Sex Scenes: Femme Fatale for Femme Fatale
"Bound" (1996) shows us why the modern deadly woman is always queer.
Still from Bound (1996) via IMDb.
The first 25 minutes of Bound (1996) are a long buildup to a sex scene. The movie, by the Wachowskis, is a neo-noir erotic thriller in which the (very ’90s) twist is that the love relationship is between two femme fatales, Corky (Gina Gershon) and Violet (Jennifer Tilly). But instead of using a man to get what they want, the two protagonists use each other, becoming lovers and conspiring to steal from the mafia. As far as queer cinema goes, this is a very simple and horny movie.
“Here, touch it,” says Violet, bringing Corky’s hand to her cleavage, to a rose tattoo hidden just below her sweetheart neckline.
“What are you doing?” asks Corky.
“Isn’t it obvious…I am trying to seduce you. I’ve wanted you ever since I saw you in the elevator,” says Violet.
“I know you don’t believe me,” she continues, “but I can prove it to you.” She guides Corky’s hand between her legs: “You can believe what you feel, and I’ve been thinking about you all day.”
It’s pure camp, with Tilly playing it breathy and baby-voiced while Gershon is all lip-biting, smirking, cool head-shaking. It’s as if the Hollywood erotic thrillers of the ’80s—with their billowing curtains, the trope of window blinds casting their shadows over nude bodies—met the retro-noir tropes all in the space of ’90s queer cinema.
Corky, an ex-con (who did time for “redistribution of wealth”) is hired to work as a plumber in a Chicago luxury building. Violet is the listless kept woman of a money launder for the mafia, a high femme whose look is pure ’90s noir: purple lipstick, push-up cleavage in fuzzy black angora, all those Thierry Mugler-inspired silhouettes. Corky, of course, is the bad boy, the butch sex symbol, hair cropped and slick, a threadbare wifebeater barely concealing the tattoos and muscled body. Classic white men’s briefs. Leather biker jacket.
The two first meet, like Violet said, in the elevator, where, behind her mafia man’s back, she threw a seductive look, the smooth jazz brushstroke letting us know it’s on. The seduction begins: “Thought you could use some coffee,” breathes Violet, sauntering and kittenish around Corky’s bored teenager affect, circling closer and closer. As if this weren’t already over-the-top enough to be comical, generic ’90s grrrl rock opens the scene in which they finally kiss.
Eventually, we build to noir lighting, bodies emerging from darkness on high contrast white sheets. The sex is minutely displayed on screen (to achieve “authenticity,” the Wachowskis hired queer sex educator Susie Bright as the lesbian sex choreographer). Violet’s dark, lacquered nails shine in Corky’s mouth, and the theme from a thriller chase scene is the soundtrack. Here, Violet is active as Corky, finally seduced, grabs fistfuls of sheets, a foot twisting the top sheet from the bed, leaving the two to writhe on a bare silken mattress as they undulate to Corky’s orgasm. It’s after the long buildup to sex that the film finally gets set on its course as a heist movie.
The femme fatale of the ’40s and ’50s was the woman who refused the traditional role of wife or mother. She had her own ambitions and used her resources, her sexuality, to get what she wanted. She was a threat to the men around her because she was aware of the power of her sexuality, because of her desire for autonomy and her own identity—a narrative that often led to her destruction.
In her essay, Queering Gender: The New Femme Fatale in Almodóvar’s La mala educación, Brígida M. Pastor argues that in some sense, feminism has eradicated the femme fatale from modern cinema, where female characters can now openly exist with their own wants and independence. It makes sense than that the modern femme fatale would re-emerge in the 90s as queer, a time when the fight for visibility and equality reached a peak.
Violet, as a mob girlfriend, finds herself in a classic noir situation: she’s used her sexuality to live in luxury with mob ties, and now she will use her sexuality to get out. She proposes to Corky that they can steal two million dollars—but in order to do that, they need to trust each other.
In deciding to do the heist, Violet and Corky each play the femme fatale, using each other for gain while continuing the romance, a twist that begets suspicion: Corky wonders if Violet is truly gay or if she’s going to pin the theft on her, and Violet has to trust Corky to handle the millions until she’s safely out of the mafia bed. Here, the mystery element is moved from crime to that of sexual orientation.
After Violet receives an afternoon visit from another mob member, Corky, having listened through the walls, accuses her of not being a real lesbian—or at least of being a flaky bisexual.
“What you heard wasn’t sex, that was work,” says Violet. “You made certain choices in your life that you paid for. You said you made them because you were good at something and it was easy. You think you’re the only person that’s good at something? We all make our own choices, we pay our own prices.”
Violet’s words are straightforward, but the enigma of the femme fatale in Bound remains the enigma of the bisexual: who or what do they really want? In the 1993 essay “Resituating the Bisexual Body,” Clare Hemmings describes how the trope of bisexuality became synonymous with untrustworthiness: the bisexual as a double agent who appears to be part of one camp but also strongly identifies with another.
For Corky, the fear is that Violet's queerness is just as make-believe as the hetero relationship with her mafia boyfriend, and that Violet will go back to courting powerful men, much as bisexuality in mainstream pornography is used to court male fantasies. But, then again, why can’t a girl have it all?
According to Katherine Farrimond's The Contemporary Femme Fatale, part of the problem with the visibility of bisexuality is that it forces us to see that it’s not possible to discern the entirety of a person’s desires (sexual or emotional) based on current sexual action. Despite strides made in the 22 years since the film debuted (Bisexual Visibility Day was celebrated just this week), there remains cultural misunderstanding around the fact that, for some, desire may be as fluctuating and unique as each relationship they are in. It’s a confusion that’s more understandable for movies where a character’s personality and sexuality has to be etched forever into film with a few brief scenes, but still it falls flat.
In the end, Bound is an optimistic thriller with a classic Hollywood ending (love conquers all) that attempts to rewrite the fate of the femme fatale and those dated noir anxieties about female sexuality into a vision of queer sex as an emancipatory force capable of giving women the freedom and identity they crave. The cartoonish options the movie presents may be comically limited (femme ex-mafia wife or dyke plumber who happens to have runway model looks), but, in its simplicity and horniness, the film’s naive message surely aided teens in their struggle to discover two very complicated and nebulous concepts: sexuality and coolness.