This story contains spoilers for the movie Fair Play.
If you know anything about the movie Fair Play, you’ve probably heard that it opens with an oral sex scene. Luke (Alden Ehrenreich) and Emily (Phoebe Dynevor) are attempting a quickie in the bathroom at a friend’s wedding when they discover that she’s menstruating. The moment is played for charm rather than embarrassment. Emily’s dress is ruined, and Luke laughs. Still covered in blood, they decide to marry. It’s a refreshing take on period blood—but also an ominous symbol of what’s to come in this thriller in which shifting power dynamics will challenge this couple’s ease with one another.
A week before the movie hit Netflix, I met the movie’s director, Chloe Domont, for tea in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Midtown Manhattan. We are seated at the window with a clear view of the second and third tallest buildings in New York City, both outlandishly tall and pencil-thin. We talk rather brazenly about that bloody sex scene: how she conceived of it, and the choices she made in shooting it. The businessmen seated around us glance over as we discuss whether period sex on film is considered taboo by audiences. But then the conversation segues into the movie’s true theme: Male fragility. Luke and Emily work together at a hedge fund and keep their relationship a secret. When Emily is promoted over Luke, a self-proclaimed nice guy and feminist, resentments start to build.
Domont gestures to the buildings towering outside the window as a phallic symbol for male insecurities. We discuss how men tend to build structures to celebrate their prowess, seek out online gurus who reassure them of their manliness, and posture with promises of violence to prove their worth—just look at Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk’s proposed cage match. Hers isn’t the only recent movie to tackle the theme of male fragility: Barbie, Don’t Worry Darling, Poor Things are all interested in what happens when men are overshadowed by women.
Fair Play is also a personal movie: Domont drew not only from her own relationships with men, but also from her life growing up with a stay-at-home dad who wasn’t threatened by a woman’s power. “When I started writing the script, it came from a place of anger and frustration,” she says, “but as I started rewriting the script and shooting the script and editing the film, I realized that men are victims of the system too.”
Domont and I discussed the complexities of shooting that consensual oral sex scene as well as a scene of sexual assault in the movie, why male fragility is the topic du jour in the culture right now, and Domont’s own complicated feelings about how her success has fostered resentment in men.
A lot has been made of that first oral sex scene involving period blood. What was the inspiration?
I set out to make a thriller about power dynamics between men and women, and you can’t take the sex out of that. In terms of the actual circumstances of the first scene, it is important that you’re charmed by these characters.
I wanted the proposal to happen within the first five minutes of the movie. And I thought, “What’s the way to really grab the audience right away? And what’s the most ridiculous way that they could get engaged too?” I thought, “Oh, if they’re covered in blood.”
I wanted to set up that this is a man who you don’t think is threatened by women. And the idea that he has her blood on his face and the way he laughs about it, I think it makes you love him. This idea that period sex is taboo is ridiculous.
I was excited to write it because a man would never write this scene. They wouldn’t even think to write that scene. Real love is that level of intimacy, and the acceptance of the messy parts. Though with the visual metaphor, with the blood, it’s foreshadowing of violence to come. It’s saying, “Don’t get too comfortable.”
What was it like shooting that scene?
We worked with an intimacy coordinator. But the blood and the messiness of it just freed everyone up to have fun with it. I think that was the most fun scene they shot because sometimes there was too much blood and it was ridiculous. We had like six dresses to cover in blood.
Shortly after that Emily gets promoted over Luke. Do you think that Luke thinks he’s “one of the good guys”?
I do think he thinks that. But this is the test. The moment she tells him she’s being promoted, the first thing he feels is shock. But he genuinely tries to support her. Then these other feelings begin to rise up in him, but he doesn’t want to acknowledge it.
So he starts to build this other narrative of how he was robbed of it, how he’s actually the victim. It’s his inability to face his pain, face his misogyny that causes so much harm to him and her. For me, more than being a film about female empowerment, this is a film about male fragility.
Male fragility is a major topic of conversation in the culture right now. There’s Ryan Gosling’s Ken in Barbie, Harry Styles’ character in Don’t Worry Darling, Mark Ruffalo’s character in Poor Things. Why do so many filmmakers want to tackle this idea that the men are struggling?
There’s a crisis of masculinity. Girls are starting to surpass boys in education and in the workplace. This is the first time we’re facing that power flip. I think men are feeling left behind, and they don’t know how to deal with it. And women don’t know how to deal with it. We’re tip-toeing on eggshells, and that doesn’t help either.
That’s been my personal experience. But I also feel for men because they’ve been raised on traditional ideas of masculinity, and society doesn’t offer them anything else.
Read More: Breaking Down the End of Don’t Worry Darling
In your movie, Luke seeks out this self-help guru. In the real world, I see men flocking to people like Jordan Peterson to feel masculine. But also you see Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk are challenging each other to physical combat. It feels like they’re desperate to find some outlet to express their manliness, their physical dominance.
They need to protect their manhood on a primal level, right?
