ColorTherapy in Film: 9 1/2 Weeks

published Feb 5, 2008
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No 1980’s film retrospective would be complete without a screening of “9 1/2 Weeks.” Gauzy, against-the-light photography, MTV soundtracks and fast editing all helped define the era as well as director Adrian Lyne’s career. In terms of color the look of this film is shades of gray and pewter, but it’s interesting how much the art direction contributes to the narrative as it underscores character…

Some people might call this an artsy S&M film; I see it as comparison between exaggerated forms of masculinity and femininity. Elizabeth (Kim Basinger) and John (Mickey Rourke) meet cute in Soho and carry on a passionate affair, which scarcely gets out of the bedroom. Let me interject right here that I think this is one of the least erotic movies ever made—it’s the aura of the New York in the 80s that I personally find so seductive. That said, Elizabeth is a gallerist (signaling art, femininity) and John is a money trader (commerce, masculinity) and their brief relationship may also be seen as a stand-in for New York at the time, when art and money has sex in public. But it didn’t last.

Let’s look at how this same 80s neutral gray palette can be used to express two very different characters. Elizabeth’s dining room is soft, with putty colors and feminine curves. She likes antiques, lace curtains and fringe on her lampshades. It’s very feminine and indicates that she likes Romance. John’s dining room, however, is gunmetal grey and black. The lines are clean and hard, free of ornament and his loft is the very definition of a cold, industrial 80s look, which also defines his character.

Adrian Lyne loves food, and the way his characters handle it reveals much about their inner life. So, too, do their kitchens. Elizabeth is a sensualist–she and her roommate have a kitchen stocked high with food, wine, vegetables, spice jars, a garlic braid, even a television! This is a kitchen designed for pleasure. John’s kitchen, however, is cold, hard and black, and looks like it’s barely been used. There’s something about the emptiness of this room that suggests John is extremely withholding, so how can these lovers survive? Let’s note here too that John had a field day making love to Elizabeth with her refrigerator items, and that’s something that probably couldn’t take place in his cold empty loft.

Even the marketplace reveals something about character. When John and Elizabeth meet it’s at a flea market and he wraps her in an antique scarf she’s spotted. Later they shop for a bed and it’s back to cold, clean minimalism. Then he buys her a suit at the stylishly severe Comme des Garçons, without even asking if she likes it. This store is another study in grey, and there’s no room for tassels here either because it represents his volition.

I’ll mention this next bit not for its color, but because I’ve talked about it for years—the art opening. There’s a decadent party scene in which one of Elizabeth’s artists has a reception and they serve a whole fish at the buffet. A whole fish at an art opening—I wish someone would serve one at my art openings. But the fish is actually a motif and a metaphor. Moments before John and Elizabeth meet at the beginning of the film, Elizabeth spots a live fish flopping about a grocers butcher block, about to get the chop. Later, the artist, a stand-in father figure to Elizabeth, tell her of the beauty and rhythms of nature while holding a fish he’s just caught. The final fish image is an insert of the fish being forked and plated at the climactic art opening. Now both artist and Elizabeth are fish out of water, carved up for public consumption, and it’s also the end of the romance with John.

In one sense, New York in the 80s was a hyper-masculine, marketplace-driven era tempered by a vividly feminine element of art and culture. The visual signifiers of this in “9 1/2 Weeks” are those body-hiding shoulder pads, Neo-Expressionist paintings, minimalist interiors and a palette of gunmetal and soot, all of which seem to smother feminine expression ever so slightly. Of course, the pendulum will eventually swing the other way, but by then it will be too late for John and Elizabeth.

Some Ralph Lauren grays I’ve recently used: Indian Rhubarb NA63, Artist’s Studio VM157.

– Mark Chamberlain, interior and decorative painter