Unearthed Films: Full Body Massage (1995) - Reviewed

Images courtesy of Unearthed Films

Renowned British Far from the Madding Crowd cinematographer turned fully fledged provocateur writer-director Nicolas Roeg remains one of world cinema’s most underappreciated directors whose extensive but overlooked oeuvre is only starting to get attention now.  While largely known for his three major masterworks from the 1970s Walkabout, Don’t Look Now and The Man Who Fell to Earth, the director continued working throughout the 1980s with his still barb-edged sexually obsessed shockers Bad Timing and Insignificance.  While slowly down considerably in the 1990s with his Jim Henson workshop produced Roald Dahl adaptation The Witches, an unlikely kids movie from such an adult oriented sexually conscious and daring director, Roeg started dabbling in television films. 

In the same year of 1995 Roeg generated the Michael Gambon starring theatrical venture Two Deaths, the director also leapt at the chance to direct an erotic Showtime televised drama as talky chamber piece Full Body Massage.  Recently picked up by Unearthed Films via a new 2K digital restoration, the late-night cable skin flick about a free-spirited voluptuously figured nude frolicking art dealer named Nina (Mimi Rogers) awaiting her weekly Full Body Massage from her young masseur/lover Douglas (Christopher Burgard) when to her surprise a much older middle-aged replacement she’s never met named Fitch (Bryan Brown from Cocktail) is sent in to do the job. 
Though tense at first, the two quickly ease into the session which despite the frequent close-ups of hands squeezing and groping a naked woman’s body largely becomes an exchange of philosophical conversations about past relationships and the meaning of love.  Throughout, the film jumps in and out of characters fantasizing about their past relations with the subtle hint something might happen between these two.  Mostly though, what seemed like another skin flick from afar, in Roeg’s hands, turns out to be a modern and mature exchange of ideas where two people fully open up to each other intellectually.

For a movie that features Mimi Rogers naked and being felt up by numerous male characters who come in and out of the promiscuous sexually modern Nina’s life, Full Body Massage winds up functioning a bit like a stripped-down stage play largely concerning two characters from different worlds merely talking.  Akin to films like Inserts which had a way of mixing sexuality and/or full-frontal nudity with intellectual discourse about the relationships between life, art and sex, what’s curious about Roeg’s film as with many others before it is how he depicts female agency.  For a scenario that would leave most others uncomfortable, Nina is empowered and saucy and at one point even gets into a heated argument with Fitch who has his own subset of skeletons in his closet. 
Featuring a soft saxophone-oriented jazz score by Harry Gregson-Williams akin to the contemporary score for Bad Timing, much of the film is interspersed with Roeg’s close-ups shot exquisitely by Anthony B. Richmond.  The director’s trademark use of the zoom lens and close-ups of the characters with curious, at times deliberately confusing juxtapositions where we’re not always sure if the characters are acting out their fantasies or just thinking them, brilliantly edited by Louise Rubacky.  Mostly though, despite having an ensemble cast of side characters who come in and out of the characters’ lives glimpsed through flashbacks, this is an intimate, passionately acted chamber piece basically consisting of two actors.

Mimi Rogers, though naked for a majority of the film with a certain measure of trust in her director, gives one of the most confident and brave performances as a sophisticated modern woman who in the past has engaged in a series of relationships but finds herself in a curious, unlikely position of friendship with her new masseur.  Bryan Brown more or less reprises his role as the huckster bartender Coughlin from Cocktail playing a somewhat pretentious man with a cacophony of questionable techniques but watching these rigid, tightly wound-up figures slowly open up to each other like flowers is kind of sweet in an unlikely way.  Whatever energy these two generate in the one-room set piece of Nina’s modern home, it is palpable and can be cut with a knife.

A surprisingly thoughtful discussion piece through the lens of erotica and softcore pornography, Full Body Massage while a lesser known or regarded Nicolas Roeg effort nevertheless does display the director still working to the edge of his fears, doubts and inspirations.  Any other director would’ve simply turned over a Red Shoe Diaries movie but in Roeg’s hands he asks us to think like mature adults about the ideas his two characters are exchanging.  Also just a really well acted drama with two fearless actors giving pitch perfect performances, Full Body Massage shows the director working on a smaller scale but never losing sight of his desire to provoke and enrich discourse on the nature of human sexuality.  Though Unearthed Films’ blu-ray housed in a nice slipcover could’ve included more extras, the 2K scan looks nice and kudos to the boutique label for bringing this largely unseen, clandestine Roeg effort to home media for Roeg-philes to digest and enjoy.

--Andrew Kotwicki