Comedies about the sexual interactions between men and women have long been a staple of Australian cinema. They began in the 1970s as an offshoot of exploitation films, an excuse to mix some laughs with gratuitous nudity (often with little narrative justification), but in the 90s and early 2000s the form began to find new footing, combining a frank discussion of sex with a look at its place within adult relationships. ‘How to Please a Woman’, the debut feature from director Renée Webster, falls comfortably within the latter traditions, and yet in many ways feels like a positive step in a right and new direction. As we continue to evolve our understanding of consent, women’s rights to their bodies and the wider spectrum of gender and sexuality, so too must a film wanting to explore the idea of the sexual life of adult Australians.
For her birthday, Gina (Sally Phillips, TV's ‘Veep’) is sent a male stripper by her friends. It turns out though that Tom (Alexander England, ‘Alien Covenant’) is actually an escort, and offers to do anything Gina wants. Tired and uninterested, she asks him to clean her house, but discovers a real pleasure in the sight of a man doing her cleaning. After being made redundant from her job, she decides to take on a failing removal business run by Steve (Erik Thompson, TV's ‘Packed to the Rafters’) and turn it into a cleaning business where women can pay attractive men to clean for them, but when the cleaning turns to sexual favours and her clients base begins to grow as word spreads, Gina realises she may have a far more radical idea on her hands.
Bursting with ineffable charm, ‘How to Please a Woman’ is one of those films that comes along so rarely - a witty and heartfelt comedy, beautifully executed and surprisingly honest. The setup is delicious, and Webster (who also wrote the film) doesn’t rush things; each step towards Gina launching the business (“Obviously, the cleaning must be effective, and there must be a minimum of one orgasm”) is taken carefully, the blossoming of the idea married to revelations in Gina’s own life. The central concept at the heart of the film is the question of what brings women pleasure, and the film’s clunky title is in itself part of the joke - we are so used to the idea of a cheat sheet for navigating sex and relationships, reflected in a number of books and films (‘What Women Want’, ‘He’s Just Not That Into You’ and so on), but what Gina discovers (and what Webster presents to us as an exciting provocation) is that there can’t be a guide for how to please a woman. Through Gina and her friends who use the business we see how pleasure is a very personal experience, one that relies as much on trust and connection as much as arousal. The men in Gina’s business - including Tom - are the first to learn this lesson, where the tricks they have used in the past aren’t going to cut it in this kind of exchange. It identifies pleasure in sex as being inherently privileged towards men, but now that the expectation is that the man is there to serve the pleasure of the woman, an acknowledgement and response to the female body means more than taking the jack hammer approach. The connection the film makes between sex and relationships is how integral listening is to the success of both - not just of words said but the language of a touch, a sigh, a look. It’s even there in the quiet genius of Gina’s concept, to marry sex with having a man clean your house, the deliciousness of a role reversal where a man fully puts the needs of a woman before his own in the traditionally female domestic space.
This isn’t just a revelation for the men though; it’s as much a moment of discovery for the women in the film, and a significantly more profound one. As Gina begins to collect the needs of her clients, she taps into a deep-seated fear of women to believe they can ask for pleasure in sex, that they can set boundaries and make requests. Some of the most moving moments in the film occur in Gina’s car, with her clipboard in hand, asking each woman what pleases her the most. Some are beautifully direct and confident, but others are clearly terrified, tentative to ask for things they have often desired for so long, and the joy of these sequences is the realisation of their own agency, that they have a right to ask and to have their bodies celebrated and to feel in their bodies. These small moments of liberation are part of the insatiable charm of this film, one whose intentions are simply to put positive energy out into the world about the rights of women to feel pleasure, and the wonderful domino effect of this is seeing this reflected in the men. Anthony (Ryan Johnson, TV's ‘Home and Away’) may appear to have sexual confidence, but his inability to read the needs of the women he sleeps with belies a deep anxiety about his own inadequacies.
If the women in the film are taught to ask, the men are taught to listen, and also find their own kind of liberation where the societal expectations of men as masculine protectors and lovers is shattered, they can also can find pleasure in sex, a large portion of that being the pleasure that comes with creating pleasure in others. Dialogue has been opened, where even the men are allowed to ask for things they usually wouldn’t feel comfortable asking for based on outdated ideas of masculinity. Webster doesn’t find these discoveries with comic nudity or endless sex scenes; the sensuality in the film comes from the senses, where a touch (or in the case of one memorable interaction between Gina and Steve, not touching) can hold as much eroticism as sexual intercourse.
