40 Days and 40 Nights: The good, the bad, and the ... abstinent? 🤷♂️
Updated: Nov 6, 2020
I found an old DVD copy of this film moving house recently and instantly wanted to pop it on - any excuse to avoid unpacking! I must have watched this a thousand times back in the day (I'm sure the main character portrayed by Josh Hartnett had a little something to do with it). But I wondered if my memory was doing it justice. Re-watching I reminisced over some good old "00's" Rom Com plot devices - it feels like every movie from this era revolved around a bet! And cringed over the less than ideal portrayal of male hyper-sexuality - are we all sex that sex obsessed? Come with me as we take a closer look at this 'sexually frustrated boy-meets-girl of his dreams' throwback.
40 Days and 40 Nights, released in 2002 and directed by Michael Lehmann, follows the story of heartbroken Matt (90's teen heart throb Josh Hartnett) who, in a moment of Lent inspired epiphany, gives up all types of sex for 40 days.
That's no sex with a partner and no sex by himself.
On discovering Matt's plans his flatmate Ryan (hilariously played by Paulo Castanzo) sets up a betting pool at their dot com work place (which seriously needs a review of its sexual harassment policy) putting money down on which day Matt will succumb to his sexual urges. The wager goes viral and the competition to bring Matt undone ramps up the closer he gets to Easter.
In typical '00's' cliche style Matt meets the girl of his dreams - Erica (the gorgeous and talented Shannyn Sossaman), at a laundromat (...naturally), during his period of abstinence. Torn between getting over his ex Nicole (devilishly enacted by Vinessa Shaw), adhering to his vow, or opening himself to new love - the film follows Matt's experience of keeping his hands off it (literally) in an effort to "un-complicate" his life from sex and all that comes with it.
Sticking to true Rom-Com form Erica discovers Matt's secret (well secret to her) vow of abstinence leading to tension, mistrust and confusion. Matt persists with all the usual romantic stand by's (flowers, gifts, and secret laundromat stashes of fabric softener) ultimately leading to a very erotic flower petal tantric sex scene - we'll unpack that further down! Matt's hard work nearly comes undone in the final hour of his 40 days when his ex Nicole pretty much sexually assaults him in his sleep (to be honest - this is the most problematic part of the film). Ultimately Erica, with advice from flatmate Sam (the ever witty Maggy Gyllenhaal), puts the wacky passed 40 days aside and our star crossed lover's get their happy ending.
How do we know?
After all - it's all in the kiss!
Ok so confession time - I am partial to a 90's/00's Rom-Com. This film hits me right in the nostalgic feels! It got a beating in the reviews when it was released - see David and Margaret from The Movie Show tear it to pieces with a rating of 2/5 here: https://www.sbs.com.au/movies/video/11672643901/40-Days-and-40-Nights
It's definitely a product of it's time but here's what I think it did well:
I was streaming the soundtrack for weeks after watching. There's Bowie, Moby, INXS, Sophie B Hawkins, Sugababes, Everclear, and Fat Boy Slim to name a few. Some great tunes intricately placed at just the right moments to set the scene and heighten our emotions as we travel the romance roller coaster with our protagonist.
The flatmates Ryan and Sam ( Paulo Castanzo and Maggy Gyllenhaal respectively) provide some great moments. They're a character device that acts like a conscience figure for the protagonists - presenting with almost opposite personalities they provide light and shade and allow the audience to watch what might otherwise be internal dialogue. Plus - they're dry, witty and fun - Ryan inspecting the bed with a fluid lamp is classic. Brief but enjoyable performances.
Corny as it is the film has some funny moments - mostly at Matt's expense as he nervously tries to avoid temptation. There's some clever visual effects in Matt's daydream sequences (CGI in all of its turn of the century glory) but overall it's Hartnett's portrayal that steals the show. From falling into a jittery mess every time he's exposed to anything remotely sexual to unintentional erections at work Hartnett sells us a beautifully exaggerated version of a stereotypical 'horny' male ... but here in lies the rub (so to speak).
Where the film falls flat for me is in the content. Making fun of a guy in emotional pain after a break up? That's just plain mean. And portraying all men as sex obsessed neanderthals unable to control their urges is pretty one dimensional. We'll unpack some of the sexological themes below and see how applicable they are today.
The Sexology Stuff
So abstinence - not the strategy of choice for most sex therapists. Time and again research has shown that abstinence is a flawed strategy - it doesn't delay coitarche (that's episode of first sex), or reduce the risk of STI's or pregnancy.
Why? Because as Matt shows us, it's pretty hard to stick to.
Abstinence messaging also frames sex as something that is shameful, secretive and wrong - which leads to all kinds of problems - namely low self esteem, guilt, and problematic sexual practices like intoxicated sex.
Instead what Matt could have tried is a similar approach where we take the demands of sex (particularly focus on orgasm, penetration, and erections) right off the table - usually in an effort to reduce some of the biggest causes of psychogenic sexual dysfunction: pressure, goal orientated performance and self evaluative performance. Reinstating a mindful focus on pleasure, touch, and intimacy and working back towards the stuff mentioned above in a slow controlled manner.
None of this 40 day limit, black-and-white, all or nothing business.
In fact there's a whole approach to this type of therapy called Sensate Focus.
(We'll definitely be doing a blog review of this approach in future!)
