The femme fatale in Bound

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.

Works Cited

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.





4 thoughts on “The femme fatale in Bound

  1. channabach

    Lovely reading of the ways Violet’s knowability structures the plot and weaves together sexual identity and criminality through themes of possible betrayal and “realness.” In particular, your analysis of the misogyny and patriarchal ideology built into this frame is very compelling, and you call on and explicate Wallace’s and Straayer’s critiques quite well.

    A note: You reference the “Wachowski brothers” here which is inaccurate and problematic. The directors of the film are Andy and Lana Wachowski. Andy is a man and goes by masculine pronouns and terms, but Lana is a woman and goes by feminine pronouns and terms (she’s not a “brother”, which is why all of our course materials refer to them by their individual names of as the “Wachowski siblings”). You might be referring to the fact that Lana Wachowski is trans, but trans women are women, not men. Referring to them by masculine names and pronouns is disrespectful and transphobic. I’m sure that you did not mean to imply this. But this is a good opportunity for all of us to be cognizant of the ways that oppressions such as racism, transphobia, heterosexism, and misogyny are built into the very language that we use. To resist these violences as well as respect the lives, bodies, ideas, and actions of other people we should refer to them by the names and terms they themselves prefer, and expect others to offer us the same level of respect.

    Make sure you use the author(s)’s last name in parenthetical citations like this: (Wallace 283). You do this correctly in the Straayer citations but don’t for the Wallace citation.

    Good job.

    1. katonlee

      Dear Kareli,

      I think you have done a great job as you put several strong arguments in front of me. I agree very much with what you have said: “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”. This reminds me of many scenes and makes me understand more of the film: that is why Corky felt uneasy throughout the former part of the movie because Corky was confused by Violet’s sexuality (but not confused by the plan of stealing). For instance, as Corky was seduced by Violet, later she felt betrayed, sad and confused when she heard Violet having sex with another man through the thin wall. She even explicitly asked Violet why she could trust her. This totally reflects the mystery of the film lies on the matter of trust as a result of the uncertainty of the sexuality, rather than the story of stealing.

      And a good analysis on Violet’s role too. You mentioned that Violet was filmed as a sex object (which you named it as object of desire) which I agree very much. Violet was often placed in others’ gaze, especially the male/masculine gaze. But it would be nice if you have further discussion or elaboration on WHY Violet would be placed under a male gaze or put in a role of sex object? You may reply that “It is because Violet is Femme Fatale”. But why must Femme Fatale be placed as the sex object? Why can’t we film Violet from her personal perspective, meaning that Corky or Caesar became the sex objects of Violet? In this sense, does it imply some characteristics or limitations to Femme Fatale?

      With regards to your conclusion in the last paragraph, I am afraid that I may have a different thought than yours. You mentioned that “the treatment of the Femme Fatale in Bound is quite traditional”. But indeed, as mentioned by you, the Femme Fatale in classic film noir was denied romantic coupling. However, Violet tried her best and finally succeeded to escape from the craws of Caesar all by her effort. She at the very beginning was heavily depending on Caesar; later changed to rely on Corky. However, she became independent at last (the plot of being chased by Caesar and escaping by herself). I think this should be remarkable and very distinct from the traditional ending of Femme Fatale’s failure in classic noir.

      In fact, I like your analysis very much. Hope my comments make sense and looking forward to a further discussion with you.

      Katon (Kai Chun, LEE)
      8th February, 2013

  2. djac2012

    I agree with Kareli’s description of the ‘patriarchal ideology’ that infuses this film. Having the film overshadowed by the looming and omnipresent and hypermasculine world of organized crime offers a silent commentary on the marginalized role of women in the larger heteronormative structure of American society. Katon asks why we cannot place Corky or Caesar in the role of object of desire. That would be an interesting perspective to watch this film from, however we do not get this luxury in “Bound”.

    The existence of women solely as they are available for use by men is evident in the character of Corky. When she and Violet are locked in a romantic entanglement in the darkened apartment and Caesar enters, once he realizes that Corky is a woman he has no further suspicion that anything untoward was going on despite evidence to the contrary. Is this because of women’s expected purpose is to be at the disposal of men? Even the glaring trappings of Corky’s homosexuality do not raise a red flag for Caesar. because women do not exist except as they are available for the use of men.

  3. andreatreus

    The initial observation you made regarding Bound can also be applied to Rope. Bound makes you believe that the main point of the story is whether or not Violet can get away with stealing the money but we actually see that the main point is figuring out whether or not she will betray Corky. Rope makes you believe that the crime in the movie is the murder but their relationship can also be interpreted as the crime. The implications that are set throughout the movies constantly change the way one views it.
    I also agree with the fact that both Corky and Violet are portrayed as visual objects. At first it seems as if only Violet will have sex appeal but as the film progresses, the shots that are taken of Corky are sensual and also portray her as vulnerable.

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