16 March 2015

Let's Talk About Sex

I've only made 11 posts this year and there's a long way to go before we get fully caught up on everything I've seen, so let's breeze through a few in column form...

Sex sells, we're told, and that used to be paramount in movies. Erotic thrillers were a hugely lucrative sub-genre in the 1990s, spurred by Fatal Attraction, Basic Instinct, Disclosure and basically anything Michael Douglas could bonk to the top of the box office. Although February is usually more of a dumping ground for the post-Oscars comedown, last month was nearer to an Ann Summers party at the multiplex than any for years.

There was the growed-up mega-hit 50 Shades of Grey and the old-fashoned JLo-starring erotic potboiler The Boy Next Door, and right at the opposite end of the scale, there was the subversive horror It Follows and Peter Strickland's artful emotional fantasy The Duke of Burgundy. Each of them approaches sex differently, but they all hop on the good foot and do the bad thing to some extent.

Perhaps inevitably, 50 Shades is the most requested review since the Twilight saga wrapped up, so cheers for that if you asked me to do it. The best thing for this film is either being a fan of E.L. James' infamous trilogy of books, or having no knowledge of them whatsoever. If you're au fait with Ana Steele and Christian Grey's adventures in unsafe BDSM and emotional domineering and you haven't thrown the books down a well, you're probably going to like the film.

Alternatively, if you don't know the books from Bared To You, you can at least keep an open mind about what director Sam Taylor-Johnson and writers Kelly Marcel and Patrick Marber have brought to the adaptation. It's not a lot, but it does seem like the best film you could make out of this material, with the author breathing heavily down your neck to stop creative liberties that is. Marber's punched-up dialogue was apparently largely shed in favour of verbatim James quotes, but the film immediately benefits from dramatising James' terrible prose, rather than reciting it.

50 Shades of Grey has obviously been a big hit for Universal, and they spent accordingly. The result is too expensive to be properly subversive, but it mostly turns out safe and bland. The closest it ever comes to generating any heat is in the more "conventional" love scenes, despite the best efforts of a winsome Dakota Johnson, opposite a handsome and coiffed Cockatron 9000. Jamie Dornan doesn't exactly have much to work with here, but his stiffness (heyo) makes him an even more convincing screen robot than Chappie and his contractual jockstrap keeps everything out of the sight of the mainstream while his co-star rolls around butt naked.

Taylor-Johnson isn't back for the sequels, but it might have been wiser to piss off the author and keep her around to try and salvage the remaining film's-worth of story over two more movies- the cliffhanger ending of part one is less a coup de grace of delayed gratification than it is the cinematic equivalent of two hours of clumsy foreplay before the film realises it needs to nip down the shop to get condoms- safety first!

Universal's February schedule also brought us The Boy Next Door, in which Jennifer Lopez plays a high school teacher whose one night stand with a hunky teenager threatens to ruin her life, when he goes all Fatal Attraction. There's not too much more to add than my full review on Den of Geek, except to say that in its instant dated-ness, it's got more of a grasp on its characters and plot turns than 50 Shades. But as I say, that's not saying much.

But counter to the more mainstream sexual fare of recent weeks, The Duke of Burgundy has an altogether more interesting exploration of fetishism. There's no nudity whatsoever, but it's still provocative enough to have gained an 18 certificate from the BBFC for "sexual fetish theme". Taking place in a fairytale-like realm in which men seem to be completely absent, two women called Cynthia and Evelyn have transcended the mistress-handmaiden relationship. The mistress is a willing submissive, giving her maid written instructions on how to get her blood up with unusual games.

The film itself is about as eccentric as you would expect from a film that offers a "Perfume by" credit in its deliciously retro opening titles sequence. The wardrobe and lingerie are more deservedly credited in the same titles, with the film leaning on complex costumery, ranging from silk and heels to comfy, buttoned-down pyjamas, to tell a story that turns out to be rather more emotional than erotic. Sidse Babbett Knudsen and Chiara D'Anna play their respective roles to a tee, wrestling with a power dynamic that does tonal 180's all over the shop.

Writer-director Peter Strickland manages the affair in such a way that makes you feel like you probably need to have seen more European art films and I can't presume that I can begin to describe the breadth of its cine-literacy, so I'm not going to attempt that. Whatever the extent of its debt to previous works, The Duke of Burgundy looks pretty damn singular as a British film produced in 2014- the "Perfume by" credit might go some way to explaining the dreamy musk-like atmosphere, but that's down to more than which fragrances were used on set.

At the opposite end of the scale again, sex is only more profitable at the box office when it fuels the punishment of teenagers in cheapo horror films. Sitting atop the fourth wall without hollering down at the audience over the other side of it, It Follows is David Robert Mitchell's riposte to the slasher movies of the 1980s, in which teenagers ostensibly die for enjoying sex. In this case, the recently de-flowered Jay is plagued by an unseen demon, who seems to have been passed venereally and will stalk her to the ends of the earth unless she passes it on to someone else.

As mentioned, there's none of the archness of Scream or The Cabin in the Woods in this genre-savvy horror, but it executes its high-concept lo-fi concept equally well. Mitchell foregoes exposition almost entirely, showing off his staggeringly original creation through action. What little information Jay does get in advance from her disingenuous former lover feels hard-earned- many probably died for him to find out what little he knows about staving off the inexorable bastard, which has the power to look like anyone and appear invisible to anyone but the current victim.

In setting that up, Mitchell wrings massive suspense out of little more than background players walking. Make-up and prosthetics are used sparingly, and usually to different ends, but that's an un-improvable device for a horror of It Follows' means, and the ends are startlingly effective, particularly in a scene on the beach in which Jay is facing away and her friends are utterly oblivious to the approaching threat. Maika Monroe, who was so great in The Guest, turns in another nuanced scream queen turn as Jay, single-handedly bolstering the less than sterling supporting work around her with a vulnerable and resourceful performance.

The music by composer Rich Vreeland (under the name Disasterpiece) is almost like a hat on a hat, with such tremendous tension in the visuals alone, but the score complements the suburban, ahistorical setting nicely. In any other month, It Follows would comfortably (and uncomfortably) be the least sexy film about sex on release, but 50 Shades and The Boy Next Door might have unintentionally trumped it, in different ways. The Duke of Burgundy keeps the indie end up, but if the box office returns are anything to go by, the film industry is just about ready to keep on fucking.

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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