Characteristic of neo-noir conventions, Bound emphasizes the uncertainty and deceit that underlies human relationships. Framed within the world of organized crime in Chicago, the film’s main mystery however, is not present in traditional mob scenarios but rather reliant on the sexuality of the female protagonist. The ambiguity with which Violet’s sexuality is treated creates a catalyst for action; the main mystery of the film lies not in knowing whether Violet will be able to steal the money, but if she will betray the expectations that are attached to her sexuality by the men and woman of her life. By relying on what they “see” rather than what they “feel”, the men of Bound find themselves destroyed; they overestimate their sexual control over the femme fatale and fail to see the budding relationship between two women literally occurring behind their backs. In the femme fatale/ lesbian femme and butch/femme dichotomy present in the relationship between Violet and Corky, the Wachowski brothers challenge but also uphold certain accepted mores of sexuality and gender.
At first glance, the portrayal and characterization of Violet is traditional of the femme fatale of noir and neo-noir films. With tight dresses and heavy make-up, Jennifer Tilly’s character oozes feminine sensuality as she expertly sashays in her high heels, frame after frame. Violet is the understood object of desire especially since there are no frames in which the audience is allowed to see things through her point-of-view. Her sexuality stands in direct contrast with that of Corky, a woman that is instantly understood as the “dyke” and “butch” character. In the first meeting that occurs between her and Violet, she is lead on by the suggestive glances of the femme fatale, much like the men of traditional noir films. The audience is allowed to see Violet’s body through her point of view as she walks out of the elevator. With loose clothing and heavy tattoos, Corky is the “necessary” masculine force to be juxtaposed against Violet. Even though the main relationship in the film is between two lesbians, “Bound” establishes a governing framework of sexual dichotomies. While the possibilities are expanded beyond male/female and thus even making the portrayal of a lesbian relationship possible, the film relies on sexual binaries that are still limiting, “The obvious ability of gender to turn cartwheels on both male and female characters while upholding a sexual system of difference suggests that the notion of binary sex in the broader culture depends on a tripartite structure obtained by doubling woman into a whore and virgin, masculine and feminine” (Straayer 155). In this sense, Bound portrays a very heteronormative ideology of gender; the film maintains that a mainstream audience can understand the dynamic between lesbian characters only if it is presented in a way that is still reflective of the power dynamics that would exist in the heterosexual relationships of traditional film noir. Corky is initially portrayed as the masculine force that is at the mercy of a dangerous seductress.
The patriarchal ideology of the film is evident in the instances in which the characters act outside of, and challenge societal expectations. Both Corky and Violet thus challenge the butch/femme dichotomy through which they are initially presented. Although Corky is the masculine role, she is the character that is continuously portrayed in extremely vulnerable and weak positions, “in bed her Y-fronted masculinity strips down to a sexual receptivity and, in the action sequences, she is patsy to Caesar’s more virile intelligence and strength” (Lee 373). Thus, Corky too becomes a visual object of the camera in the sex scene with Violet. The camera pans on her naked body in the same way it gazed at Violet in the beginning of the film. It would be expected that because she is the femme fatale, we would see Violet in the throes of sexual passion. Yet it is the masculine lesbian that experiences the most violence against her body. Violet is protected more or less by her feminine behavior while Caesar treats Corky’s body with extreme violence and disdain; he places her in the closet in attempts to bind the other “masculine” sexual force that threatens his relationship with Violet. Bound in this sense castigates the most visibly queer subject of the film and portrays her as a weak subject in the face of what is to be understood as the “true” masculinity of Caesar. It is ultimately Violet who is able to save the couple and end the uncertainty and ambiguity guiding the film.
The ending of Bound however does away with any sense of ambiguity and doubt that was present in the portrayal of sexuality of Corky and Violet. In a sense, the treatment of the femme fatale in this film is quite traditional, “In classic film noir, the femme fatale propelled the action, but her narrative options were numbered: she either died, reformed, or tunred out not to be a femme fatale at all. Most adamantly, the femme fatale was denied romantic coupling” (Straayer 153). Obviously, Violet and Corky are granted their own “happy ending” yet this is done only when Violet gives up the sexual fluidity that had characterized her throughout the film. Her murder of Caesar also kills any potential doubts that the audience may have with Violet not being a true lesbian. The initial butch/ lesbian femme dichotomy is thus maintained and upheld in Bound.
Bound. Dir. Andy and Larry Wachowski. 1996.
Straayer, Chris. “Femme Fatale or Lesbian Femme: Bound in Sexual Différance.” Women in Film Noir. 2nd ed. Ed. E. Ann Kaplan. London: British Film Institute, 1998. 153-61.
Wallace, Lee. “Continuous Sex: The Editing of Homosexuality in Bound and Rope.” Screen 41.4 (2000): 369-87.