People have called it for it be pulled from the service, but the escapist fantasy of 365 Days is nothing new, writes Alie Benge.
To every generation, a bullish alpha-male psychopath is born, and is for someone reason considered a romantic hero. We’ve been through a lot this year, and instead of a Covid vaccine, the universe has given us 365 Days; the Polish soft-porn film that, at the time of writing, is #6 on the Netflix charts. I’ll briefly explain the plot and we can pretend you haven’t already seen it.
Massimo is a Sicilian gangster who drugs and kidnaps Laura, giving her 365 days to fall in love with him. It’s fine though, because he promises not to do anything without her permission, literally as he is sexually assaulting her. He saves her from drowning in a perfectly calm sea. In gratitude they engage in a sex montage that drags on for far too long. It’s during the montage that we get the film’s most talked-about moment, in which Massimo spits on Laura’s clitoris. Other highlights include: some half-hearted attempts at escape; Massimo saying “Are you lost, baby girl?” three times (three!); and forcing an air hostess to give him a blow job because he got some bad news.
There’s nothing new about the plot. Captive woman stories are a popular trope, and not just in romance. To break it down to boring technical terms, a lot of narrative potential can come from forced proximity between two characters, including the ever popular “enemies to lovers” story. What is more unusual about 365 Days is that the hero is not redeemable. Generally, whoever the “villain” is, they’re eventually revealed to be not such a villain after all. Maybe they’re the dastardliest pirate in the seven seas, but they turn out to be morally upright and noble at heart. Some attempt at redemption is made by making Massimo a little sniffy about child sex trafficking, but it doesn’t really hit the same. The “sex pest with a heart of gold” is not a thing. It’s an oxymoron. Abuse comes from power and entitlement. It shows a lack of ability to imagine and value another person’s feelings. Abuse is incompatible with respect, compassion, and empathy. The idea of a “good person” is vague and subjective, but if someone is capable of sexual abuse, it’s probably not them.
A function of the captive woman plot is that it allows readers a safe way to explore fear. In the years following 9/11 there was a massive spike in romances about Arabian sheikhs. The hero is often a wealthy prince or oil tycoon from a made-up country. A quick search on the Libby app showed Wellington library has 112 books with “sheikh” in the title. Titles include Claimed by the Sheikh, The Sheikh’s Captive Bride, The Sheikh’s Pregnant Prisoner. Many romances also feature Viking marauders and bikers, often as kidnappers, despite the obvious fact that being kidnapped by a dangerous man is not something that anyone would want to happen to them in real life. There’s a dialogue going on between fear and fantasy. The sheikh novels show that where there’s an institutionalised fear of a particular group, men from that group will be cast as romantic heroes.
In the 70s, mainstream romance novels were pretty chaste. There was no pre-marital sex, characters were generally virgins, and if a heroine wanted her clitoris spat on, she’d be shit out of luck. Then The Flame and the Flower depicted Heather Simmons, an orphan who ends up falling in love with and marrying her rapist. The novel sold in the millions, transforming the romance landscape, and solving the problem of how to depict graphic sex while maintaining the moral purity of the female lead. Soon, romances featuring women falling for their rapists were flying off the shelves. Nowadays, audiences aren’t so queasy about pre-marital sex, and they don’t require heroines to be waspish virgins. Yet, the non-consensual aspect has survived.
I didn’t hate 365 Days. It was entertaining and kind of funny in an eye-rolling, snorting sort of way. But I couldn’t figure out how this got to number six when the audience is more likely to relate to the poor air hostess than to Laura. Or why I was comfortable watching this, but could never watch I May Destroy You – a show about sexual violence that’s critically acclaimed and positively reviewed but which I feel triggered just hearing about.
There is more than one fantasy at play here. People aren’t only watching because they like a captive woman plot of an evening. Escapism is built into every facet, and different viewers will be caught by different fantasies. Laura runs rampant in more than one shopping montage. There’s a fantasy about close female friendship, and about power, wealth, pregnancy, and a man loving you that intensely (for all his faults, he probably never left Laura on read). As my friend said after watching it, “He had a nice boat. I’d like a boat.” I was texting this friend throughout the movie – texts such as “OMG the SPIT”. When I’d finished the movie and needed a cup of tea and a lie-down, she sent, “How did this get approved after #metoo?”, and then it all came together. I thought of the sheikhs, and the large-scale fear of a people group, and I realised that the dominant threat to women today, and the largest societal fear, is wealthy, powerful, abusive men. So maybe what we’re doing here is taking our fear of the Weinsteins and the Epsteins, and projecting them into our romances. I feel this fear so intensely. I’m aware of it when I’m alone in an elevator with someone and they’re closer to the emergency stop button than I am. I’m aware that I get to live another day because no one decided to murder me on my way home, and that someone else wasn’t so lucky. I’m aware there’s a chance I’ll get threats online simply because I’m saying in this article that I’m afraid of certain men. And yet, I watched the movie, and it made me laugh.
There is something about fictional narrative that allows us to process our experiences without directly connecting to the specific memory of them. I wondered about this during the early days of coronavirus, when everyone rushed to watch Contagion. When our own experience of a pandemic is bad enough, why ask for more? Why go to Netflix and not the news? When I get my heart broken, why do I want to watch the parts of Notting Hill where Hugh Grant mopes around feeling sad? Why am I watching 365 Days, a movie that takes my greatest fears and worst experiences and feeds them back to me?
There’s something about the sanitisation that occurs in particular styles of narrative. Notting Hill is bright and charming, and I know a happy ending is coming. It takes a depiction of my own incredibly painful emotion and knocks the edges off, renders it harmless, and returns it. We’re not characters in Contagion. We don’t have skin in the game, so we can sit at a remove, and process our own fears by watching someone else experience them, knowing that at any moment we can turn the screen off. I can’t watch more serious depictions of sexual violence, because it’s too real.
It doesn’t allow me to escape my own excruciating fear; it reminds me of it. 365 Days employs other non-problematic fantasies to settle me into a world of pure glamour and escapism, reflects an experience I recognise, and neutralises it. The film shows me my fear, cushions me against it with luxury yachts and backless red gowns, and gives me the capacity to float above it. If only for two hours, I have some reprieve, and that’s the blissful power of narrative. That’s what stories can do.