This is the sixth installment of our “Home Movies” column by Philippa Snow, about what we watch when no one’s watching.
Watched this week:
Afternoon Delight (2013) | Private Life (2018)
I Love Dick (2016-17) | Mrs. Fletcher (2019)
While there is no doubt that some version of the actress Kathryn Hahn existed prior to 2013, it seems to me to be appropriate to say that Kathryn Hahn the way we know her best—Hahn the bohemian horndog, the self-loathing yummy mummy with a graduate degree in English literature—made her onscreen debut that year in Afternoon Delight, a minor indie with some major hang-ups about sex work. Written and directed by Jill Soloway, the movie takes the unimaginative trope of a mid-lifer being reinvigorated by a young, hot and eccentric blonde, and makes it roughly 50 percent more intriguing by ensuring that the one having the midlife crisis is in fact a woman: Rachel, a bored stay-at-home mom who was once a jobbing writer, takes her husband to a strip club in the hopes that seeing other women naked might convince them to get naked with each other. Trying too hard to seem chill, she gets a lap dance from McKenna, a blonde, barely-legal stripper played by Juno Temple in the key of Paris Hilton. Hahn, as Rachel, plays the scene with four distinct moods: terrified, aroused, surprised to be aroused, and slightly dazed. Some psychic shift occurs, minor but vital to the plot.
Proving herself to be very, very un-chill, Rachel takes to driving aimlessly around the neighborhood adjacent to the strip club, hoping she might catch McKenna on a break; when she eventually does, she engineers a meet-cute at the coffee stand, and the two women strike up an unusual friendship. The mysterious dynamic between Rachel and McKenna is the most interesting thing about Soloway’s movie, Freudian in its muddling of the lines between the sexual and the maternal. There is something, too, of Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody’s later, more depressing Tully in the mix—namely, the sense that Rachel may be looking to relive, by bringing a seductive girl into her world, some alternate, less inhibited version of her sexual past. As in Tully, the young interloper meets the older woman in the guise of an employee, leaving the sincerity of their connection in some doubt. (“You came in with your husband, right? That’s very cool,” McKenna offers in her sexy baby voice when the two first meet up for coffee, a compliment that is also quite obviously a professional courtesy. Rachel just beams and beams.) When McKenna reveals that she has been living in the strip-club owner’s car, Rachel invites her to move into the spare room, leaving us to wonder whether she is looking for a lover, a surrogate daughter, a new live-in babysitter, or a friend with whom she has nothing in common but her sex.
Equally blurred is the film’s view on what McKenna and her ilk do for a living, in particular when she reveals to Rachel that she is not just a dancer, but “pretty much down for everything, a full sex worker.” Temple’s figuring of her as a pink-clad and ingratiating faux-bimbette, initially as sweet as sugar, leaves room for the audience to decide whether she is vulnerable or cunning, an airheaded lost soul or a canny and manipulative bitch. Certainly, when things go south, she wields her body like a particularly cute Kalashnikov, taking no prisoners and expressing no regret. It is difficult to know whether the movie thinks that what McKenna does is more demeaning than being a jobless and reluctant bougie housewife, although Rachel seems unhappier than her houseguest, and a general malaise seems to hang over her apartment like a fog. A scene where Rachel, bummed out by the tedium of a kiddy craft fair, chooses to accompany McKenna to an assignation with a client—a sexual exhibitionist, who first wants her to watch, and then wants her to stick her fingers in his mouth—marks the first and the only time in Afternoon Delight that she does any work at all. Still, we are meant to see the experience as an act of degradation, a traumatic come-to-Jesus moment scarifying enough to put Rachel off her Captain-Save-A-Ho campaign. She stops treating her new charge the way a certain type of affluent white woman might treat an impoverished sex worker, i.e. as a personal project, and begins to treat her the way an entirely different type of affluent white woman might treat an impoverished sex worker, i.e. with absolute disdain.
“Why does everybody think that women are debasing themselves when we expose the conditions of our debasement?” Chris Kraus writes, in I Love Dick. “Why do women always have to come off clean?” Over two days during a particularly brutal viral relapse lately, I fell deep into what I called a “K(athryn Hahn) hole” after first having my interest piqued by Afternoon Delight, continuing the Hahn-a-thon with Private Life (2018) and I Love Dick (2016), then the first half of Mrs. Fletcher (2019). It may be less accurate to say that all the women that I watched Hahn play over that period were similar than to suggest that both films and both series seemed to occupy a kind of Kathryn Hahn Cinematic Universe. When I alluded to a typical character played by Hahn in the first paragraph, what I was thinking of specifically was this: a woman in her early forties who is a professional or a formerly-professional writer, with some kind of sexual hang-up or obsession that is causing her to behave in an atypical way. In I Love Dick, she is the real-life author Chris Kraus; her character in Private Life, also called Rachel, is a novelist; Mrs. Fletcher, though not technically a professional writer, signs up for a community college class on essay writing. Kraus is sexually obsessed with Dick, who she writes letters to; Rachel no longer has sex because she is monomaniacally obsessed with IVF; Mrs. Fletcher, who eventually seduces her son’s friend, has an addiction to pornography.
