This article aims at illustrating the ideology imbued in film noir and neo-noir and analyzing how noir and neo-noir genre conventions represented or built relationship with those ideologies of gender and sexuality. Furthermore, with the neo-noir film Bound as an example, the role of the femme fatale and lesbian femme will be specifically explained so as to understand its meaning and significance in the neo-noir genre conventions.
Ideology and Genre Convention
1. Visualization of Lesbianism
The neo-noir Bound comprised a set of ideology. First of all, it obviously visualized lesbianism. It presented a message of “lesbianism functioned at last” (Wallace, p.369). As mentioned by Lee, neo-noir films wanted to present the unclear ideas – homosexuality, to make it clear, rather than silence or cancel homosexuality (Wallace, p.376). By proclaiming “it really works!”, homosexuality could be illustrated thoroughly, leading to lesbian recognition. As lesbianism emerged with a visual field, it made the unfamiliar homosexuality more explicit and clear so as to reduce the mysteriousness in the eyes of the heterosexual ordinary (Wallace, p.371). In this way, homophobia could be reduced and at the same time gender difference could be undermined via a certain equality that existed between partners (Straayer, p.155).
In particular, Bound consisted of many plots which depicting homosexual ideas. Violet in the story said “I want OUT”. It comprised double meanings: OUT of the control of Caesar; “come-OUT” to homosexuality and to have a new life with Corky. And the film kept on playing the definition of “closet” – referring both to the real closet (cabinet) and simultaneously the idea of “coming out of the closet” (Wallace, p.371).
More importantly, Bound, as a neo-noir film, explicitly described the women and femme fatale who wanted sexual pleasure in addition to economic power. In contrast to the classic noir, their lust was overwhelmingly for money only as an economic ambition (Straayer, pp.152-153). This change showed that the neo-noir film put more emphasis on the desire of normal women, inclined to portray women thoroughly. Bound contained a classic sex scene which exactly depicted the desire of femme fatale. The camera shot began at floor level before moving higher and closer into the two figures that provided its orienting centre. The camera tracked the length of Violet’s body, past her raised shoulder and haunch, before rounding the foot of the bed. A medium close-up captured from low angle the foreshortened length of Corky’s torso, her pelvis lifting against Violet’s obstetric hand (Wallace, p.377). This plot was regarded as the convention of realism which realistically depicted the sex between lesbians – having solely sexual pleasure.
Thus, the ideology of neo-noir Bound was explicitly and repeatedly illustrated by means of the life of lesbianism which was of no big difference from the heterosexual ordinary. By illustrating successful lesbianism – unlike in the classic film noir, femme fatale either died, reformed or turned out not to be a femme fatale after all – Bound used the genre convention to unveil the secrecy of homosexuality and reduce the homophobia of the public.
2. Ideology of Uncertainty and the Role of Femme Fatale
The ideology of uncertainty (or named indeterminacy, Wallace, p.369) was also presented widely in film noir and neo-noir. After WWII, political, economic and gender relations have been changed. Mass influx of white women occurred in society for paid work and they were not satisfied with the way of being treated. They attributed the inequality to the social perception of gender in terms of “masculinity” and “femininity”. They wondered whether masculinity was perceived to represent the strength while femininity, the weakness. The question of “what gender really means” popped up in everyone’s mind, forming the ideology of “uncertainty”, which, however, simultaneously implied “possibility”.
For example, the plot of Bound depended on the invisibility of same-sex desire and uncertainty of sexual affiliation. And the characters also presented the sense of mysteriousness and uncertainty. Violet continued to come on to Corky who still gave nothing away, her suspicion of Violet running as high as her curiosity. It could be seen that Violet with her dubiety was so uncertain enough to confuse her same-sex partner – Corky (Wallace, pp.371-372). Moreover, Caesar, who claimed to know Violet well, still could not understand her in the end, thus resulting in being shot to death.
It could be concluded that the ideology of uncertainty was obviously presented so as to respond to the question of “what gender really means” and wonder of “masculinity meaning the strength while femininity the weakness”. In particular, femme fatale was constructed in film noir and neo-noir as a role to present the idea of “strong femininity”, implying the changing gender relation in the human nature. Femme fatale in a sense reflected the new humanity and also showed that women could be so different than the stereotyped images. In other words, femme fatale and her role were to change women status and acknowledgement of female sexuality and power (Straayer, p.152)
First and foremost, femme fatale presented individuality. As mentioned by Straayer, the Femme Fatale of contemporary film operated as an independent agent (Straayer, p.152). And it could be also seen that Violet, as a Femme fatale, was getting more and more independent throughout the story. At the very beginning, Violet depended heavily on Caesar for 5 years. When she met Corky, she took the first step to approach Corky for help. However, she was still depending on Corky, especially in the planning process in which the proposal was almost designed by Corky. Nonetheless, Violet was presenting the sense of individuality especially when she needed to cope with Caesar alone in the latter part of the story. In particular, when she ran out of the apartment and was being chased by Caesar, this showed a great sense of independence. Perhaps it also implied the growth of women who became an independent agent in the eyes of men.
Besides, femme fatale was a model of women, showing that women could be threatening and as strong and powerful as men. The Directors of Bound adopted different filming techniques to construct the threat and power of femme fatale, making a sense of anxiety. For instance, the film contained lots of shadowing. Like the opening scene, the title “BOUND” and those high-heels in Violet’s closet also produced lots of long shadow (Wallace, p.370). Also, the triangulation, such as the high-angled shot of the elevator plot in the beginning, implied an unknown relationship among the three characters. More examples were the gun panning shot, non-diegestic sound and effects, match on actions and the plots of killing – just to name a few (Straayer, p.151; Wallace, p. 375-387). All of these filming techniques produced anxiety, meaning that femme fatale was dare to be in danger or take risks.
Therefore, the film noir and neo-noir emphasized on ideology of uncertainty which brought with anxiety. This probably implied the indefinite possibility coming from the indeterminacy. But more importantly, femme fatale acted as a role of model to change women status and acknowledgement of female sexuality and power from the old and stereotyped perspectives possessed by society.
To conclude, ideologies of lesbians’ visualization and women’s uncertainty were imbued in film noir and neo-noir. Bound was explicitly and repeatedly illustrating the life of lesbianism, hoping to unveil the secrecy of homosexuality and cause breakthrough on the social norms. It also emphasized the ideology of uncertainty together with anxiety so as to suggest the indefinite possibility coming from the indeterminacy.
In particular, femme fatale represented the power and growth of women. It also implied the variety and possibility that a woman could and should have. It could be seen that femme fatale was used as a role model in Bound to build relationship with those ideologies of gender and sexuality.
1. Andy and Larry Wachowski, Bound, 1996.
1. Chris Straayer, “Femme Fatale or Lesbian Femme: Bound in Sexual Difference”, Women in Film Noir, Second edition, E. Ann Kaplan (London: British Film Institute, 1998), pp.153-161.
2. Lee Wallace, “Continuous Sex: The Editing of Homosexuality in Bound and Rope”, Screen 41.4 (2000), pp. 369-387.