|the business of strangers
Written and Directed: Patrick Stettner
Every minute that I was watching The Business of Strangers
I found myself wanting more than the film was giving me. When
the characters were angry, I wanted them to be angrier. When sad,
I wanted more anguish. When they were flirting, I wanted them
to wind the sexuality up a notch.
At every turn I felt the script compromised and wasted the talents
of two great actresses with obvious chemistry. Instead of being
a great movie, it became just an OK movie with flashes of what
could have been.
Before watching I had no idea the younger of the two women was
bisexual. Making the character bisexual dramatically changed the
meaning of the film for me and altered all my expectations. By
putting in this one detail (that was badly explored and could
easily have been left out) the writers opened up a whole new set
of consequences that the film doesn't even come close to addressing.
In fact, it is so seemingly unimportant a detail I wish the question
of Paula's sexuality had not been explored. But hey, since they
brought it up, I'm going to talk about it.
The Business of Strangers is set in a luxury
hotel over the course of one alcohol-fueled evening. Julie (Stockard
Channing) is a middle-aged businesswoman who, after panicking
that she was going to be fired, finds out that she has in fact
been promoted to CEO. She looks around (metaphorically and literally)
and finds that she has no one to celebrate with. Earlier in the
day she fired a junior employee, Paula (Julia Stiles) for being
late to a corporate presentation. They meet up again the bar of
the hotel and strike up an uneasy conversation.
Despite their bad first impressions, the two women have an immediate
and powerful connection, the boundaries of which the writers flirt
with but never really test. Paula makes it clear that she is comfortable
with her body and her sexuality. She styles herself as a rebel,
someone who believes in experiences for their own sake. Julie
is a confident, no bullshit, sexy older woman. There are moments
— in the hotel gym, the pool, the sauna, the bar, in Julia's
room — where sexual tension could have been built. Instead,
the script offers mostly innuendo that while sometimes funny,
just works to diffuse the tension precisely when it should have
Julie had, earlier in the day, invited a corporate headhunter
named Nick to meet with her. Due to bad weather he is also trapped
in the hotel overnight. In the bar, already half drunk and stoned
on prescription meds, Julie introduces Nick to Paula. Paula has
an intensely negative reaction to him because, as we find out,
she knows that Nick was the man who raped her friend/lover in
Boston several years before.
Julie is incensed and demands that they take some form of revenge.
At first Paula says no, but when Nick conveniently presents himself
again at the door of Julie's hotel room Paula invites him in and
drugs him senseless. The rapist is now prone and helpless, and
the two women have to decide what to do with him.
What they do with him lasts for the next forty five minutes of
the film, starts out fairly innocent and extends to the almost-homicidal.
At first Paula claims that her lover was raped, but Julie believes
it was actually Paula who was raped. Paula admits this is true,
and this sparks a round of angry confrontations dealing with trust.
Now that they've committed these acts against Nick, can these
two women with control issues trust each other to keep the secret?
Of course, after having established Paula's bisexuality, Paula's
"friend" actually ceases to exist, so then we're left
to wonder what was the point to exploring Paula's sexuality at
all? It appears this admission was meant to deepen and complicate
the bond she has with Julie. However, when the issue arises again
and Paula tries to emotionally blackmail Julie into kissing her,
it isn't about sex at all, its about control, and suddenly we're
left with this icky feeling that bisexuality is somehow being
linked with the abuse of power.
Of course, one could argue that pretty much everything in this
film is sucked into the pissing contest between these two women.
Certainly as the night goes on their personalities and psychoses
seem to merge. Paula seems to think her openness and willingness
to do anything will eventually win the battle over Julie's pride
and strength, but that isn't the case. As Paula strips layer after
layer from Julie we realise that what Julie appears to be on the
outside is precisely what she is on the inside. Surprise! Peeling
away layers reveals nothing. She has moments where she lets go
and seems to allow past regrets to control her emotions, but her
lust for power and control always comes back.
Paula strikes out at Julie with every weapon she has, and the
fact that Julie meets her inch for inch, while never seeming for
a second to be fooled by Paula's sexual overtures, is a strength
in Julie, but just seems frustrating in the context of the film.
I didn't feel like I learned anything from these two women, and
I didn't feel like either of them had progressed at all either.
No matter how tense it got, it always stopped just this side of
safe. They would urge each other on, then inexplicably back down.
After a few ups and downs you just wanted to someone to lose it,
to have some kind of catharsis. Julie seems to come close as she
screams and almost strangles the unconscious Nick, but she doesn't,
she pulls back. There are edges here, but they're all blunt.
Things might have been different had the writers opted for a
different ending. Paula could have been a real force. Stiles gives
it everything she has, but is ultimately limited by what the script
allows her to do. She could have been stronger, fiercer, really
damaged. She could have been more aggressively sexual and turned
Julie's whole world upside down. In the end she was made out to
be little more than a petty thief and a liar, and Julie is left
to ponder her narrow escape. She hasn't changed, she hasn't grown,
she tries to look enigmatic but just comes off vaguely amused.
Life goes back to normal and we realise that these strangers may
as well have had no business at all.
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