The title means exactly what it implies, and so much more. Australian director Renée Webster releases her brilliant comedy/drama ‘How To Please A Woman‘ in Los Angeles July 22 (VOD July 29), and if the reception is anything like it has been in Australia, it is sure to make waves over here as well. ‘How To Please A Woman’ is a precarious, often hilarious and revealing journey into the vulnerable world of what women really want and how hard it can be to get it right.
Gina (played by the remarkable Sally Phillips) is taken by surprise when for her fiftieth birthday a male sex worker, a gift sent by her girlfriends, offers to do anything she wants. She asks him to do for her what no one else will – she has him clean her house. Only later does Gina realize he is from a removals business she was involved with liquidating. Amused and delighted, her friends wish for a sexy cleaner themselves, sparking a new career for Gina who decides to employ the entire male removals team as house cleaners.
At the heart of it, this film is a more-than-funny liberation story for women who have been afraid to ask for what they want – at home, at work and in the bedroom.
Sex, or the lack of it, is not always a laughing matter, yet Writer/Director Renée Webster has deftly found the perfect balance of humor and tenderness that reflects what women of a certain age – or possibly any age – experience when good sex, caring sex, respectful sex, has been absent from their lives. Learning to ask for what they want is only the first step.
‘How To Please A Woman’ is a female story told from a female perspective. The feminine focus resonated behind the camera too, with numerous women in senior crew roles including both producers, Tania Chambers and Judi Levine, together with the film’s Line Producer and departmental heads for Production Design, Costume, Hair and Makeup. The camera department, grip and gaffer departments also included many talented women.
We had the chance to speak with Reneé in the lead-up to the film’s US debut, where she spoke about the true story this film is based on, the need for more nuanced and relatable stories of female sexuality over a certain age, and how films can play a role in dismantling harmful notions about women’s pleasure and autonomy.
The notion of female sexual empowerment is already taboo and complicated in so many ways, not to mention the idea of a woman over the age of 30! Can you tell us why it was important to center 40+ women’s sexual empowerment in this film?
It wasn’t a hard decision to center 40+women’s sexual empowerment in ‘How to Please a Woman’. In fact it was one of the easiest decisions I have ever made. There is this creeping invisibility that happens to women around 50. But the thing is, as women get older they get more complicated, more sophisticated, more exacting. Yearning and desire are often left out of stories about women over 40 and this is a huge oversight. It’s actually a really potent combination, the complex maturity of an adult woman sitting alongside yearning and desire.
How to Please a Woman takes women who are no longer young, but not yet old and allows desire and sex to be a part of their lives. There is a real mix of all kinds of women who experience desire differently to each other and this film tries to acknowledge the mercurial nature of desire with women and how difficult it can be to get it right.
I think the best comedy can come from truth and pain – and for all the fun and hilarity in our story idea, I have tried to ground the comedy in an authentic place. We have this kind of mad, fantastical premise and then I tackle it in a way that is very grounded and human and honest.
‘How To please a Woman’ stars the brilliant Sally Phillips. How did she become involved in the film and what was her initial reaction to the story?
I sent this script to Sally hoping against hope that she’d read it and not only did she read it and come straight back to us, she came back with statistics (my kind of woman). Apparently married (heterosexual) women do 60% of the housework and have the fewest orgasms of any population group. Sally arrived completely on onboard, the script really resonated with her on a personal level.
It was a real ignition point having Sally on the film. She connected with the material really deeply. It was so incredible when we were filming. Sally arrived full of grace and generosity. She was so so committed to the material. The hardest thing was, Sally is REALLY hilarious (as we know) and she made so many really funny offerings every day on set and every day I would suppress it – because our tone is very specific and quite often the comedy is sitting with other characters in scenes. Sally was so gracious to let me direct her in this way.
It’s not just female sexual empowerment, it is female pleasure in particular that makes this film so awesome! Why was it important to showcase this aspect of sexuality on screen in a supportive and normalized way?
When I was writing ‘How to Please a Woman’ I made some clear decisions at the outset about how to deal with female pleasure. I got really specific about language. The women aren’t asking for sex, they’re asking for orgasms. And (depending on the woman) – they’re not just asking for orgasms, they want a particular sort of orgasm, or even, a certain number of orgasms. It’s about changing the landscape of the conversation so in this movie it’s not about women just wanting sex, it’s about women trying to work out how to have quality sex, how to stay safe, how to communicate what they want.
Can you share with us what it means to be a director on a film like this, and how the female gaze makes a huge difference when showcasing female characters?
It’s funny you don’t really think of yourself as having a female gaze until your material ends up in someone else’s hands and you realize how they might treat it. What I wanted to do here was to be completely sort of upfront and pragmatic about desire. I try very hard not to sexualize the female nudity in the film, so in my opening scenes we had all kinds of casual nudity with all sorts of bodies. I wanted to show nudity that isn’t always in a sexual context.
We also love the destigmatizing of sex work, and the way you moved away from archetypal male sex worker stereotypes to showing more nuance in these characters. Was this intentional when you wrote the script?
I was very, very, intentional about how I created the male characters in this script. The challenge was to find a way to fit them all into a 90 minute story, and in all reality I couldn’t do all of them justice. With all the characters I tried to take a more intimate view of the reality of their lives. So a good looking, hunky sex worker is actually a bloke who really wants to be a part of his unborn child’s future– and doing his best to tidy up his own life. And we have a man, who is not a bad man, but his entire sex education has come from watching porn – and of course he is a terrible lover. It was easy to de-stigmatize sex work because there were two real life ladies who did that for me.
I read about two women who ran a business that offered male sexual services to women. They described themselves as housewives and began running the business from their kitchens. There was quite a bit of press about them and I read every single thing I could and then got in touch with them. They were so counter to my (admittedly) narrow understanding of the sex industry. They were all about creating safe, healing and quality sexual experiences for women.
How can films like ‘How To Please A Woman’ go a long way to dismantling negative cultural norms around women over a certain age, and female sexuality in general?
This film views sex as a conversation and acknowledges that conversation can change over time. This is a film that encapsulates all sort of experiences of intimacy. This acknowledges that sex and intimacy is different for everyone, and also – that at every single level – it takes working out. Cinema has traditionally eroticized sexual content (or it has involved violence). ‘How to Please a Woman’ doesn’t try to eroticize sex. In fact there is only the tiniest bit of sex in the movie. But there is intimacy and all sorts of exchanges that are going on.
There is also an orgasm that takes longer than standard cinema screen time allows for, so there’s a particular tension in that scene – and a lot of it comes from, quite simply, how long she is taking. What we do in the film is have mad, left field fun that feels somehow grounded and authentic. All that I do is put women over 40 at the centre of everything. They aren’t there as somebody’s mother. Or somebody’s wife.
What do you want audiences to love/remember/take away most after watching ‘How To Please a Woman’?
There are lots of big cathartic laughs in this film (I was quite shocked when I first sat with cinema audiences, to hear just how hard and loud they laughed in certain places). I know the title suggests it’s a chick flick – but men seem to really love it. I’d like people to come away having had a good time and maybe feeling a little bit better about themselves. A common comment on the film is that it is ‘surprisingly honest’. That’s really important to me. Despite the mad premise, I want this film to feel honest.
‘How To Please A Woman’ opens in theaters in Los Angeles and other cities on July 22, 2022, and will be available via VOD from July 29, 2022.