But rarely (if ever) would we encourage the avoidance of sexual pleasure, thoughts, or experimentation - particularly at the detriment of all involved. As the movie shows (in an albeit over-dramatic way) sexual thoughts are natural and human and to deny them usually causes more problems than it solves. It's easy for Matt to blame sex and all that comes with it as the scapegoat for his difficulty in coping with his break up with Nicole but on the outside looking in we could offer so many more legitimate reasons that he might be struggling- like co-dependence, poor self esteem, grief - all really reasonable processes, but not necessarily focused on sex.
And don't get me wrong, getting over an ex can be hard but the solution doesn't have to be as black and white as having sex with everyone you see or no one - especially when you've met someone that you connect with in that process. And setting an arbitrary time frame based on a religious event seems unlikely to be of great help (especially when you're not exactly practicing your faith).
Which brings us too ...
I really think that the Catholic observance of Lent was just used in this film as a plot device to neatly capture a time frame that made sense for the plot, at the same time connecting some elements of sexual repression with religious and family upbringing. The plot got sloppy and confusing in part around this with the family dinner scene where Matt's dad (Barry Newman) openly talks about his sex life with Matt's mum (Mary Gross) post hip replacement surgery. And whilst it was great to see open adult mature exploration of older aged sex (something rarely explored in media ... or frankly, ever) it made little sense with Matt and his priest brother's (Adam Trese) description of growing up in a traditional household - exemplified much better by mum.
Overall though i think it does summarise that our thoughts about sex, rightly or wrongly, are shaped by our upbringing - the thoughts we have about sex, whether sex is ok or not, whether sex is shameful or not. I think if Matt and his brother did grow up in a household where dad and mum were openly talking about sex post hip replacement surgery they may not struggle so much with such finite views of sex as complicated and problematic.
THAT Sex scene
It's not only our past experiences that shape our views of sex but messages we are flooded with in the movies, magazines, and media. Which brings us to THAT scene. The tantric petal massage orgasm scene.
Now lets be clear - orgasm can and does happen through tantric sex. Tantric sex is a real thing. Women and men can climax without touching their genitals. And orgasm can be extended through connection, breath, mindfulness and tantric practices.
But could it happen spontaneously ... from a petal massage .... without any other erotic touch?
Sure it could.
.... but is it likely? .... Not so much.
And does the film set up an unrealistic, over-romanticised, over-eroticised, Hollywood version of tantric sex and female orgasm? .... you bet.
Which makes for great viewing .... but if you're interested in exploring this further my advice - do some reading, talk to your partner/s, and don't put too much pressure on yourself to have the 'Hollywood', petal massage, orgasm experience. At least not the first time anyway.
For a more realistic first time attempt at tantra take a look at this clip - it's much more realistic, educational and the best part is representative of straight, gay and lesbian couples:
And here's where things go from bad to worse on the sexological front.
The guys ... the guys in this movie ... They're awful! I mean, we get it, guys like sex, especially guys in their 20's but do we all really talk this way? think this way? act this way?
The bagel guy people, the bagel guy! (Michael C Maronna)
The movie really portrays the unhelpful concept of hegemonic masculinity - which basically says that every guy has to aspire to be this archetypal masculine figure - tough, muscular, fit, and you guessed it - always up for sex, in order to achieve the highest social status. But it's this type of pressure that leads to all kinds of problems like performance anxiety, low self esteem, and loneliness. And whilst i really enjoyed Hartnett's performance, on reflection, his struggle with abstinence as the movie progresses just reinforces the social perils of the march towards this pinnacle of hegemony. He even looks sicker and weaker as the movie progresses - suggesting there's a physical deficit to abstinence or non-conforming behaviour. And the behaviour of his 'mates' leaves a lot to be desired - I mean his own priest brother can't even stick to his vow of celibacy, reinforcing that there's little to no hope for Matt.
It's an uncomfortable watch and in the era of the #metoo movement this aspect of the film hasn't aged well.
And on that note we can't ignore the fact that Matt was sexually assaulted by his ex-girlfriend while he slept.
... And the movie is completely silent about this.
*Insert cringe here*
It's a pretty hideous scene (masked by a poorly CGI'ed booby wet dream - which to be fair was probably decent for it's time period) - the consequences of which are completely unaddressed in the film. In fact Matt is blamed by Erica for engaging (albeit non-consensually) in the act and whilst we can empathise with her feelings of betrayal we're not really directed to focus our empathy on Matt.
Remember him? the guy that just got assaulted in his sleep.
And why you might ask? Aside from the cinematic direction - it's because of what we were just talking about above - the portrayal of hegemonic masculinity, that all men want sex all the time ... even when they're asleep ... even with their ex girlfriends who they're trying to get over .... even when they can't consent. All of which is not ok.
The film has copped some flack about this scene since release and rightly so. It's problematic and reinforces unhelpful stereotypes about sexual assault, consent, and masculinity.
If you're still in doubt - here's a great clip that reinforces consent outside of gender stereotypes. So sit back, chuck on your old DVD version of 40 days and 40 nights and enjoy a cup of tea:
So! Like I said I love a nostalgic throwback and chuck in a 90's heartthrob all the better. This movie was entertaining, funny, and a walk down memory lane but it was also problematic, flawed in its portrayal of men and sex, and silent in it's excusing of sexual assault. I don't think it's stood the test of time ... and you know what, maybe that's a good thing, because it means we know better and hopefully we're doing better, and that's all we can ask of each other.
Entertainment: 3/5 slates
Sexological: 2/5 stags
Disclaimer: All material posted is the author's opinion and should not take the place of tailored advice, unique to your situation, from a medical or healthcare professional.
All images and gifs are sourced through wix.com and the author's private photo collection unless otherwise stated.