Screen

Sometimes the Femme Fatale Wins

Bound (1996) starts with an excellent practical effect title shot, then the camera moves to a woman, tied up in another woman’s closet, as we hear voices talking about money, theft, time and a plan. You can tell it’s not her closet because she is very butch and the closet is very femme. Bound is my favorite Wachowski film and it’s a beautiful-looking neo-noir film shot by Bill Pope and designed by Eve Cauley. It’s a film that plays with the conventions of noir, especially the conventions around a femme fatale. Stories with femmes fatale are rarely about the femme fatale, but Bound is and the film does it so well. It’s not only about Violet, but it’s also her story. We see why former burglar and current handyperson Corky worries she’ll be a sap and why mafia money-launderer Caesar is convinced he never will be and why he has the gall to feel betrayed. And we see that Violet is tired of her job and might be the smartest person in the film. Everyone underestimates Violet, at least at first and she uses their expectations to her advantage. 

Jennifer Tilly gives a masterful performance as Violet and the film uses her voice and appearance both to show why everyone around her wants her and to show how she’s not taken seriously. She isn’t what the men in the film consider smart. And the film uses these prejudices so well that she might even be underestimated by the audience at first.

Corky (Gina Gershon) temporarily moves into an apartment to renovate it while the never-seen Rajiv, the building maintenance person, is in India for a while. Corky’s an ex-con who did five years for “redistributing wealth.” We first meet Caesar (Joe Pantoliano) and Violet (Jennifer Tilly) as they ride with Corky in the elevator. Their apartments are next to one another. Violet is interested in Corky and Corky, though amused, is interested in Violet, because Corky is the kind of mess who would be interested in a gangster’s paid companion even when she knows Caesar is a gangster. Caesar is oblivious to their interest and remains oblivious for nearly the entire film, because he can’t imagine that beautiful, femme Violet is queer and he can’t imagine she’d prefer a poor, butch lesbian who did time to him and all that he can provide.

Violet, dressed down on her day off.

But Violet does want Corky. So when Caesar is out gangstering and Corky is trying to clear a remarkably disgusting blockage in  her apartment’s bathtub drain with a drain snake–”Do Not Force Snake,” the equipment reads in case you missed the sexy implications. “Slow and Easy Does It”–Violet goes next door dressed down in a black angora sweater and black jeans, with two cups of coffee and a request that Corky not use power tools first thing in the morning.

Mm-hm.

It’s a delightful queering of straight porn tropes. She offers Corky a cup, assuming that she’d want hers “straight black” and muses about the magic hands of people who can fix things. Later, Violet arranges to have Corky come over and fish an earring out of her kitchen sink’s drain. Violet and Caesar’s apartment is modern in mostly black, white and gray. But Corky’s is efflorescent with floral wallpaper, with particularly evocative red, floral wallpaper on the wall between their units, reinforcing that their worlds are in parallel and one is much more satisfying–sexually and otherwise– to Violet than the other. 

In the elevator, the film eroticizes the glances between Violet and Corky. And in the apartments, the film eroticizes Corky’s hands and Violet’s gams as Corky handles her pipes. Violet is all dark lipstick, black slipdresses, seamed hosery and dark nailpolish. Corky is classic 1990s butch–white ribbed tank top, grey Dickie’s work pants, black motorcycle jacket, boots, multiple ear piercings,  silver rings, and a “vintage” truck. Violet pointedly admires Corky’s labrys tattoo*, asking if Corky is surprised she recognizes a lesbian symbol, then shows Corky a tattoo on her breast. When Corky asks Violet what she’s doing, Violet responds, “Isn’t it obvious? I’m trying to seduce you.” Violet offers to prove to Corky that she wants her, drawing Corky’s hand under her skirt and saying, “You can’t believe what you see, but you can believe what you feel.”

They are interrupted by Caesar coming home. He doesn’t notice the sex happening on his couch, but starts to rage when he thinks Corky is a man alone with Violet in his apartment. Realizing Corky’s gay, Caesar becomes genial. He laughs at the idea of Violet cheating on him with Corky, in front of them, because obviously Corky is no threat. And obviously Violet would never want that. But Caesar doesn’t know what Violet wants because Violet is working for him, even if he fools himself that she’s not.

