It's been well over a year since a movie dared to tackle sex in any way more meaningful than a wet T-shirt contest, but you can only applaud "9 1/2 Weeks" the way a man in the desert applauds a mirage.
Based on the roman a clef by the pseudonymous Elizabeth McNeill (played here by Kim Basinger), "9 1/2 Weeks" tells the story of a woman who, since her divorce, has fallen into a rut, managing an art gallery during the day, withdrawing from life. John (Mickey Rourke), a wealthy arbitrageur, meets her in a local market one day and sets about seducing her. John's a sadist, a control freak who wants to steal all the choice from her life -- on their first date, he traps her atop a Ferris wheel. And she responds, for 9 1/2 weeks anyway.
You can imagine what a filmmaker with some psychological insight could do with this material; actually, you don't need to imagine it -- you could just watch "Last Tango in Paris." Director Adrian Lyne, though, is interested not in minds, but in bodies. As with his "Flashdance," "9 1/2 Weeks" depends on Lyne's ability to buff and polish, but his reputation as a visual stylist is hugely inflated.
Lyne began as a director of TV commercials, and he remains one. Every frame of "9 1/2 Weeks" is composed in a high-gloss advertising style, with streaming blue back light and objects jumping out at you in liquid close-ups. Taken singly, some of these effects are remarkable (particularly a sequence in which Rourke runs an ice cube down Basinger's body), but Lyne can't pace himself, can't set up his visual effects. "9 1/2 Weeks" has plenty of striking images, but none that accumulate; it's a two-hour movie created by a 30-second mind.
It's not just that the style wears thin on you. By making "9 1/2 Weeks" into a ballet of surfaces, Lyne has removed everything that's interesting about sexuality -- how people reveal themselves in sex, how the bedroom relates to life outside. Here, the life outside is phony (it looks like a commercial for life outside), and it's never hooked up to what's going on between the two lovers in any but the most obvious ways. What made "Last Tango in Paris" great was the way it showed you people working things out through sex, the way it uncovered both the allure of an abusive relationship and the despair. Lyne's taken the last tango and made it hopscotch. S&M is fun here, just a turn-on.
Implicitly, then, Lyne's taking the sadist's point of view, and it follows that his style showcases Rourke. With his squiggly grin and whispery calm, he is perfect for the part -- emotionally detached, unflappable. He's the kind of man a lover has to suffer for -- it's the only way to get through to him.
But while Lyne showcases Rourke, he leaves Basinger without a mooring. Mop-topped, with frightened eyes and lips that sweep out in close-up like a squall line, Basinger may be the sexiest leading lady since Brigitte Bardot, but she's struggling here; her acting is all glowering and finicky mannerisms. That's not to fault Basinger particularly. Only a great actress could have gotten us inside Elizabeth, since Lyne doesn't show the slightest interest in knowing what she thinks. What Elizabeth thinks, of course, is everything in the first-person, confessional narrative of the novel, which tells the story of how one woman's complicity in abusing her body led to her emotional breakdown. And enough of the novel lingers so that "9 1/2 Weeks" becomes schizzy: You're told a woman is triumphing over her darkest desires, yet all the while the director is showing you sweetness and light. It makes "9 1/2 Weeks" a peculiarly weightless movie. By the end, you think Elizabeth leaves John for the same reason she took up with him -- she was bored.
9 1/2 Weeks is rated R and contains nudity in sexual situations, profanity and violence.