Tag Archives: femme fatale

Ideology and Noir Conventions in Bound

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.

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.

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Blog Post 1

The term “film noir” brings up connotations of darkness, or the unknown, or shadowed.  The lighting of these films are a reflection of the term.  These films, that originated in the 1930’s and 1940’s were lit to emphasize shadows and to give an aura of murkiness and uncertainty.

This murkiness is a reflection of the “uncertainty…built into noir’s central narrative organization” (Dyer, 1).  Richard Dyer posits that the central purpose of noir film is about finding out, that one cannot rely on appearances being an accurate depiction of what is going on.  The uncertainty, or question of deception lends itself to the subtext of questionable sexuality, which is why noir lends itself to a homosexual subtext so much better than other types of film.

 

Dyer refers to the tole of queers in noir film of villainy, uncertainty and unmasculinity.  The villanous focal point of the film, Brandon and Philip, while not necessarily having attributes that are ‘unmasculine’, have the trappings of what has customarily been attributed to queers in noir film: they are exceedingly well dressed and fastidious in their grooming.  The protagonists also carry an aura of uncertainty about them.  It is unclear what sort of bond the two have to one another.  The men have no girlfriends around, and it is revealed that one of them “used to have a girlfriend”, implying  bisexuality.

 

D.A. Miller also refers to “post coital nuances” of dialogue between Philip and Brandon that is part of the parcel of connotation and denotation that he describes as “the dominant signifying practice of homophobia (which) has the advantage of constructing an essentially insubstantial homosexuality” (119).  This dialogue can be interpreted as double entendre, or having more than one meaning.  These sort of devices were constructed in film as a way to circumvent the very strict Hays Moral Code that disallowed many overtly sexual messages in film, and did not allow any depictions of homosexuality whatsoever.  The challenge to film makers was to invent methods that outmaneuvered Hays censors.

 

The strictures left by the Hays code lent an air of exoticism to the hint of homosexuality that would not have been present if permission to blatantly state the obvious had been allowed.  The lure of the forbidden was an attractive element for film makers as well as film viewers.  To draw viewers into the world of Brandon and Philip, certainly well to do, hyper stylized and well kept, a world that most filmgoers were presumably unfamiliar with, has always been one of the goals of film in general.  The questionable sexuality of the protagonists merely adds an element of the unknown to the proceedings.  That these two men are unremorseful murderers allows the homosexual to fill in the role of a person(s) with little moral character with no regard for human life.  This allows the homophobia inherent in the general population to attach itself to these young men.  The viewing audience is able to watch in fascinated horror, the actions of these repugnant figures and to hope that they will eventually be punished for their horrible crime (homosexuality).

 

While not a noir film, Neil Marshall’s “The Descent”  ( August 4, 2006) owes a debt to some of the elements that have been established by noir film.  The shadows and lighting of black and white noir film has been given a literal translation in this color film.  The majority of the story is relayed in the dark depths of subterranean Earth, as a group of women embark on an expedition to mark and unclaimed cave as their own discovery.

 

As the effete men of noir have traditionally been employed in careers that are able to be viewed as questionable with regard to gender, the ladies in this film are indulging in a pastime that might be viewed as masculine.  There is definitely an element of questionable sexuality for the ladies in this film.  Although one is married, and another has had an affair with husband of this person, the bonding and interaction between all of these women can have connotations of lesbianism.  No longer held to the restrictions of the Hayes office, the decision to leave sexuality unanswered now becomes a conscious decision by the director.  There is even a point in the film, where the women are battling some un-named underground dweller and one rips off the creatures penis.

 

The isolation that the women are surrounded by, first in the cabin prior to their expedition, and then in the caverns below ground could be read as the isolation of homosexuality, and the battle with the un-named underground dwellers might be read as the battle within.

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l5I1q4KhKNU

 

 

WORKS CITED

 

Miller, D. A. “Anal Rope.” Representations 32.1 (1990): 114-33. Print.

 

 

Benshoff, Harry M., and Sean Griffin. “Queer Noir.” Queer Cinema: The Film Reader. New York: Routledge, 2004. N. pag. Print.

 

“The Descent.” IMDb. IMDb.com, n.d. Web. 14 Jan. 2013.