Violet is more honest in her work than Caesar, who pays her not only for sex and the opportunity to show off that a beautiful woman lives with him, but for the pretense of a relationship. He calls what he does “the Business.” But it’s all too clear what he does when he brings his work home with him. Someone’s been skimming money from the boss, Gino Marzzone (Richard C. Sarafian), and they need to find where it’s hidden before Marzzone arrives to pick it up. Caesar’s immediate superior Mickey (John Ryan) and Marzzone’s son and asshole-Caesar-can’t-stand Johnnie (Christopher Meloni) interrogate Shelly (Barry Kivel) in Caesar’s bathroom. Corky can hear the shouting, the screaming, the thumps as Johnnie beats Shelly’s head against the toilet. Corky had seen Violet let Shelly into her apartment earlier and thought he had been caught sleeping with her. But what Shelly did was ask Violet to run away with him. All the men around Violet think they love her.

Working from home and demonstrating the other associations of red in the film.

Violet wants to leave the apartment, but Caesar won’t let her. She’s his emotional support human necessary to comfort him on stressful work days when he’s torturing someone in their bathroom, but Mickey tells her to go, that he’ll handle Caesar. So she and Corky go to a bar and Violet tells Corky she wants out. Caesar finds the money that Shelly skimmed, but Johnnie shot Shelly before he could tell them where all of it was. Caesar brings the money home to launder it, literally. He lugs over $2 million in bills to the sink and washes it with detergent, dries it, irons it and hangs the bills up to dry with clothes pins.

Violet and Corky come up with a plan to steal the money and get away with it. While the movie doesn’t rely on the plan, it’s a good one, so I won’t reveal too much about their heist other than it does go wrong as they often do. Now Corky has to decide if she trusts Violet. And there are a lot of conventions in film noir that make it seem like a bad idea to trust her.

Bound was at the intersection of several 1990s film trends:  neo-noir like Fargo (1996), Devil In A Blue Dress (1995), Red Rock West (1993), Romeo Is Bleeding (1993), One False Move (1992), The Grifters (1990), The Last Seduction (1994) and depending how you view it, Miller’s Crossing (1990); erotic psychological thrillers like Basic Instinct (1992) and Color of Night (1994); and a new wave of movies by and about Queer women that were about entertainment as much as representation and much less depressing than many of the Queer American films of the 1970s and 1980s–But I’m A Cheerleader (1999), The Watermelon Woman (1996), The Incredible True Story of Two Girls In Love (1995), All Over Me (1997), Go Fish (1994), High Art (1998) and however you want to see Tank Girl (1995), Even Cowgirls Get The Blues (1993), and, sigh, Chasing Amy (1997).

Sexually active women and bisexual/pansexual women are often untrustworthy in both neo-noirs and psychological thrillers. Bi women in particular were presented as unbalanced and often murderous. They betray the women who love them in favor of men—who they often try to murder, too, if Basic Instinct is anything to go by. Who would they choose? What were they really? Whose side are they on? They betrayed and sometimes killed their lesbian partners for nebbishy men who did not see the murderousness coming—or who thought the whole thing was just part of hot sex. It’s an outgrowth of earlier portrayals in film and pulp fiction of women who like sex.

In traditional noir, the femme fatale’s sexuality is often a sign of her sickness. Lesbianism was considered part of the same sexual dysfunction as “nymphomania” and “frigidity.”  It wasn’t so much an orientation as it was a failure to form an attachment to a man or to men. And in Freudian terms so prevalent in 1950s noir—it was because she never formed a proper attachment to her father that she transferred to her eventual husband. In this understanding, women’s queerness was always more slippery than that of men’s. Men’s queerness was almost presented as an identity even back in classic Hollywood film. The assumption was–and too often still is–sex with a man would cure everything that ailed a girl. The women who were inveterate lesbians were believed to be so because they were undesirable to men or trying to be men, which is a whole misunderstanding of a lot of things, including butchness. But, of course, historically, femme lesbians existed and plenty of women wanted to sleep with butch women. Corky and Violet face these beliefs in their lives. And Caesar appears to hold a lot of them.

