Sextet is a stupid movie, so stupid it overlooks its own misogyny and forgets to hide it behind a veil of prurience. Nudie cuties aren’t supposed to be much of anything but a chance to see women’s mammary glands, but Sextet stumbles into all kinds of charged territory as it tries to find an excuse to provide the requisite imagery.
Bud Irwin, the director of Sextet, had to follow the nudie cutie rules or he would have risked getting arrested. The most important rule was to avoid sexual content. You could show a topless lady just, so long as it was “artistic” or “medical,” and not for the gratuitous thrills of what was deemed “the trench-coat crowd.”
This rule presented a challenge for the cinematic profiteers who had to actually write some kind of plot or premise to justify showing naked ladies while avoiding being openly sexual.
Monsieur Irwin figured he could just grab a comedian off the Z-list circuit and film him daydreaming about 6 lovely lasses. The only trick was to think up titillating daydreams that weren’t too titillating. The result was a kind of character-driven descent into misogynist madness.
I have no doubt that Buñuel would have loved this movie. I’m not kidding, it’s right up his alley. The film opens with a man named George lying with his eyes closed on the back of a boat. A disembodied narrator asks “What happened? Where am I? I’m so dizzy. It must have been that last shot. I’m on a yacht!” Right away, the time and place are mysterious and dream-like. Throughout the movie, we cross-cut between fantasy and reality without any kind of transition or explanation. We are in the kitchen, and then suddenly we are in a harem, and then we are vacuuming the living room. Time and space are completely unstable and fluid.
Never mind that this is most likely due to Irwin simply ignoring film craft so he could hurry up and get to the boobs, the result is a kind of psychotic, disassociated sexual tension where lascivious desires lurk just beneath the banality of suburbia.
Back to the boat. George finds himself basking in the sun on the deck when he realizes he is not alone. There are three topless women who are standing around pursing their lips, squeezing their shoulders together to accentuate certain attributes, and sticking their butts out while they smile big for the camera.
Instead of dropping his pants and indulging their invitation, George puts a sailor hat on each young lady and spends the afternoon putting them to work, mopping the deck, cleaning the furniture, and bringing him drinks. Irwin couldn’t show sex, so he opted for the second best thing, domination, and subjugation. If you can’t penetrate them into submission, at least you can order them around.
George is played by the truly awful Pauly Dash. Mr. Dash spends the whole film enacting a horribly exaggerated imitation of Sid Caesar. Sid was far from a subtle comedian to begin with, but Dash takes all Caesar’s cross-eyed reaction shots and just runs with them. It’s painful to watch, but it’s certainly an effective way to keep the eroticism at bay. What do you do when a blonde woman with high cheekbones, a tiny waist, and generous feminine charms caresses your cheek? Why, cross your eyes and wiggle your head, of course.
Then, all of a sudden, George is home with his wife, and so begins the age-old henpecked husband wheeze. Poor George is married to an unattractive, bossy woman with curlers in her hair and a frumpy housecoat. Unlike the submissive sex kittens in his fantasy world, George’s wife makes demands on him. She has him wash the dishes and wash the car, and she seems to be in a perpetual state of aggravation.
We see that George’s fantasies of dominating pretty young ladies are fueled by the subjugation he suffers in his waking life. At one point, he refers to his wife as “the warden,” and later, as she drags him somewhere, she mumbles under her breath, “come with mother.” He deals with her authority by employing an age-old male strategy. He feigns incompetence. He makes a mess of the dishes and the car until she comes and pulls him away. The result is a curious dynamic. He hides from responsibility by undermining his own agency, and she exaggerates her authority as a way of coping with this useless man. It’s no wonder he gets off ordering women around instead of having sex with them. He’s a victim of his own manipulative scheming.
The movie continues with the juxtaposition of dysfunctional married life against dysfunctional fantasy life. George passes the time being fed by maidens like a pasha in a harem, only to suddenly find he is at the breakfast table with his wife. The transitions are not like daydreams, where George appears to wake up or shake off a reverie, the film just switches back and forth without explanation.
At one point, he is in a pool with all his ladies when suddenly, he is in his living room being manhandled by his wife who exclaims, “George! You’re all wet!” And he replies, “I’ll be alright as soon as I get out of the pool.”
The pool scene is fun. It’s a cross between a Busby Berkeley. Esther Williams movie and the bathing scene in Fellini’s 8 1/2. It’s a grandiose oedipal fantasy where every woman is both lover and mother, oh and swimmer.
All of this is well and good, or perhaps none of it is well and good, but either way, George unexpectedly opens the door to female desire. It’s unclear why, but the women start making overtures toward little cross-eyed George. This is the one thing that is forbidden by the Hayes censorship code and so George must resist their solicitations. He suddenly becomes a beleaguered and oppressed prude beset by hungry vixens. They start taking turns carrying him away to have sex with him off-screen. George pants and stumbles as he tries to get away from the oversexed horde, but poor George is overrun.
George hated having to submit to his sexless wife and now he hates having to submit to his sex-starved harem. The poor guy can’t win. What George wants is power over women, but that is all. He doesn’t want to relate to them or even demand sexual satisfaction, he just wants to maintain the patriarchy. In this way, Sextet caters to a deeper male fantasy than just sexually accessible women. It reaffirms a dying world that men do not want to let go of. A world where men are kings and women are servants. The goal is not sexual gratification, it’s dominance.
George imagines himself a victim of a society where women are not only able to be powerful, but they are allowed to be sexual. These are the twin nightmares wrought by the sexual revolution. Sextet was made in 1964. Modern feminism was still just forming. The Pill had only just started to become available, and George saw the writing on the wall. He was ready to retreat to a world of fantasy, but even in a world of his own making, those pesky women found a way to torment him. Perhaps the core fantasy is one of being a victim. Men are not privileged, they are oppressed, and somehow society got everything wrong. We shouldn’t be liberating women, it’s men who need our sympathy and support! Ladies, give a great big hug to the next guy you see and tell him it’s gonna be alright.
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