Because all four of these pieces of media are realistic and unflinching, and because Hahn plays the main character in them, we are consistently watching her exposing the conditions of one woman or another’s sexual, emotional or personal debasement. What is fascinating about Kathryn Hahn is the fact that something about her way of being prevents this from feeling like a violation. It is possible that this specific quality is what made many fans of I Love Dick, the brilliant 1997 novel, less inclined to watch the 2018 series: the real Kraus’s life work has in some ways been about the reclamation of female humiliation and abasement as a form of radical empowerment, making the key to I Love Dick’s success its squirminess, the way it forces female readers to recall occasions on which they have been described as crazy, needy or deluded. Hahn, as Chris, never feels vulnerable per se, even when she is acting like a desperate person. It is a similar magic trick to the one performed by another brunette indie actress d’un certain âge in Lars Von Trier’s 2013 duology, Nymphomaniac Vol. I and Vol. II: Charlotte Gainsbourg, who is beaten and assaulted over three hours of footage as the titular sex addict, makes the exercise less sordid by virtue of her innate intelligence and dignity, so that the welts and the split lips and the requests to be annihilated by strange men feel less like weakness than like anarchy, a love of pain that adds to rather than diminishes her sense of self.
Hahn is very often naked—her lean body, accessorized with a pair of unhip pantyhose, a period stain, a camisole, is her preferred prop. There may be no sexier actress working now, the primary thing about her being her willingness to strip off, talk blue, quip acerbically, and convincingly play the kind of woman who routinely publishes short stories in Tin House. Her characters are not wise, but smart; not well-adjusted, but well-read. In interviews, she does not call herself a woman, but a “gal.” (“Broad” might also be said to be applicable.) There is one scene in Mrs. Fletcher where her character, having begun communing with her inner pervert by exposing herself to a not-inconsiderable volume of online pornography, enacts a spanking video alone in her beige-tinged suburban kitchen: bending over on the counter, she pretends to be the spanker and the spankee simultaneously, slapping her cheeks until they turn a bright vermillion. It is hot, and very stupid, and Hahn plays it as a perfect mix of slapstick and erotica, inducing in her audience a feeling not unlike the one that hits in the dark moment between orgasm, and slamming down the laptop screen. That she owns it, leaning into its ridiculousness until that ridiculousness becomes oddly sensual, is the most Hahnian mood.
Speaking of things that make you want to close your laptop: in the interests of research, I ended up watching the first half of Bad Moms, a broad, dumb comedy from 2016 in which Hahn plays a wild single mom named Carla, for the sake of seeing her play against type by acting dopey, very trashy and more like a cartoon character than like the kind of woman whose exposure to cartoons is limited to the New Yorker. Bad Moms slots into a genre I would confidently describe as “plane movies,” in the sense that I imagine it would go down very smoothly at an oxygen-lite altitude of 30,000 feet. The premise—that some moms decide to be less good at parenting their children for the sake of personal empowerment, or something—is, perversely, not so far from Hahn’s typical purview, being as it is a story about women having sexual, emotional and familial crises that result in nervous breakdowns, and then breakthroughs. Carla, styled as a Long Island slut with eighties hair, is a caricature of a certain kind of middle-aged, working class woman, a stereotype that is more offensive than the movie’s tediously “naughty” fucks-‘n’-dildos dialogue. She is the woman that McKenna, twenty years after her turn as the concupiscent young sex worker of Afternoon Delight, might have grown into: dressed in pink, perpetually spilling out of her minuscule leather jacket, and as fond of frosted lipstick as she is of hunky men. I wondered what might have made Hahn take the role, who by this time had also starred in Soloway’s Transparent and presumably signed on for I Love Dick, until I watched a video on YouTube of her talking about Carla. “What I love about Carla, is that she’s unapologetic about her life … she’s unapologetic about her choices. She’s a woman who is slightly over forty,” she says, grinning making the word “slightly” into a self-deprecating punchline, “who really, really, really, really loves sex.” I may have been wrong to assume, in other words, that she was playing against type.