Violet is perceived as untrustworthy by characters who are murderous gangsters and thieves–because she is a sex worker, femme, and, possibly, bisexual. Caesar distrusts Violet because she’s femme, because other men desire her. And even though he pays her to tell him what he wants to hear, Caesar worries she’s lying to him. Corky will have sex with Violet, but doesn’t entirely trust her because Corky doesn’t trust people—especially after her last partner in crime screwed her over. Corky also makes it clear that she thinks femmes have it easier socially because they can pass as straight and Violet specifically has it easier because she is set financially as long as she is with Caesar. Implicitly, Corky thinks that Violet is the 1990s neo-noir equivalent of a dangerously bored housewife as in earlier noir like Double Indemnity (1944) or The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946). And it’s got some continuity in lesbian fiction—many a pulp romance had the blue collar butch who feels betrayed by an apparently middle-class femme who is married to a man and appears more financially secure. Corky herself is happy to have sex and is not too particular about the social niceties of respecting relationships. She admits to a friend at a lesbian bar, The Watering Hole, that she’s just looking to get laid. She tries to pick up a woman named Jesse (Susie Bright, aka, Susie Sexpert, aka, the lesbian culture and sexpert for Bound) right in front of Jesse’s girlfriend. Later, after sex, Corky and Violet have a conversation that is all about whether or not Violet is a real dyke because, unlike Corky, she can pass. Corky pretends a breeziness she doesn’t feel about having heard Violet have sex with Caesar. Violet tells her:

“What you heard wasn’t sex.”

“What the fuck was it?”

“Work.”**

Violet tells her, “We make our own choices. We pay our own prices. I think we’re more alike than you care to admit.”

And both of them have paid the price for their choices in time. Corky did 5 years in prison while Violet has been with Caesar for 5 years. Violet kicks Corky out, but still goes to her later to tell her about the money.

This fight is the first sign that Corky is more interested in Violet than maybe she’s comfortable with. It’s also the first time that Violet makes a point of her own intelligence. Not just in reading Corky perfectly, which might’ve been missed because of the front Violet puts up, but in flat out saying that she’s good at her job and she’s a lot smarter than Corky. Violet is underestimated and distrusted, but she might be the smartest character of the three and neither Corky nor Caesar are by any means stupid. Caesar almost figures out how they stole his money. It takes longer for Caesar to see it because he’s used to being the smartest and because he just assumes the story is about him. He sees himself as the gangster who deals with the boss’ stupid, vicious kid, who worked his way up the ladder and now has a beautiful apartment and a sexy companion who he rescued from sex work at a club. He’s the man who’s going to outsmart all his rivals. The man who won’t play the sap for anyone. But he can’t see what’s right in front of him even when it’s in his apartment sexing it up on his couch. If Caesar weren’t so blinded by his prejudices, they couldn’t have set him up and fleeced him. Instead, Caesar decides that because Johnnie is interested in Violet, she must have been interested in Johnnie and they teamed up to steal the money and ruin his life. He believes a woman who enjoys sex, enjoys sex with anyone; that a woman who does sex work is amoral; and that Violet is too feminine and desirable to men to be a lesbian. He just doesn’t consider at all that Violet might want to buy her own freedom. That he’s not the good guy who saved her from working in one of his clubs. That she might want out. That she’s tired of her daily grind. As she tells Caesar in the end, “Caesar, you don’t know shit.”

And Violet gets away with it and drives away to a new life free and clear in Corky’s sweet new truck. Well, Corky drives.

Sometimes the femme fatale wins.

*Corky didn’t seem the type. I can’t imagine Corky listening to Alix Dobkin or Holly Near either.

**As the Wachowskis point out to Susie Bright in the dvd commentary, both Corky and Violet’s work is audible to each of them through the wall. And if you can find it, Susie Bright has a great blog post about reading the script for the first time.

~~~

Carol Borden has too much to say about Bound. to fit in one 2000 word essay.

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