I love the way Jill Soloway does sex. My first exposure to her work was her essay Same Sex Marriage, at a RADAR performance in San Francisco and I creamed over her Courtney Cox’s Asshole bit, but her first feature film Afternoon Delight takes the cake. The film was a Sundance favorite this year and earned her the U.S. Dramatic Directing Award. It’s a comedic drama about a bored housewife (Kathryn Hahn) who decides to drop a bomb (shell) into her marriage by moving a stripper (Juno Temple) into the nanny’s room after receiving an extraordinary lap dance. Rachel’s compulsion to save McKenna from sex work is misguided. McKenna is everything but helpless. We follow Rachel to therapy as she aches to save herself, her sexuality and her marriage. Meanwhile, McKenna and Rachel’s uncomfortable, conflicting desires do a kind of femme tango with endnotes that are amusing and painful to watch.
Like all of Soloway’s projects, Afternoon Delight is sexy and playful, femme and feral, provocative and intimate. Radically intimate. Steve Almond used the term “radical intimacy” when he referred to Cheryl Strayed’s column “Dear Sugar” because of the way she answered her readers with the most wise, sincere and personal answers as if her naked quivering heart was flopping for all to see. Since that epic Valentine’s Day, which was Sugar’s coming out party, I’ve been searching for signs of radical intimacy everywhere.
Afternoon Delight is a side splitter but it’s not clever for the sake of being clever. Nor is it boundary busting for the sake of being subversive. Afternoon Delight peels the skin back on our intimate relationships by giving the audience a peek at what happens when a fine life, husband, kids, a dog and minivan are not enough. Time for a lap dance, right?
That’s when Afternoon Delight protagonist, Rachel takes an all access pass to a world dominated by men, forbidden sex, teasing and raw sensuality. When Rachel breaks the male frontier and penetrates, she longs to find what she’s been missing out on: sensuality, horniness, empathy and radical intimacy.
I spoke with Jill about radical intimacy, breaking boundaries and feminine wholeness, meaning, this idea that women are encouraged to split themselves off from sexuality when they have kids. They aren’t allowed to be sexual at the same time that they are mothers. Her characters all have a really sexy feminine side, even Jeff, the App-y husband who is more interested in his phone than his wife — has a feminine side. I was struck by how much femme was packed into all of the characters and how three dimensional they all were, especially McKenna. Where most films about sex workers punish or glorify them, Soloway shows a sex worker who is both innocent and savvy. McKenna and Rachel are neither degraded nor idealized. They are whole women trying to find their naked quivering hearts.
The Rumpus: You have tapped the g-spot of why men go to strip bars in the first place. They want those same things that Rachel longs for in the film.
Soloway: Yes. So often we have the story of the man who goes off and disappears into a strip club or to his porn cave, chasing the dark mistress. But in Afternoon Delight, Rachel gets to do it. Rachel enters the man-only daytime distraction space while everyone else is at work or at school. She enters the secret lying space of lunch hour porn. Rachel dares to explore the world and then participate in it.
Soloway: But breaking the boundaries is the real turn on, I believe.
The Rumpus: Another boundary you busted was the way that our culture divides female identity. Women are often viewed in a limited and constricting way. They are separated into compartments: mother/daughter or slut/princess.
Rachel is a mother who is cut off from her sexuality and humored by her work-a-holic hubby. He barely sees her. She becomes obsessed with this idea of eyes open sex– profound intimacy and expectations. In contrast, McKenna is sensuality personified. These layered identities dance together in the film and sometimes it gets messy.
Soloway: I think the average man is very comfortable to say all my ho’s over here, the bad girls, the booty calls, porn stars, bad girls, the girls I think about all day and get me hard. Then over here are the other women: mothers, cooks, sisters and daughters. This movie is a tango between all of those women trading places and dancing together. McKenna wants to be a daughter. But she also wants to be a mom to Rachel. Rachel wants to sink into an awkward adolescence.
Early on, people told me, “This movie can either be about mothering or sex, it’s too confusing to be both. “ I told them, “It has to be about both or it won’t work.” I honestly think this movie is about the notion that inside every woman, is many women.
The Rumpus: I loved how you allowed the desire in the room to get very uncomfortable in many scenes and stay that way. For instance, Rachel’s friends in the movie are the women whom strip club customers marry: cute, crafty, nice, devoted moms who seem sexually reserved and have expensive hair. They are tight knit and sororal—like a coven. In the film, on poker night, when all hell breaks loose, the friends talk about sex and consent and abortion — universal and horrible moments that have everything to do with being a sexual woman.
Soloway: They get drunk and boundaries are crossed and the women get heated and angry with red teeth from the wine and it’s kind of witchy and fantastic.
There was a scene in the script where the moon was full and Rachel and McKenna both had their periods and kissed while reaching for a tampon, but it was too much for the final film to hold. This was meant to be a metaphor where they handed back one another’s identities. But it just tilted the movie too much toward a literal love story between the women.
The Rumpus: Even the men in the film are subversive. They are atypical personalities. The men in Afternoon Delight are not irrelevant jobless man-babies, arrogant hipsters nor hostile, unavailable neurotics.
Soloway: The main character, Jeff, is patient and he doesn’t punish her or act out. He leaves but it’s not the typical masculine story. He takes space and is good at taking that space. He realizes the idea of “happy wife, happy life” that so many men parrot is a cop-out. He wonders, “Is she really happy? What is making her happy? Is it good for the marriage?”
The Rumpus: One more uncomfortable boundary you crossed was the issue of profound and difficult intimacy. Like what happens after you fall in love, marry and have some kids and have this neat life? How do you pee in front of that person every day and continue to get deeper and closer with that person without totally sabotaging it, cheating or killing the person? How do you accept a love so profound and continue to grow the relationship, allowing it to grow? You address this radical intimacy inAfternoon Delight in a way that I’ve not seen before.
Soloway: You feel a deep love with someone, you make a baby, you make a family, and then you want your sex to catch up to that depth. It’s true that it’s a boundary because I don’t think anyone is fully exploring that issue for couples right now in popular culture. I love treading new territory in my work so I’m happy to lead the charge if need be!