One of the tenets of this series is restraint—in both the BDSM and “withholding” senses of the word. The withholding is by directors who know how to get away with showing or implying a lot in terms of sexual behavior. Thrillers recommend themselves to erotic intrigue because the tension in flirtation and pre-coital scenes intensifies narrative suspense.
Greater license to be explicit hasn’t racked up that tension. Although filmmakers started taking greater risks in the mid-1980s, it is hard to argue that the sight of Barbara Stanwyck’s blonde housewife dangling a fleshy leg and its anklet in Double Indemnity (1944) is any less tantalizing than Sharon Stone revealing—what exactly?—when she crosses her legs during a police investigation in Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct (1992).
Nudity or partial nudity isn’t, in any case, a guarantee of arousal. The copious toplessness in the startling but seldom seen Year of the Jellyfish (1984), one of the highlights of the season, is both a nod to French people’s comfort with sexuality and a blind for the audience: the sight of so many beautiful bodies delays the viewer’s recognition that a disturbing story is unfolding.
Year of the Jellyfish stars Valérie Kaprisky as superficially confident 18-year-old Chris who weaves a web of sexual intrigue while disporting herself on a hot Côte d’Azur beach. After sleeping with and dumping a married family friend (left speechless by her exertion of control), Chris seduces an inhibited German couple and then resumes her three-year campaign to bed her mother’s lover (Bernard Giraudeau), the handsome pimp who rules the shore.
The late revelation that Chris has psychopathic tendencies undercuts the possibility that Year of the Jellyfish is about female agency. Rather, it addresses male paranoia about ungovernable female desire. The insolent Drew Barrymore vehicle Poison Ivy (1992), directed by Katt Shea, is cut from the same cloth.
Agency belongs more firmly in the hands of Kathleen Turner in Lawrence Kasdan’s simmering neo-noir Body Heat (1981)—indebted to Double Indemnity. The same goes for Madonna in Uli Edel’s Body of Evidence (1993), Sarah Michelle Gellar in Roger Kumble’s sexy, wicked Dangerous Liaisons (1988) update, Cruel Intentions (1999), Diane Lane in Adrian Lyne’s Unfaithful (2002) and Meg Ryan in In the Cut (2003).
As the stalked writing professor heroine in In the Cut, Jane Campion’s gripping post-9/11 New York City serial killer thriller, Ryan gave by far and away her best performance—her character’s sensuality overwhelming the blue-collar detective (Mark Ruffalo) who falls for her.
If you want political correctness, the Quad probably isn’t the place to go in the next two weeks. Lyne’s Fatal Attraction (1987) is a gynophobic horror show, though at the time of its release it was thought by many that Glenn Close’s vengeful Medusa might symbolize AIDS, not simply destructive female sexuality.
Marks of misogyny
Brian De Palma is represented by three films in the season that typically give vent to misogyny: Dressed to Kill (1980), Femme Fatale (2002), and the ultra-sadistic Body Double (1984). Body Double was De Palma’s homage to Vertigo (1958). Numerous modern films about men’s need to shape and control the female sexual identity—to bend it to their will—are influenced by Alfred Hitchcock’s neurotic masterpiece.
However, there are other films in the season that resist that need entirely, exploring instead woman-on-woman sexual and emotional dynamics. They include Bob Rafelson’s Black Widow (1987), Barbet Schroeder’s Single White Female (1992), the Wachowskis’ Bound
(1996), and Ozon’s Swimming Pool (2003).
Swimming Pool displays arguably the most powerful bikini in cinema, as worn by Ludivine Sagnier’s lazy student, though it is Charlotte Rampling’s older novelist whose sexuality comes to the fore and who controls the meta-thriller’s every twist and turn.
As bold as the American films on this list are, residual puritanism creeps into some of them—they never quite let go even when they are letting go. It takes a provocateur like the Dutch director Paul Verhoeven to break taboos decisively, as during the dream sequence in which the crucified Jesus becomes an object of homoerotic lust in The Fourth Man (1983); shocks and tawdriness in Verhoeven’s films often mask their intellectual depth.
Another European meta thriller, Alain Robbe-Grillet’s French New-Wave spoof Trans-Europ-Express (1967) takes a more playful and erotic approach to sadomasochism and bondage than we’ve come to expect from Hollywood. Actors in a film within a film, Jean-Louis Trintignant (playing a drug-runner) and Marie-France Pisier (playing a prostitute-police informer) enact some perverse situations with chains that, though destined to go wrong, are strangely liberating.
The Quad Cinema, 34 W. 13th Street, New York, NY 10011. Tel: 347 566 5949.