You know, I can never get over how boyishly cute Mickey Rourke used to be in the 80s, before he went through that whole midlife crisis phase of his where he decided to start boxing professionally at the ripe age of being nearly forty years old. A choice that, as we know, ultimately led to him losing his adorable complexion when he first got disfigured in the ring and then the subsequent botched surgery that attempted to fix his face just ended making him look worse.
But anyway, I had actually been wanting to see this movie for several years now, ever since I came across it while reading up on Rourke’s filmography on Wikipedia, in the afterglow of having seen Mickey’s explosive comeback movie the Wrestler. What we have here, ladies and gentlemen, is a great slice of old Hollywood’s erotic film history, or if you need a more snappy elevator pitch, a 1980s version of Fifty Shades of Grey, only done with actual elegance, sensual eroticism and, above all, style. And of course less gimmicky BDSM, though there are some elements of that in here as well. As a film it is a perfect mix of the gritty and sleek 80s aesthetics, that provide the film its stunning visual look, and the decadent sensual eroticism that give it its vibrant sexual energy and intense passion.
Since this is first and foremost an erotic film with some slim sadomasochistic elements, at the time of the release the film naturally attracted plenty of objections, negative press and anger from all the typical venues. As one rather amusing anecdote puts it, in a preview screening held for one thousand viewers, all but forty people walked out, and of those remaining forty only five said they didn’t hate it. The film went on to do far better internationally than it did in the American domestic market, even managing to play in Paris for five years straight.
I cannot stress enough how gorgeous the film is to watch. It’s not just that it looks good, the visual style is in part directly responsible for giving the film plenty of its sex charged identity. The cinematography is simply superb and contributes so much to elevate the film from being a random softcore Cinemax title to a true erotic cinema classic that even today has lost none of its strength. One of the most striking scenes in the film is when Kim Basinger performs a long and incredibly sexy striptease dance to Rourke to the tune of “You Can Leave Your Hat On”(Joe Crocker’s cover version) that starts in the apartment and reaches its naked climax at the rooftop, with Rourke and Basinger in a warm, lustful embrace in the dark New York night. Not only is the scene steamy and sexy with impeccable visual style, it’s also funny and perfectly encapsulates the almost intoxicating carnal exquisiteness, as well as the lighter, happy and passionate side of the affair that the two characters are enveloped in.
Though massively sanitized from the much more violent original novel (one that I need to track down one of these days), the film still manages to convey beautifully the duplicitous and savage nature of highly obsessive and passionate love. The affair itself starts relatively modest, with recently divorced Elizabeth, played by Basinger, being enchanted by the enigmatic and confident John, played by Rourke, whom she first encounters while shopping in Chinatown. It is not long after that the two meet again and find themselves helplessly attracted to each other, which then quickly escalates into risqué sexual congress. At first John’s aggressive sexual appetite and the constant pushing of Elizabeth’s boundaries seems to be entirely intoxicating to her, providing endless new pleasures that she could have never imagined, but after a certain point the relationship inevitably starts to take a darker turn as their sexual codependency grows. Where John initially seemed to be an ideal and exciting new partner for Elizabeth, with his charming playfulness and boldness, he slowly starts to show signs of less than favorable characteristics. He becomes increasingly dominating of Elizabeth when they’re together, while showing no interest in meeting or getting to know any Elizabeth’s friends. His interest seem to concentrate entirely on Elizabeth in an unhealthy, emotionally possessive way. His sex games also start to develop more controlling and sadomasochistic undertones, featuring sexually charged punishments and humiliation oriented games.
Like any good inevitably doomed relationship, no matter how entangled in ecstasy you are, eventually there comes a breaking point, from which there is no return. To Elizabeth this occurs when John invites her to a hotel room to play a new game that involves blindfolding her and then bringing in a prostitute to caresses her, while John watches from the side. The straw that breaks the camel’s back happens when Elizabeth’s blindfold is removed so that she can witness as the prostitute and John start to get intimate. It’s this extended humiliation and violation of intimacy between her and John by bringing in a third person without Elizabeth’s consent that marks the beginning of the end. She storms out of the hotel, and though John follows and catches up to her and they end up in another heated embrace, the next morning John realizes that the relationship has come to an end and Elizabeth is leaving him. And this is where it gets really interesting. Rather than portraying John as nonchalant by this revelation, going by how little he seems to be connected to Elizabeth emotionally beyond their purely physical intimacy, we get a first genuine glimpse of John’s own inherent emotional vulnerability, as the prospect of losing her pushes him to finally starts to truly open up to Elizabeth emotionally by sharing details of his own life to her, in vain attempt to make her stay, but of course it’s far too late.The film closes with a beautiful fatalistic tone when Elizabeth leaves the apartment and John, instead of running after her and pleading for forgiveness, he simply quietly stands there, emotionally crushed. He pitifully starts to count, hoping in completely futile way that by the time he reaches fifty she would have come back to him. But of course she never does. There’s simply something beautiful and depressingly fait accompli about the ending that makes it so magnificent. It really couldn’t end in any other way. So typical of genuine true love, you only know it after you’ve already lost it.