If the defining factor of noir is its emphasis on the uncertainty and how to navigate an unknowable world, Bound fits the bill. The Wachowskis’ 1996 neo-noir gangster thriller addresses issues of uncertainty and what is (un)knowable not in regards to gender and sexuality, rather than crime. The film unsettles traditional notions of gender while simultaneously demanding and supporting a visible epistemology of sexuality. Bound re-appropriates noir conventions such as “camera angles, plot twists, character types, and other motifs” for ostensibly neo-noir purposes (Straayer 151). For Straayer, these neo-noir purposes involve vastly different ideological investments than traditional noir. This revision is most apparent in gender construction of Corky, as the apparent butch protagonist, and Violet, as the femme fatale/lesbian femme.
Despite being a woman, Corky is initially constructed as the traditional male protagonist of classic noir. She is visually coded as butch, works in a masculine profession, and lusts after the femme fatale. The films second scene, in the elevator, codes Corky’s gaze as masculine. The POV shot of Violet’s legs harkens back to traditional noir shots and fixes Corky in the traditionally male role. Bound, however, goes on to complicate Corky’s masculinity. First, Gina Gershon is unnaturally feminine for a typical butch. Her body is the one seen during the sex scene. Although she is ostensibly the film’s protagonist, the plot is not hers. While it is a convention in classic noir for the femme fatale to drive the story, she does not usually do so at the narrative expense of the masculine-coded protagonist. Corky is the character we see bound—an image repeated visually throughout the film and mnemonically in the title to emphasize her lack of control. Corky plays little part in the crime itself. She comes up with the plan and takes the money, but she spends most of her time listening against a wall while Violet does the heavy lifting, i.e., play-acting. It is Violet, not Corky, who climactically shoots Ceasar, and Violet, who deserves further analysis.
But first—a discussion of the traditional femme fatale. Straayer refers to the femme fatale as an “independent agent,” independent not only in the context of the story, but also independent of genre; although she is always referential of noir, the femme fatale is no longer contained by it (Straayer 152). Straayer also notes: “High femme characters not only carry the mark of sexuality but also stand charged with deceit and potential violence” (Straayer 152). The traditional femme fatale exploits her sexuality for material/economic gain. In a male-dominated world, she has agency; furthermore, her manipulations drive the actions of the male protagonist and determine the “destiny” of the film (Straayer 152). The classic gun-toting femme fatale is coded as phallic and further masculinized by her dominant, aggressive, and manipulative behavior (Straayer 155).
Violet’s identity as femme fatale or lesbian femme becomes the central conflict of the film (Straayer 157). In classic film noir, the femme fatale is easily identifiable as such. Between her dramatic, sexual attire and brazen behavior, she stands out. Her aura of danger—while exaggerated through nondiegetic elements—is still immediately apparent to characters within the film. This is not the case with violet. Yes, she wears red dresses and plays the part of the seductress, but she remains unknowable. Trusting Violet not to be a femme fatale is proves to be a fatal mistake for “parody of masculinity” Ceasar (Straayer 156). Corky’s doubt, meanwhile, translates into doubt of Violet’s lesbian identity.
Returning, then, to Straayer’s “film noir destiny,” the destiny of the traditional femme fatale has clear ideological implications. Straayer notes: “she either died, reformed, or turned out not to be a femme fatale at all” and has no interest in “romantic coupling” (Straayer 153). Violet does not die, literally or metaphorically, and we are never asked to doubt her identity as a femme fatale. At first glance, she does not appear to reform; however, this bears closer analysis. At the end of the film, Violet and Corky drive off into the sunset, to start a new (presumably) crime-free life together. Violet is able to romantically couple. She chooses monogamy, rather than the promiscuity of her life in the world of the mob. Whether these choices constitute reform is debatable, but they certainly defy the narrative ending of the traditional femme fatale. If we accept the Violet is in fact a femme fatale, as the film suggests, then Bound calls into question the category of the femme fatale itself.
According to Straayer, “Violet is revealed to be both femme fatale and lesbian femme, duplicitous with men but not with Corky” (Straayer 158). That dual identity has its own ideological implications. Straayer ultimately reads Violet as a model feminist character, who doesn’t kowtow to traditional gender roles and actively fights for her own pleasure and destiny. However, Violet’s duplicity to everyone except Corky suggests something of the dated lesbian feminist utopian dream: sisterhood between women in a world that somehow exists beyond patriarchy (and by extension, men). Straayer concludes: “Through its narrative, Bound suggests that, in contrast to the heterosexual failings of classic film noir, women can trust each other” (Straayer 160). Not just women—lesbian women. For Straayer, both Violet and Corky complicate and revise traditional notions of masculinity and femininity, which allows Bound to propagate a queer ideology of gender and fluid sexuality.
Wallace, however, takes a dramatically different view of Bound’s ideology: “While the elusiveness of homosexuality is crucial to the film’s narrative, Bound simultaneously requires lesbianism to function evidentially, to disclose itself within a visual field” (Wallace 369). The opening scene of Corky bound in the closet plays into the queer economy of the closet, where homosexual identity is something that must be disclosed, revealed, and visible to the non-queer eye (Wallace 371). The ideology the closet supports is one “which organizes the relations of knowledge and ignorance which inadequately cordon off homosexuality from the heterosexuality for which it is everywhere mistaken” (Wallace 371). Wallace goes on to demonstrate how this need to make homosexuality knowable permeates the film. The unknowable nature of Violet as femme fatale/lesbian femme makes this most apparent. For Wallace, Bound is surprisingly conservative in its support of the epistemology of knowing and visibility, much like its classic noir counterparts.
Therefore, Bound’s characterization works primarily within the conventions of classic noir. The ideology Bound purports, however, can simultaneously be read as a challenge to or support for the conservatism at the heart of classic noir. Bound challenges gender roles but demands that sexuality remain knowable.
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.