist boutique. John sits on bench in the background, watching Liz as she tries on an outfit. Afternoon sunlight streams through the skylight overhead, catching the particles of dust in the air around John and rendering Liz a silhouette, trapped in the middle distance between our gaze from the front and John’s from the back. This scene shows how keenly Lyne and Biziou tapped into the way that film could telegraph the tactile sensuality of what is ultimately a visual experience. This is a film made up almost completely of texture, fog, steam, perspiration, body hair — of all the things that are not the object being looked at — but that convey the total sensuality of the experience of looking.

In attempting to offer as close an approximation to a physical experience as is visually possible, 9 ½ Weeks borders on the pornographic mode. It’s amusing, then, that despite its being billed as an “erotic feature” and anticipated as the “sex film of the ’80s”, it features surprisingly little explicit sex. If the rise in popularity of the hardcore pornographic feature and its incursion into mainstream film has made us expect a certain kind of sexual spectacle, then 9 ½ Weeks’s deliberate and repeated erotic staging of non-sexual (or not properly sexual, such as the refrigerator scene, which is both terribly unsexy and undeniably erotic) acts is open rebellion not just against generic norms but also against popular taste.

To be clear, 9 ½ Weeks is not a perfect film. There are elements of its sexual politics that are truly cringe-worthy. John’s exhibitionism at times verges on an unethical involvement of non-consenting parties. In the film’s most problematic scene, he punishes Liz for snooping through his apartment by having semi-consensual sex with her. Though this scene reads as rape today, it’s uncomfortably clear that the film considers it as just another of John’s sexual power games. At times, its soundtrack and its eroticism can be a little much, making one giggle more than swoon, but it always seems to pull back before going totally over the edge. It is persistently complex, authentically delivered, and visually stunning.

If I had to distill 9 ½ Weeks into one phrase to argue for its thoughtful reconsideration, it’d be the hermitic painter’s explanation to Liz of his own work: “it’s the moment a thing is so familiar that it is strange.” He make have been subtextually describing the film’s short-lived affair, but maybe — just maybe — he was also making some space for us to fall in love with it again.