I think there are people who are taking advantage of this crisis in masculinity and this idea that as men they need to hold onto their power. Luke is grasping for help on what defines him now because work has only ever defined him and achieving has only ever defined him. So what if he’s not achieving? Who is he? Luke latches onto this Jordan Peterson-like person because he gives him this narrative and other reasons he didn’t get the thing that he felt he deserved.
There is another major sex scene in the movie. Emily calls it rape. Luke says he doesn’t believe he raped her. How did you approach directing that scene? Was the intention to make the act at all ambiguous?
I think it’s clear that it’s sexual assault.
For me it always had to escalate to sexual assault because ultimately sexual assault isn’t about sex, it’s about power. That is the only way at that point for Luke to reclaim the power from her because he’s physically stronger.
This whole narrative he’s built in his head is, “She robbed me and took the power away from me,” so he reclaims the power from her in this punishing way. And then, for me, the ending is about her reclaiming the power from him.
Does he think it’s assault?
We talked about this quite a lot. He’s so emotionally charged, and he’s hammered. His anger starts to come out as they begin to have sex. The more she tries to touch him, the angrier he gets. In his head, it’s dominant, punishing sex. He doesn’t think it’s rape.
However, there is a moment in the film where after he’s finished, he questions, “Did I hurt her? Did I cross the line?” But he’s so out of it, the thought doesn’t go farther than that. That’s what we discussed. But also this idea that she had smashed a bottle. She had inflicted some kind of violence on him, which he thinks opened the door for him on physical harm. But he doesn’t think it’s rape. He’s genuinely surprised.
She says, “Stop.”
The gray areas of rape were on my mind. When Emily’s head hits [the bathroom sink], she’s in shock. She does say, “Stop.” But a lot of women who are sexually assaulted cannot form those words because she’s in a state of shock.
That was something that I questioned in the edit. I was advocating for her not saying, “Stop” because I think that would be a much more controversial thing. But I want to reach a wide audience with this, and in the end, when she picks up the knife, if half the audience doesn’t think it’s sexual assault because she doesn’t say the word “stop” will any of the audience be with her when she picks up the knife?
But I also think it’s very clear it’s sexual assault even if she doesn’t utter the word “stop” because things that start as consensual turn into assault. In terms of the blocking, I wanted it to be pretty brutal. I thought the brutality was important.
How have men reacted to the movie?
I think it gives them permission to talk about things they’ve been pushing down on some level. I think it helps that at Q&As [at screenings] I’m not saying, “Men are sh-t.” I’m saying it’s men’s fault for feeling this way. This is a systemic societal problem.
When I started writing the script, it came from a place of anger and frustration, but as I started rewriting the script and shooting the script and editing the film, I realized that men are victims of the system too.
I don’t judge Luke for having those feelings. I do judge him for what he does with those feelings at a certain point.
Where did that anger and frustration you mentioned when first writing the script come from?
It came from me being in relationships with men who were either threatened by my ambition or threatened by any little bits of accomplishment I had. If there was any moment where I was doing well and they weren’t, you’d feel it. And it was always something neither of us ever felt we could talk about. It was just this elephant in the room. We couldn’t talk about it, and I couldn’t talk about it with my friends. It comes out in unexpected, poisonous ways.
And I think what led me to write this film is I was normalizing this behavior—how I was undermining myself to protect those men, and normalizing the emotional abuse. And I just got to a point where I was like, “I’m done with this shit. I’m done with the way I’m treating myself, and I’m done with the way I feel I’m being treated.”
I think in this movie, it’s particularly exacerbated by the fact that they’re in the same industry. I could see that being hard on my ego even as a woman.
Here’s the difference. Women can be jealous of their partner. But they’re not threatened. Men are threatened. That was the big distinction I wanted to make in the movie.
How can we dismantle this link between female empowerment and male fragility? And I guess my bigger question, regardless of gender, is whether capitalism and love can ever be compatible.
The question of male ambition is interesting because in my New York bubble, I know a lot of men who say they would like their wives to be the breadwinners, and they would like to be stay-at-home dads. But it’s unaffordable in this city.
I think a lot of men say that but don’t actually mean it. I was actually raised by a stay-at-home dad. I went into the world believing that that was okay and that men liked powerful women and were turned on by powerful women. And throughout my adulthood, I realized men are turned on by it initially, but living with it is probably the biggest turn-off. And that was my realization with becoming an adult that the roof I was raised under was very rare.
I will say I met someone recently who adores being my arm candy and doesn’t see my success in any way a threat to his. But he was also raised by a powerful woman who was the breadwinner, so he grew up under that kind of model and isn’t threatened by it. And that’s who I’m currently dating, but I think they’re rare to find.
You also don’t have to meet someone who wants to be a stay-at-home dad for it to work. You just need to find someone who doesn’t see your success as a reflection of theirs. You can both just do your own thing. If I hadn’t met him, I would say I don’t know if that’s possible. I was pretty hopeless before I met him that I would find someone I could sustain a relationship with who didn’t let these things get under their skin.Leave a comment