[Can sex ruin a film? or, why I did not love The Handmaiden]

The second time I saw The Handmaiden I wrote down the time it went most wrong for me. It was roughly 7:20, which is not bad for film with a 5:30 start time. The first time I saw it I hated the ending so much I struggled to remember anything I liked about the movie at all. So 7:20 is pretty good.

First off, the caveats. Of course it’s beautiful. The cast is terrific. The craft of the thing is exquisite for the first two thirds, and if you want to read a review dealing with any of that you can go literally anywhere else and straight men will be happy to tell you all about it. It is less violent (and definitely less darkly sexual) than I had expected from the trailer.

I am a fan of both the source novel* and the director, I am not the sort of person to demand slavish devotion in an adaptation (and I suspect as a fan of the novel I’m less blown away by the puzzle box of the narrative, since I already am familiar with it.) The film works well — except for sexual moments between the women — as long as it follows the source novel, but once it fully departs, it betrays their story and ends with full-on exploitation.

Comparisons to Blue Is the Warmest Color are not wrong, specifically in regards to the sex scenes. On the drive home the first time, we hashed it out: “Why was the sex shot that way? “I guess so men could see both pairs of breasts at all times?”

There’s a red flag in The Handmaiden before the women even have sex. In both the film and the novel, there’s a tooth-filing scene, where Sue uses a thimble to file down a sharp tooth of Maud’s. In the book & the BBC adaptation, they’re fully clothed and it’s strikingly intimate both times we are told of it. It’s focused on breath and scent and fingers and mouths; this is a story after all where one character always wears gloves and touching a bare palm is highly erotic.

In the film, however, this scene has been transported to the bath, with Hideko sucking on a lollipop, so she’s both naked and infantalized. Then the camera pans down to her breasts, but a nearly straight-on view, not the view Sook-Hee would have had, sitting high above her at the edge of the tub. The camera lingers, and it’s absurd because Sook-Hee is Hideko’s dresser. She has seen her naked many times already, including when she helped her into the bath. This is a shot purely for the (male) audience.

The first sex scene is worse. In Fingersmith it’s a hesitant scene, two young women exploring each other in the dark under the guise of “practice”, and it comes after they’ve been sharing a bed for some time. There’s an innocence about it all, and it comes from the fact that even though they both have more knowledge (about everything!) than they’re letting on, they are having a pure moment of connection.

In The Handmaiden, however, it has a fetishized innocence, with Hideko in bed holding a doll and Sook-Hee gets out the candy again, just like the bath scene. The encounter from Sook-Hee’s perspective is relatively okay, except for the vagina-cam view of her face and tongue, but the second time around, it is a series of brightly lit, synchronized athletic feats, moving quickly from noisily smacking lips and tongues to positions copied right from Hideko’s uncle’s books. “You’re a natural!” shouts Sook-Hee and maybe it’s supposed to be freeing, but it plays as laughable. It’s a far cry from the whispered endearments of the novel and it tells us nothing true about the characters; it is the director arranging them like they were Hideko’s uncle’s mannequins, or the plates in his books.

The closing sex scene is a flat-out insult, and particularly to anyone who knows how Fingersmith ends. In the novel, there are a few more twists and turns of plot and identity, Maud winds up returning to the home of the uncle (who had suffered a stroke when she left, later dying), she cannot access the fortune as it’s not actually hers, and she makes her living writing just the sort of novels her uncle had collected. Sue goes looking for her and finds her working in the library:

[Maud] had still held the paper. Now it fluttered to the floor. I stooped and caught it up and smoothed the creases from it.

“What does it say?” I said, when I had.

She said, “It is filled with all the words for how I want you…Look.”

[…] She put the lamp upon the floor, spread the paper flat; and began to show me the words she had written, one by one.

Now that is hot. That’s personal. That involves imagination. That’s evidence that Maud has been thinking of her all this time, and since we’re in Sue’s perspective at the moment, evidence that she’s not alone in her feelings. And finally, that is something that would also work beautifully on film (we know, because the BBC did it, directed by a woman, incidentally).

