The American Society of Cinematographers

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Game of Thrones
Presidents Desk
DVD Playback
9 Weeks
David Lean Directs
ASC Close-Up
9 Weeks (1986)
Blu-ray Edition
1.85:1 (1080p High Definition)
DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1
Warner Home Video, $19.98

When Adrian Lyne’s scandalous 9½ Weeks limped onto American screens in 1986, it was an anticlimactic end to a long and difficult journey for its director, who had been riding high on the success of Flashdance when he first decided to tackle the erotic drama. The film tells the story of Elizabeth (Kim Basinger), a recently divorced art-gallery employee who enters a dysfunctional relationship with the charming but mysterious arbitrageur John (Mickey Rourke). The romance begins innocently enough, but as John becomes more and more manipulative and the sex gets less and less conventional, Elizabeth realizes her new lover is dangerous to her mental (and possibly physical) health. This simple tale, taken from an allegedly true memoir of the same name, gave Lyne a springboard to explore complicated issues relating to sexual power and manipulation, gender roles and betrayal — at least that was the idea.

Unfortunately, 9½ Weeks was doomed to compromise from the start. When financier Tri-Star Pictures pulled out only weeks before shooting because of Lyne’s refusal to cut the movie’s more unsettling sequences (including one in which John tries to force Elizabeth into sex with a prostitute), it was an ominous sign of things to come. The movie went forward with new backing and was ultimately distributed by MGM, but the sadomasochistic force of Lyne’s original vision was steadily whittled down after a series of disastrous test screenings. Hundreds of viewers walked out of the first research screening, which so outraged audiences with its scenes of graphic sexual humiliation that Lyne “just about had to run for my life.” By the time the movie was released, it had undergone 18 months of extensive editing and bore little resemblance to the provocative material Lyne originally envisioned. The studio and everyone else involved with the film had seemingly tired of it, and it was dumped into American theaters with little fanfare and to miniscule audiences.

The film divided critics at the time of its release, with responses ranging from Roger Ebert’s positive assessment to the Los Angeles Times verdict it was “swooningly silly,” the latter being the majority view. Yet one thing has never been in dispute: the aesthetic exquisiteness of the imagery by cinematographer Peter Biziou, BSC, whose hypnotic moving camera and reliance on heavy filtration create a sumptuous milieu for the characters’ cavorting. In keeping with the then-fashionable aesthetic of British advertising directors turned feature filmmakers (a group that included not only Lyne, but also Ridley Scott and Alan Parker, a frequent collaborator of Bizou), Bizou smothers the actors and architecture in smoke and relies heavily on backlighting for striking graphic effects. The result is a visual corollary for the tension between attraction and revulsion Basinger’s character experiences, as Bizou photographs Rourke’s ugly behavior with loving care and makes it look beautiful.

Ironically, Bizou’s lush images have rarely been seen in anything remotely approaching their original form, at least in America. After the film’s failed theatrical opening, a funny thing happened: 9½ Weeks became a smash hit on VHS (and on the big screen in Europe). In the years following its original release, the movie steadily garnered a massive fan base and became a staple on late-night cable television — evidently people who were uneasy about checking out a sexually explicit film in their neighborhood multiplex were eager to experience it in the comfort of their own homes. But 9½ Weeks is not all that explicit; viewed today, what is surprising about it is its relatively tame, and at times even sweet, sexuality. Its ultimate popularity probably owes something to the fact Rourke’s John is not all that dangerous, except for a few moments toward the end of the film; in the end, all of Lyne’s recutting made the movie more palatable to mainstream audiences. The most unconventional and admirable thing about 9 ½ Weeks is not its eroticism; it is its narrative style, which is unusually elliptical and episodic. Part of its dreamy seductiveness comes from the lack of clarity in its exposition and characterizations, a quality underlined by Bizou’s smoky diffusion that permeates just about every frame.

The nuances of Bizou’s approach have been completely lost on all previous home-video incarnations of 9½ Weeks, from the execrable VHS releases that made the film’s reputation to the barely improved Laserdisc and DVD editions that followed. Thankfully, Warners’ new Blu-ray is a significant step up, with a transfer that perfectly evokes the atmospheric, grainy quality of Bizou’s photography. The skin tones are faithfully reproduced, as are the rich blacks and the hazy diffusion that bathes the daytime interiors. Frequently, Bizou mutes the palette to the point the film is almost black and white, and then he introduces bold splashes of red and blue that convey the bursts of excitement entering Elizabeth’s monotonous life. Aside from a few inconsistent shifts in contrast and grain from shot to shot, these effects are all expertly preserved on the Blu-ray, which also has a crisp, 5.1 surround track. Given the movie’s complicated production history and hours of excised footage, it would seem to be a natural for a special edition with extended footage and making-of interviews; unfortunately, however, the only extra is a theatrical trailer. The box art advertises the film as the “original uncut version,” but it only bears slight differences from the theatrical version; for fans who want to see the notorious pre-release footage, the wait remains….    

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