It’s not often that cinema dares to unravel its opening credits with a visceral, heaven-sent shot of a woman being orally pleasured. In a public setting, no less. Female sexuality and pleasure have often been viewed through the lens of masculine ego—with chest-beating machismo and the prowess of surface-level satisfaction taking a routine precedent. In Harry Wootliff’s second feature True Things, the perspective of female pleasure is challenged head-on. Despite this, the film’s intriguing level of agency is never too far from the hands of an angry man.
Looking back through film history, the narrative ploy of the dream of promised romance is a comfortable tradition. From Pride and Prejudice to The Holiday, the notion of tangible love is almost always controlled by wanton male behaviour. Even as romance turns to lust and physical intimacy, the dynamics rarely change. Franchises such as Fifty Shades perpetuate borderline psychological torture at the behest of what is marketed as attractive dominance, while films like Carol prove scorned male lovers can even pull the strings from afar.
At its core, the essence of True Things doesn’t exactly differ. Kate (played by Ruth Wilson) gets little out of her work at the local job centre—until she meets a captivating stranger known as ‘Blonde’ (Tom Burke). Instantly jumping through sadistic hoops for his approval, she’s convinced she has found true love in a man who only sticks around when he wants something. It’s a relatable story, and not one that would be considered original. However, its unique perceptions lie in the subtle nuances surrounding female pleasure.
It could be said that mainstream cinema is scared of perceiving female sexuality for what it truly is. Often mixed with an internal flurry of feelings that runs parallel to falling in love, it can be messy, self-gratifying and socially unseemly. A fast-paced drama, we quickly see Ruth having sex with the mysterious Blonde against the wall of a multi-storey car park. While his domineering commands and promises feed to what we already know markets as sexy, the scene is the first indication that Wootliff sits on the fence of sexual perception. Yes, her scenes are filthy, unfiltered and push intensive pleasure to the fore—yet female satisfaction exists within the red flag framework of a toxic male figure.
There’s an intriguing dimension to Wootliff’s renewed psychopathy of the male gaze. While Kate spills her guts in whimsical rhetoric, Blond remains cruel in his affection. There’s a romantic idealism enthused into every encounter, while his internal emotional landscape remains erratic. An in-between breath to bridge ghosting and immediate marriage and children doesn’t exist. Blond’s nature plays on a role reversal of consent—a testament to the directorial choices that set the depiction of toxic masculinity apart.
From this comes the questioning of a woman’s need to please. Flipping from focussing on pleasure itself, the journey to attaining possible romance is tainted with the air of a 1950s housewife. Blinded by the possibility of receiving more, Kate continuously returns to his side after bouts of emotional torment, lends him her car and eventually risks losing her entire livelihood outside of his grip. The power imbalance can often become too much for an audience to bear, at its worst moments completely deviating from the course of pleasure and romance Kate sets herself on.
Language also plays an important role in shaping the framework in which we see Kate’s rocky road to satisfaction. Blond’s command of the word ‘darling’ has seedy, predatory overtones, always executed when his sentences need no further decoration. Yet somehow, each one morphs into an action of personal gain. Social connotations of ‘slag’ and ‘nutcase’ are challenged, while continual gaslighting leaves Kate placating measures that she can’t control. While the element of pleasure takes a backseat, the realistic resurgence of domestic abuse plays incredibly close to home.
While Harry Wootliff’s genre retaliation mostly shows itself through subtle details, there’s an overwhelming assumption of a woman’s wants through her work. Kate’s destiny is often decided for her—whether it’s through Blond’s wants, her parents’ views or the concerns of her friends. She’s routinely told she’s too much or that she’s wrong for wanting something outside of the social norm. It’s perhaps this element that shapes her experiences of pleasure the most. Mousy brown in appearance, her crisis point labels her as too pushy, ultimately steering her away from the pleasure and romance she wanted the most. A traditional sense of questioning and patronising rhetoric sticks to Kate like flies to water—just one of the visual motifs to plant the trail of red flags through Kate’s dissociation with her former self.
Through captivating visual sequence and unhinged exhibitionism, Wootliff’s combined stance on female pleasure and toxic masculinity is ever-changing. Encompassing a myriad of real-life issues that affect a woman’s relationship with her own sexual identity, its ability to change the perception of the typical narrative structure is murky. Undoubtedly a film that will resonate, its unique touches when navigating Kate and Blod’s relationship firmly plants a flag in the reckoning of female pleasure in cinema. However, it’s perhaps a case of agency to change to a certain extent—if the entire framework of male perception isn’t abolished, history repeats itself.
by Jasmine Valentine
Jasmine (she/her) is a freelance writer and Deputy Film Editor of The Indiependent. She’s a member of the GALECA entertainment critics society and has written for the likes of Little White Lies, Flickering Myth and Movie Marker. Her favourite films include Suspiria, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and Synecdoche, New York. Find her on Twitter at @thejasvalentine.