Given the retro aesthetics of Olivia Wilde's Don't Worry Darling, it would be accurate to describe the film’s sexual scenarios as what used to be called “heavy petting.” It’s a movie where the characters only get to third base. Harry Styles and Florence Pugh make out a bunch. He goes down on her in one over-the-top sequence and later fingers her, but there is no penetrative sex. This is all part of Wilde's vision for the film. In an interview with Variety, she declared: “Men don’t come in this film.” It’s a nice feminist sentiment, but doesn’t make a lick of sense in the context of the movie.
(Warning: Some light spoilers for Don’t Worry Darling ahead.)
In the sheer chaos around the release of Don’t Worry Darling, the sex scenes have become one of the most talked about elements of the film. Wilde has hyped up how much she has focused on female pleasure, while Pugh has argued that she doesn’t want her performance reduced to chatter about the “most famous man in the world” eating her out. But in the movie, these moments just speak to the confused nature of the allegory that Wilde and screenwriter Katie Silberman have created. If they are making a film about the stifling weight of the patriarchy, why is their heroine having such a good time sexually?
In Don’t Worry Darling, Pugh plays Alice, who begins the story as a cheery housewife. She has a Brigitte Bardot hair bump and lives in a midcentury development community that’s a cheery oasis in the middle of an arid desert. Alice is madly in love with her perfectly coiffed husband Jack (Styles, naturally), and doesn’t initially mind that he works at a threatening-sounding entity called the Victory Project. Every morning she cooks his breakfast and then sends him off to the office. She spends some time cleaning the house, but then takes ballet lessons, shops, and sunbathes with her pals. In the evening, he comes home, and she has dinner on the table. But before they eat, he sweeps her off her feet and onto said table, where he furiously goes down on her. It's a huge mess.
But, of course, nothing is as it seems in this Mad Men simulacrum. Alice starts to grow suspicious of her perfect life. She starts to have strange visions and witnesses another one of the wives (KiKi Layne) self harming. Seen a single episode of The Twilight Zone or Black Mirror? You know where this is going. Without spoiling too much, Jack has trapped Alice in this Stepford cosplay, where women are entirely subservient and men are revered as titans of industry, who improve the planet with their secretive affairs. The character portrayed by the lusted-after pop star is revealed to be a sniveling men’s rights activist-type who is so threatened by his wife’s career that he imprisons her, so she quite literally cannot do anything but serve him. So what is he doing, uh, serving her?
Wilde’s wish to show her protagonist’s desires being catered to is admirable, and it’s true that you’re still more likely to see a man reaching completion in a realistic fashion on screen than a woman. But her announcement that she has directed a movie wherein only women orgasm seems less based in the story she’s trying to tell than the statement she’s trying to put forth. If Jack is really the asshole he turns out to be, it is unlikely that he would be so chill about not getting himself off. Similarly, Wilde’s disinterest in Jack’s sexual drive outside of his seemingly boundless want to please his spouse makes the patriarchy seem, well, not all that threatening.
It’s a problem with the movie that expands beyond the sex scenes. Wilde is so enamored with her movie’s period aesthetic, which cribs from the ‘40s through the ‘60s, that this supposed nightmare appears actually very pleasant. Don't Worry Darling never interrogates its own period glamor, never delving beyond the most basic “men are bad” reading of the text. Wilde and cinematographer Matthew Libatique can't resist showing just how beautiful everything looks. And even after the big reveal, you’d probably still opt to attend a Don't Worry Darling-themed costume party. Hell, you may even choose to live in the Don't Worry Darling universe. Sure, there’s some cooking and cleaning, but you mostly just party with your friends and have your husband cater to all of your sexual needs.
Without reading too much into the relationship between director and star—which has become a tabloid fixation entirely independent of the movie—it seems that Wilde is too cautious to turn Jack into the villain he truly is, and Styles does not yet have the acting chops to fully embrace menace. The result is that Jack never feels real in any sense. He’s either a dream husband with no sexual needs or an avatar for evil. And while, sure, framing Jack as a coarse misogynist who could easily be pegged as a jerk would of course have been too obvious, Wilde never finds a middle ground where he’s seductive and scary all at the same time. (Think: The balance Jon Hamm struck in multiple seasons as Don Draper on, yes, Mad Men.)
That lack of nuance is also why the sex just doesn’t work. The big cunnilingus sequence is choreographed so precisely, with Alice systematically knocking items off her dining room table as she nears closer to climax, that it never generates any heat. It's entirely performative, just like Wilde’s statement that only women come in her movie. I’d say it wasn’t actually supposed to be all that sexy—because that would fit the themes of the movie—but that’s probably not the case either.