Ultimately, I think it is her sadness that makes the movie. She is sad from the start. She is sad before she met him. She’s got a good game-face, and she’s gorgeous in a head-turning way, but she’s not really living a real life. You can see that in the one interaction she has with a guy who tries to hit on her in the store in Chinatown. He’s a goof, yeah, but whatever, he’s just trying to make conversation, and she is openly rolling her eyes at him, but it is not quite a successful rejection. She doesn’t come across as a dame who knows how to handle the men (like a Lauren Bacall), she’s insecure, one of those beautiful women who really can’t own it, and has hostility towards men for the attention they give her. It’s a subtle moment, and is really just setting up the entrance of Rourke – but I think it’s illuminating in terms of her character. She doesn’t really enjoy herself. She seems “off” to me. From the start.
And so it is not that he breaks her down. It is that he perceives that she was on that path anyway. That’s the kind of woman he wanted. When they run into each other at a street fair, and he appears beside her as she oohs and ahhs over a French silk scarf, he stands right next to her, smiling down at her. There’s something about him that moves her, but she has been too dominated and hurt by men in the past to let him “get to her” right away (there is the whole gnarly relationship with her ex-husband … you can tell that she is the kind of woman who abdicates self in a relationship – Not ALL women do that, but she does … I think he senses that willingness in her … he makes it a game for her, with rules, as opposed to some scary passive-aggressive thing, so she can have fun with her already-existing tendencies of self-obliteration … I don’t think she realizes this about herself … HE sees it, she does not). She walks away from him. He eventually follows her down the street, and takes the silk scarf out of his pocket – he has bought it for her. Her reaction is the key to the movie, I think. (Well, that, and Mickey Rourke’s general hot-ness). She is not thrilled, or happy, or even tentative as to who this guy is and why he has done this. She looks tragically sad. It is as though the bottomless pit of need inside her has suddenly been touched, seen, by a total stranger … and for the first second it seems, maybe, that someone could fulfill her. This is not a happy revelation. I speak from personal experience. After a long life of rejection, loneliness, unfulfilled dreams … to have someone say, “Yes. I see that. Let me try to make it better” is actually quite awful. Or it can be. It’s hard to be happy. (For some of us). It’s hard for that character to be happy. He presents her with a gift, out of nowhere, and a look of unbearable sadness comes over her face. That’s the key to the movie.
He sets her free. You can see that. But it comes with a price, which he will exact from her, bit by bit, over the course of the film.
It is a silly movie, and I am not, in general, a Kim Basinger fan (my favorite performance of hers is in Nadine, with Jeff Bridges – she’s a wonderful and goofy comedienne, she reminds me of Irene Dunne in The Awful Truth in that movie, only with a Southern accent) but what elevates 9 1/2 Weeks from a movie like, oh, hm, let me think, Wild Orchid or the abysmal Another 9 1/2 Weeks where you basically want to tag Mickey Rourke with a stun-gun to put him out of his misery (“Tell me about Elizabeth” he says in the middle of some “erotic” sex scene and you know that he doesn’t give a SHIT about “what happened to Elizabeth” – he just wants to get out of there!!) … is the sadness underneath everything. Yes, it’s about sex, but it’s about sex that is connected to who we are, dreams, loss, hope … That sex isn’t in a vacuum (like it is in so many movies). It takes place in a larger context.
I know Mickey Rourke scorns this movie, or – no, he seems to have a complicated relationship with it. It made him a GIANT star, the sexiest man in Hollywood – although he had been doing stellar work for some time before that. But when people come up to him on the street, to this day, it is usually 9 1/2 Weeks they reference. He said, in the fantastic interview that appeared in last week’s Entertainment Weekly (thank you, Michael), “That was when the whole pretty, sexy thing came about.” He had mixed feelings about it. He says, in the interview, “I never saw myself that way, and I ran from it like wildfire. I don’t know why. I don’t … know … why.”
Later in the interview, he is asked “if boxing was perhaps a subconscious attempt to destroy the good looks that had made him famous”, and Rourke pauses to think. Then says, “There may be some validity to that.”
Pauline Kael wrote, in her famous review of 1982’s Diner:
[Rourke] has a sweet, pure smile that surprises you. He seems to be acting to you, and no one else.
That’s part of the effectiveness of his work in 9 1/2 Weeks and why he is so unsettling to Elizabeth. He smiles at her and appears to close out the rest of the world, smiling at her and no one else. It is her undoing.