April 18, 2014 6:32 pm

Wanted: dangerous woman

‘If the femme fatale indicates female power, then the present age isn’t doing too well’

Scarlett Johansson in 'Under the Skin'

Whatever happened to the erotic thriller? Back in the 1980s and 1990s cinemas were full of them: films with titles like Black Widow and Basic Instinct and Body Heat. Mysterious temptresses killed men lured by lonely hearts ads (Sea of Love), corrupted them into a life of crime (The Last Seduction) and befuddled them with weird acts of cross-dressing (Color of Night, Dressed to Kill). Teenage boys spoke in awed whispers of the 18-rated spectacle that was 9½ Weeks and goggled in terrified fascination at Glenn Close’s scorned woman in Fatal Attraction.

Yes, reader: I was one of them.

The high-water mark of the erotic thriller was 1992, the year when the deliriously trashy Basic Instinct grossed $350m at the box office. From then on it was downhill, signified by bandwagon-jumper Madonna’s appearance in 1993’s awful Body of Evidence, pouring hot wax on Willem Dafoe; audiences winced, not at the wax.

Meanwhile Bill Clinton turned the US presidency into a kind of bad erotic thriller. “Monicagate” was the straight-to-video sequel to Watergate: Clinton as a B-movie Michael Douglas, Monica Lewinsky miscast as the femme fatale.

Like the western, the erotic thriller had its heyday, then faded away. But I detect a comeback. A trailer from the forthcoming Hollywood version of EL James’s S&M bestseller Fifty Shades of Grey recently surfaced, complete with shots of sleek Audi sports cars, skyscrapers, roving male hands and a moody cover of Chris Isaak’s hit “Wicked Game” – a set of 1980s stimuli designed to trigger memories of Kim Basinger and Mickey Rourke’s adventures with silk scarves in 9½ Weeks. Meanwhile a stage adaptation of that other notorious Adrian Lyne film, Fatal Attraction, opened last month in London’s West End. Our fascination with the 1980s has led to a dangerous flirtation with the erotic thriller.

But there is a problem. The sexual politics of films such as Fatal Attraction – which tried to do to infidelity what Jaws had done to swimming a decade previously – have dated as badly as Nicolas Cage’s film career. (Yes, he was in an erotic thriller too: 1991’s steamy flop Zandalee.)

The problem centres on the character of the femme fatale. Dating back to film noir, she is a creation of the neurotic male imagination, an incarnation of repressed sexuality. We have become nervous of her, for a different set of reasons than the gun she might have stowed under her pillow. The people behind the stage adaptation of Fatal Attraction, now showing in London to decidedly mixed reviews, evidently feared accusations of sexism and so watered down the hysterical vengefulness of Close’s character, shifting the blame to her adulterous partner. The plot of Fifty Shades of Grey – girl meets kinky billionaire – treats the man as the forbidden focus of desire, not the woman: un homme dangereux.

In fact, the more you look for the femme fatale, the harder she is to find. Jake Gyllenhaal’s new film Enemy opens, erotic thriller-style, with a kinky scene of voyeurism and, ahem, tarantulas – but it turns out to be about male doppelgängers. The much-praised television series True Detective ­is modern noir, yet I find its macho atmosphere to be stifling: at its centre are lots of dead women, not a fatal one.

I thought I’d found her in Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin – a perfect title for an erotic thriller. The premise is encouraging too: Scarlett Johansson plays a woman driving around Glasgow picking up men, having sex with them and killing them. But this extraordinarily unsettling film turns out to be very different. Johansson’s almost mute assassin acts with grim biological drive, not the alluring selfishness of the classic femme fatale. An eerie and alienating presence, she belongs to a different tradition, the horror film.

Erotic power games are the subject of Roman Polanski’s Venus in Fur, which is showing at the Tribeca film festival this month before its British release in May. It’s a troubling subject for Polanski to address, with his own history of alleged sexual criminality. But the film, which features his wife Emmanuelle Seigner as an actress auditioning with a male director for a role in a play about the 1870 sadomasochistic novel Venus in Furs, unrepentantly gets to the heart of our modern squeamishness about the femme fatale. It’s about domination and role play, but the question of who is dominating whom is left unclear. Who holds the whip hand?

The answer was obvious in the era of the classic femme fatale: she did. She was in charge: a strong woman, ambitious, clever, daring, ironic, owner of the best lines. Think of Rita Hayworth in Gilda, being zipped into her dress by her cuckolded husband: “I can never get a zipper to close. Maybe that stands for something, what do you think?”

The golden age of the femme fatale followed the entry of women into the US workplace during the second world war. Her villainous character expressed male anxiety about female independence; yet her verve and centrality also gave women someone to cheer. Similarly, the 1980s boom in erotic thrillers coincided with a time of growing female economic agency.

But if the femme fatale indicates female power, then the present age isn’t doing too well. I admit it: I miss the femme fatale. After seeing Under the Skin, I downloaded Basic Instinct and was struck by its silliness and camp, and the dodginess of its message that lesbianism can be “cured” by – well, you know what. But I was also struck by Sharon Stone’s glittering, vivacious turn as the uninhibited seductress with a worryingly deft way with an ice pick. They really don’t make them like her any more.

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