Out of the Celluloid Closet

Are we entering a golden age of sapphic film noir?

I first experienced Bound in Indianapolis during its commercial release in 1996, when it came and went at hundreds of multiplexes with little fanfare. Jennifer Tilly and Gina Gershon hosted a block of music videos on MTV, and that was about it. Critics dismissed the movie, and the box office was abysmal. Nonetheless, it rocked my world – and not just because of Joe Pantoliano’s wet hairy bod. For once, a movie had queer characters who weren’t defined entirely by their queerness. I absolutely had to own a VHS copy and show it to anyone in my dorm who cared to watch. I was certain the Wachowskis were on the cusp of something major.

The movie was the topic of a term paper I wrote in spring 1999 for a genre study class taught by James Naremore at Indiana University-Bloomington. His 1998 film More Than Night: Film Noir in Its Contexts was required reading. He would lecture us, with a straight face, about all the genre’s latent queer subtexts and veiled stereotypes used to circumvent the Hays Code’s industry-wide self-censorship in effect from 1934 to 1968. I’m not sure why everyone else giggled, but I know why I did: his serious scholarship bore a striking resemblance to gay gossip.

Film noir had been my favorite genre long before I even realized how the underworld it depicted was where all deviants, like me, rolled. Those stoic tough guys were exactly my type. The atmosphere was always mysterious and rife with sexy tension. As a fragile child who never had my way by brute force, I also took notice of the jezebels who got theirs through seducing, conniving, deceiving, weaponizing tears, etc. Most impressively, they deployed these tactics to entrap the very men of my dreams. Girl power was a deadly force to be reckoned with.

Even so, few queer-coded women emerged in the genre. Alfred Hitchcock’s Daphne du Maurier adaptation, Rebecca (1940), featured the jealous, panty-fondling maid played by Judith Anderson. Mercedes McCambridge’s bit as a thug in Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil (1958) was so small it wasn’t even credited. Then there was Vera Miles’s part in Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). These were supporting characters and not always cogent. Edward L. Cahn’s Girls in Prison (1956) intimated some hanky-panky among the queen bees, played by Adele Jergens and Helen Gilbert, who lorded over the inmates, but inexplicably they got their hair permed glamorously even while behind bars. 

The first queer femme fatale to attain notoriety, though, was extremely controversial and problematic: Sharon Stone’s Catherine Tramell in Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct (1992). To be sure, there were already countless precedents of noirs conflating the supposed aberrance of homosexuality with depraved criminality. 

Bound was film noir in the classic sense, about an ex-con and a femme fatale pulling off a heist. Corky (Gershon) and Violet (Tilly) both just happened to be women. That was really it. Being made in the ’90s, though, afforded Bound the latitude to be explicit. Far from the days when everything had to be unpacked, it was right there in front of us, fingers and all. 

Something about it felt so different. The sex scene was burning hot, yet it did not come off as exploitative, like, say, Blue Is the Warmest Color (2013) did. At the time, the Wachowskis hadn’t seemed like the type who could get it right.

In a 2019 Entertainment Weekly reappraisal, Gershon said she turned to Marlon Brando, Montgomery Cliff and Robert Mitchum for inspiration. The Wachowskis also connected her with feminist writer Susie Bright, who instructed her to cruise in San Francisco bars for research. 

“[When we were making it], I kept thinking, ‘What do you guys, [the Wachowskis] know about being women? How did you write this thing?’ And little did I know, at the time, they were really feeling something,” Gershon told Entertainment Weekly. “They really were feeling bound up inside. So, it became that the metaphor had a deeper meaning. It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, aren’t they clever writers.’ I thought, ‘Wow, they were going through this, and the world didn’t know.’ ”

Though lesbian noir has since proliferated in Y.A. fiction, there’s been a dry spell with film for nearly 28 years. Until now, that is. This year sees two at once: Drive-Away Dolls and Love Lies Bleeding.

From neo-noir master Ethan Coen, Drive-Away Dolls is a quintessential Coen brothers movie, but with lesbians – even though this time he’s teaming with his wife, Tricia Cooke, instead of his brother, Joel. It’s set in 1999, and Margaret Qualley plays Jamie, who gets tossed out by her partner after she’s caught cheating. Upon learning her friend Marian, played by Geraldine Viswanathan, is headed to Tallahassee, Fla., to visit family, Jamie inserts herself into the travel plan impromptu. They accidentally pick up a rental car reserved for a couple of goons, with mysterious loot hidden in the trunk.

The Coens’ signature black humor is ever-present, which here means homosexuality is played for laughs. The dildo motif gives you an idea of the exact kind of juvenile stuff we’re dealing with. There’s nothing remotely erogenous about the sex scenes, even though they are plentiful compared with Bound. Likewise, there are more scenes set in lesbian bars, but none as memorable as the one in the Wachowskis’ classic. Cooke’s involvement doesn’t bolster the lived authenticity. On top of the fact that it doesn’t speak to the community, the film simply isn’t very good.

From neo-noir master Ethan Coen, Drive-Away Dolls is a quintessential Coen brothers movie, but with lesbians.

Martin Tsai

Thankfully, there’s also Love Lies Bleeding. Incidentally, it’s likewise a period piece, set in 1989. Kristen Stewart plays gym manager Lou, who is instantly drawn to Katy O’Brian’s Jackie, a drifter en route to a body building competition in Las Vegas. Jackie quickly worms her way into somewhere to train, a place to stay, egg whites, doping supplies and steamy sex. Meanwhile, Lou’s sister, Beth (Jena Malone), endures spousal abuse, which sends Jackie into a jaw-dropping roid rage.

Lou and Jackie are very much noir archetypes like Corky and Violet before them. Love Lies Bleeding also toys with the implied duplicity of bisexuality, harkening back to, well, Basic Instinct. Filmmaker Rose Glass does subvert these characterizations. Sporting a mullet, Lou reads more butch. That leaves Jackie the femme, but she’s the brute-force type instead of the traditional manipulative hussy. She also has competition in Daisy (Anna Baryshnikov), who vies for Lou’s affections and goes about her wish fulfillment in a more old-fashioned sense.

Spoiler alert. While noirs aren’t bound to end well, all three lesbian noirs have happy endings. In the Entertainment Weekly reappraisal, Tilly had a more pragmatic outlook about whether these relationships would last.

“Everyone’s positive that they’re so in love, and they’re going to live happily ever after, but I really think in Violet’s nature, she’s a predator. I do not think it’s going to end well,” Tilly told Entertainment Weekly. “Violet’s in love with Corky, but she’s very damaged and I just don’t think it’s going to be like one of those, ‘50 years ago, we met cute,’ you know?”Indeed, over the years I’ve grown to recognize fatales as Lacanian super predators and their schemes as hellishly toxic. I suppose I’ve been drawn to them all along to make sense of all the trauma at the hands of narcissists like them. Though as a gay man I’ve never been about that white-picket-fence life, noirs aren’t aspirational as a lifestyle either. Still, I take solace in these antiheroes’ thrilling exploits, as affirmation that we don’t need to be the strongest to survive this noirish dystopia where our rights are gradually eroded by draconian edicts eerily resonant of the Hays Code.♦

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