We chat to writer-director Chloe Domont about her feature directorial debut Fair Play which is coming to Netflix this Friday.
NB: The following contains mild spoilers for Fair Play.
When Chloe Domont’s feature directorial debut Fair Play premiered at Sundance, it was immediately labelled an erotic thriller, mostly because the story unfolds like a thriller and there’s sex in it. A lot of sex.
Domont, sitting in a posh London hotel days before her film hits Netflix worldwide, never calls it that during our conversation.
“I set out to make a thriller about power dynamics between men and women in a relationship. You can’t take the sex out of that,” she says.
“My intention was to lean into the thriller genre to shine a light on the dangers of male inferiority to show all the ways in which women are forced to play ugly to survive, to shine a light on that emotional tear that I think women feel in these two situations but normalise.”
Fair Play stars Phoebe Dynevor and Alden Ehrenreich as a couple whose relationship is tested when Dynevor’s Emily is chosen for a promotion at the ultra-competitive hedge fund they both work at. Ehrenreich’s Luke grapples with his sense of inferiority, and sex becomes a powerful tool in a war that is waged in both the bedroom and the boardroom.
The film opens with a scene in which Emily and Luke, deeply in love, engage in some hanky-panky in a bathroom at a wedding. Their tryst is interrupted by the arrival of Emily’s period – a potentially awkward moment they both laugh off. Moments later, Emily finds an engagement ring Luke dropped and the couple get, somewhat unceremoniously, engaged.
It’s a bold opening to an ambitious film.
“We needed to fall in love with the characters right in that scene,” Domont says of the period sex scene. “I wanted us to love them because of their messiness and because of their dysfunction. At the same time, I also wanted to establish that Luke is actually, on some level, not a man who’s threatened by women. This is a man who adores Emily for all of her womanhood.”
Luke may not be scared of period blood at the beginning of the film, but as the narrative progresses, his behaviour becomes more and more toxic. Domont wanted Luke to represent millions of other men.
“I wanted Luke specifically to represent many generations of men caught in the middle, between wanting to adhere to a modern feminist society, but still having been raised on traditional ideas of masculinity and a lot of men are kind of struggling between those two things,” the director says, lighting up every time we dive deeper into the complex, thorny gender politics of her film.
“I don’t judge them for having those feelings, because I don’t feel like those feelings are their fault and I think that there are certain things instilled in them as a kid. However, what Luke does with those feelings is not excusable, and the way he weaponises his insecurity against Emily is not excusable. I think that it’s incredibly sad and frustrating that that’s the only way he can see out of his pain.”
Although viewers will find themselves empathising with Emily, for obvious reasons, it’s Luke and specifically Ehrenreich’s performance that in many ways provides a foundation for all the things Domont is interested in exploring.
Domont says Ehrenreich, unlike other actors who were up for the part, never judged his character, but provided more empathy for Luke than even Domont herself had previously felt for the character.
“Luke has put all of his self worth on this job, this promotion and achieving [it], and he’s unable to deal with his pain because he doesn’t achieve this thing. What Alden did was, he just dove into the pain on another level that I think just made the film and his character more complex.”
In an interview with Elle Magazine, Dynevor spoke how the film represents a clash between modern feminism and traditional masculinity.
“The thing that was really interesting to me is how modern feminism is clashing with traditional masculinity. I think we’re progressing, but in a lot of ways that’s counteracted by the people holding on to traditional masculinity. We’re at this weird time when there’s a lot of polarising opinions and feelings, and it made it even more exciting to tell this story.”
Domont echoes a similar sentiment, calling Fair Play a film more about male fragility than female empowerment. She also says the film exists in a post-#MeToo world. I ask her what that term means to her.
“It means that we are in more progressive times, men are watching their behaviour more, right? We’re watching what we say more, because we’re afraid of repercussions. And a lot of us want to believe that we are more evolved and progressive than we actually are on some level, but I think that in many ways, it’s made all this misogyny and this behaviour more insidious.”
Domont also describes Fair Play as “undoubtedly feminist”.
“I do feel like part of the problem with feminism and cinema is that it can be very one-note. It can be very black and white, where men are villains and women are victims and there’s no nuance and there’s no complexities to that.”
I tell Domont I particularly appreciated just how emotional all the men in her film are. Women are often accused of being too emotional and thus, unsuitable to be leaders or hold positions of power, but in Fair Play, it’s the men who will throw their briefcases and smash their computers when faced with bad news.
“I love that you mentioned that, because I’ve always felt that way. I think men are the most emotional because they don’t know how to deal with their emotions. And so once they reach a breaking point, or they’re faced with these feelings of insecurity or inferiority, they just melt down in ways that are hysterical,” the director laughs.
At the beginning of the film, the sex scenes between Luke and Emily are playful, romantic and sexy. The production had an intimacy coordinator and all sex scenes were meticulously rehearsed. Domont says this allowed the actors to focus on their emotional performance rather than the choreography of the scene.
“Once you’re actually shooting it, the actors know all the technical stuff, they’ve gone through it, so then they can just tap into the moment of it. That’s what allows the realism, the rawness, the visceral energy to come through.”
But there is also a particularly tough scene that will prove triggering for many viewers. For Domont, it was a crucial one.
“I set out to make a thriller about power dynamics on the ugliest level. For me, it always had to escalate to that place and I wanted to show it as ugly as it can be.”
Fair Play is now in cinemas and will be available to stream on Netflix from 6 October.