To celebrate the release of The Overnight, which is in cinemas now, psychologist Donna Dawson explores the subject of swinging in the movies.
“Swinging” – where partners in a committed relationship engage in sexual activity with other people – has been depicted in film in a variety of formats, including comedy, tragedy, drama and thriller. Writers and directors regard ‘swinging’ as either fodder to send up, as an excuse for soft porn, or as fertile ground to comment on sociological issues and/or relationship problems. Most films that deal with “swinging” depict it in a negative light, and use the subject as a device to encourage heavy drama or myriad complications.
Few writers/directors seem to have had the courage or interest to explore ‘swinging’ seriously, in all its shades of grey. Here are some of the main films in the genre…
“Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice” (1969), is the first mainstream film to tackle the subject, and takes a comic look at the issues instigated by the sexual revolution that swept the USA in the late 1960s. It begins with a weekend of total emotional honesty for Bob and Carol at a retreat, and ends with them in bed with their best friends, Ted and Alice. However, ‘swinging’ goes as far as a few minutes of passionate kissing – after which both couples stop. We next see them walking out of the hotel hand in hand with their original spouses, having seemingly learned an important lesson. It turns out that the film wasn’t about ‘swinging’ at all – the director/co-writer, Paul Mazurksy, was actually making a point about “moral earnestness”, and the hang-ups of the Eisenhower generation.
“The Ice Storm” (1997), takes the subject into the realm of tragi-drama. Directed by Ang Lee, it centres on two neighbouring families in an affluent Connecticut town in 1973. This film is Lee’s comment on the confused and morally rudderless decade that followed the American sexual revolution. Lee not only linked ‘swinging’ to dubious morality, but also to the failure of parents to provide good role models for their children.
Another warning bell was sounded in “The Sex Monster” (1999), an American comedy. It describes how a reluctant wife is persuaded into swinging, after which she turns into an insatiable nymphomaniac who prefers women to men. Husbands be warned! “Zebra Lounge” (2001), A Canadian erotic thriller, took the negative message even further, when one of the swinging couples turns out to be a pair of dangerous psychopaths. Now, besides the moral issues, people needed to consider their personal safety.
“Dos Mas Dos” (2012), an Argentine comedy-drama, at least aimed for some kind of positive redemption after ‘swinging’ – in this film, the swinging between the two couples (the men are both best friends and business partners), causes a secret affair between one wife and the opposite husband. This leads to the break-up of both couples. A few years later, the original couples are back together, and they unexpectedly meet up at a cinema. The film ends with them tentatively agreeing to be friends again.
“The Overnight” (2015), takes the most detailed look yet at swinging, in terms of how it can develop and how it might resolve itself in a real-life scenario. One more innocent couple (Emily and Alex), are slowly groomed over the course of an evening by a more knowing couple (Kurt and Charlotte). Interestingly, it is Alex, who, by revealing a hidden sexual anxiety, proves to be the most vulnerable. At one point, Emily blurts out: “At what point does the free-wheeling California lifestyle become something else??” Quite.
The twist is that Kurt is not interested in sex with Emily, but with Alex. The ‘swinging’ itself involves oral sex and kissing but goes no further, due to the handy plot-device of the couples’ young children interrupting them (what ever happened to door locks?). Emily and Alex are slightly bewildered by their experience, but not destroyed by it. In fact, Alex believes that he has become more empowered, and that the encounter will help to save his flagging sex life with Emily. Some time later, the two couples meet up again. Slight embarrassment and awkwardness is felt by all four, but nothing more. Kurt redeems himself by admitting that he is now in therapy, and has “gone through a whole ton of stuff”. He and Charlotte are now willing to give their marriage a serious go. And so in this film, the ‘swinging’ appears to have done no permanent damage and may have even done some good; leading to more self-awareness for the individual characters and, it is suggested, resulting in two stronger marriages.
For more information on Donna Dawson, please visit www.donnadawson.co.uk/