So what does the film give us? The women kneeling, facing each other on a couch, suddenly incorporating toys into their sex life, and wow do I have a lot of thoughts about that. Like, it seems to be the goal but I don’t think there’s room to actually scissor on that couch without falling off (and also I don’t know why there’s so much scissoring in a movie called THE HANDMAIDEN based on a novel called FINGERSMITH I am just saying it is right there in the titles) and why are they so far apart from each other and also I bet they’re both freezing since they are on a SHIP at NIGHT and probably a better idea would be to just go back to the bed and fuck but, you know, no one asked me. (Plus, I cannot believe for one minute that they’d be using toys THAT BELONGED TO HER SADISTIC UNCLE. The degree to which Hideko is meant to be an entirely new person not at all affected by her past makes me crazy.)

Clearly, it’s impossible for me to think of The Handmaiden outside of the text it’s adapted from, and another effect of that is wonder at the reason for added elements of horror, particularly the threat of Hideko being married to her own uncle (albeit not a blood relation, as she’s the niece of his wife’s sister).

Is her life is not dark enough, trapped in his home, trapped by the time period, trapped by society, wasting her days maintaining and performing a collection of writing that amounts first to child abuse and now to, at best, constant sexual harassment? No, this is not enough. We must have the threat of incest as well. We must have the threat of rape, from her uncle and later from her husband, because that is the worst thing that can happen to a woman and also the only bad thing that can happen to a woman. (By the way, the Count/Gentleman character clearly reads as queer in the novel & the BBC adaptation, and is actually the one who points out to Maud that she’s in love with Sue, but why pass up an opportunity to include another rapist, right?)

And here only men can enact revenge.

In Fingersmith, Gentleman is stabbed by Maud, and her mother takes responsibility for it. Maud murders him in an act of revenge; her mother is hanged for it in an act of love. Her uncle has a stroke and dies, because life is not tidy and not all villains get their perfect comeuppance. But in the film, the Count kills both himself and the uncle, after the uncle has tortured and mutilated him. And sure, Hideko & Sook-Hee have sent the Count there knowing what more or less will happen to him, but it doesn’t sit well with me.

Part of is the neatness of the resolution, and part of it is the Count’s line — “At least I will die with my cock intact” — which is definitely a sentiment worth air time in a film presumably about queer women**. Part of it is idealizing women by not allowing them to literally get their hands dirty. Part of it is the underlining of the perversity of the uncle, who here wants to know every detail of the Count’s wedding night with his niece and, distracted by lust, doesn’t even notice that he’s dying.

That the deaths lead to a false ending with a freeze frame on the face of the false Count is unsurprising. He’s centered himself in a story that should never have been about him at all. Now, when Hideko and Sook-Hee are finally discovering how to shake their pasts, take action, and create a new life together, they are shown to us mainly in montage. What we get of their story in the third part is an unsuccessful tonal shift, a move from Gothic thriller to sidelined caper picture.

And when does that tonal shift take place? With Hideko’s suicide attempt, an infuriating, out-of-nowhere move created as a catalyst for the women to confess all and team up. It’s still the thriller until she drops from the tree & Sook-Hee catches her. When the course of things Sook-Hee accidentally drops her again, it’s slapstick, and we’re off on an adventure, albeit one intercut with a torture film.

I found myself thinking about Crimson Peak, another Gothic romance with writing at its heart, but Crimson Peak is a film where the young woman rescues and avenges herself. It’s another movie where the house is fully another character, another movie with perverted sexuality, but also a movie where our heroine can get her hands dirty, where history is not easily left behind with a false mustache flung into the sea. And until we get a cut of The Handmaiden without any sex, Crimson Peak is the romantic Gothic thriller I’ll be revisiting.

* The HandmaidenFingersmith character crosswalk:
Lady Hideko = Maud Lilly
Sook-Hee = Sue Trinder
Count Fujiwara = Gentleman

** Regarding this section, my notes say “Pt III The Count WHO CARES”.

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