While these realisations bring liberation to those around her, they only serve to highlight the prison Gina has found herself in. Trapped in a sexless marriage with her lawyer husband Adrian (Cameron Daddo, ‘Inland Empire’), she begins to crumble as she helps her clients access a passion she has no access to herself. Adrian acts as a useful counterpoint to the men of Gina’s business - where they are discovering the joys of listening, he is incapable of doing so, only seeing sex through his needs, not his wife’s. The more those around her find their groove, the more trapped Gina becomes, threatening her relationship with her husband and this secret business she has started. It’s no use aiding the sexual liberation of others when your own sexual liberation is out of reach.
The casting of Sally Phillips, one of the truly great British comic actors of our time, in the pivotal role of Gina would suggest that Phillips’ usual delicious brand of wit and anarchy were on the cards, but instead she is given a tremendous showcase to demonstrate her skills as a dramatic actor.
The casting of Sally Phillips, one of the truly great British comic actors of our time, in the pivotal role of Gina would suggest that Phillips’ usual delicious brand of wit and anarchy were on the cards, but instead she is given a tremendous showcase to demonstrate her skills as a dramatic actor. Gina is the foundation of the film on which all the other crazy antics can take place, and as endlessly charming as Phillips is, she’s also able to give us a window into Gina’s pain and longing. She sits on a knife’s edge, her performance like a kettle about to explode. Phillips is truly wonderful in this film with this gift of a role, though it is unfortunate that she’s held down on occasion by obvious ADR to try and make her accent more Australian and less British.
The supporting cast are all wonderful, with Thompson bringing his usual charisma to the bumbling nervousness of Steve, and Gina’s support network beautifully constructed by Caroline Brazier, Hayley McElhinny and Tasma Walton, all of whom have such great chemistry with Phillips and bring a combustible sensual energy to the film. The absolute standout of the film though is Alexander England as Tom, a star-making performance of endless charm, charisma and comedy. Every moment he’s on screen, bursting with Tom’s laborador-like energy, the film absolutely shimmers, and you find yourself missing him whenever he isn’t there. If anything comes out of ‘How to Please a Woman’, you would hope at the very least that it gets Alexander England’s insatiable energy and stupidly handsome face on our screens again soon.
For all it does right, the film does leave some unfortunate holes, perhaps highlighted by the strides it does make in its discussion of sexuality and consent. For such a large cast, it’s a surprisingly white cast, with little cultural diversity. One of the few people of colour in the film, the wonderful New Zealand actor Josh Thomson, is the only male employee of the business who isn’t given a character arc or whose sexuality isn’t explored. His major scene (albeit a very funny one) doesn’t do anything to serve his journey to sexual liberation, and while the film can’t serve all its characters as effectively as others, it is unfortunate that his character is one of those underdeveloped. There’s also a subplot with Tom insisting on trying to get back together with his ex-girlfriend who is pregnant with his child. Tom may be charming to the point of swooning, but in a film where consent is often discussed as tremendously important, it is a little uncomfortable the degree to which Tom continually ignores his ex-girlfriend’s request for him to leave. Once again though, these just stick out when everything else in the film works so well. Even the question of how they will deal with sexual diversity is answered with one of the most wonderfully sensual moments in the film.
I can’t remember the last time a film left me as thoroughly and satisfyingly entertained as ‘How to Please a Woman’. Renée Webster has announced herself with a film of great insight and intelligence, compassionately made and endlessly charming. There’s still such a strong place for these kinds of human relationship comedies in Australian cinema, those feel-goods that have you leaving with a real spring in your step. What makes it all the more successful is that we’re given this experience with such a sex-positive, affirming film that celebrates female sexuality and pleasure without ever feeling the need to wink at the audience. It cements one last necessary evolution in the Australian sex comedies, that from early beginnings in the hands of men, deciding on how women’s bodies and their sexual pleasure should be presented on-screen (namely, for male pleasure and using masculine concepts of sex as their guiding principles), these films are now in the hands of women filmmakers, the male gaze giving way to the female one. On a surface level, it means we get a film that finds Tom’s gloriously dorky and enthusiastic stripteases as charming and sexy as we do. On a more profound one, we are offered a necessary reminder that consensual sexual pleasure is something worth celebrating and embracing.