Sham Fatale

When Fatal Attraction came out five years ago, a lot of critics noted the cleverness of its central reversal: making Michael Douglas, the picture's straightlaced, family man hero, into a sort of masculine damsel in distress. Many of these same critics gleaned other intriguing subtexts from it: the war between men and women; the difference between male and female attitudes towards sex; America's irrational fear of career women; AIDS hysteria.... You name it, and somebody wrote a film journal article about it.

What wasn't discussed that much is an issue that's central not just to Fatal Attraction, but to a long line of sexual tragedies, leading back to Double Indemnity, The Blue Angel, and even further, to the very roots of romantic art: the male's deep-seated fear of female sexuality. Throughout human history, male-dominated society has manipulated, repressed, and harnessed the female sexual impulse, usually through a nifty double-standard. Men have always been defined as beings who will, in the words of Eddie Murphy, fuck anything that moves; it's their natural state, supposedly. But women who dare to embrace this caricature are defined as whores, sluts, nymphomaniacs, black widow spiders A femmes fatales who use men to satisfy their own animal urges and then discard them, or worse, entrap them to gain access to money, mobility, fame, or power.

Surface distractions aside, that's what Body of Evidence is really about: the idea that a woman without shame or restraint, a woman who recognizes no higher moral authority than her own body and mind, is perversely alluring and terrifying both to society and to the men she sleeps with. Such a woman, these movies tell us, is as powerful as a government official, a sorcerer, a nuclear bomb; she can use her sexuality to threaten, cajole, use, even kill wayward men. In film noir, as in other forms of tragedy, such women gain sexual liberation at the expense of an orderly life A even life itself. Often, when society turns against them, they become destructive, dragging their lovers, their friends, and society down into the abyss along with them.

Considering her two-million-dollar salary for Body of Evidence, maybe "punished" isn't the right word for Madonna. The plot is a serious variant on a timeworn male joke: the lay so great that she literally screwed somebody to death. Rebecca Carlson (Madonna), a curvaceous sexpot, is charged with killing her rich, elderly husband, who had a weak heart, through a combination of surreptitious cocaine doses and punishingly wild sex. Of course, the family-man lawyer assigned to defend her (Willem Dafoe) falls under her evil spell, loses everything he holds dear, wins the enmity of his own legal profession, and learns the value of bedroom creativity.

The Material Girl is used for curiosity value here, to lend a glitzy peekaboo factor to an otherwise routine thriller. For a movie that bills itself as a taboo-busting foray into pure carnality, however, the sex scenes are short, spaced far apart, and accompanied by idiotic Exorcist-style, Satanic chant music designed to provide the forbidden aura the stars' copulations lack. Besides the scene, trumpeted heavily in TV ads, where Rebecca drips hot candle wax on her partner's privates, it's pretty tame stuff A mild bondage, oral sex, woman on top, and other shockers.

At least the sex has some movement. Outside the bedroom, the picture's pacing is flat, its performances uninspired, and its ending woefully predictable. (The courtroom scenes are so full of movie cliches that they're funny; you almost expect one of the attorneys to run at Madonna waving a rubber dildo, … la Kentucky Fried Movie, bellowing, "Madam A are you aware of the penal code in this state?")

Madonna has lost the forced, Mae West-Judy Holliday perkiness that made her a bore in other starring roles. In its place is an actress-icon who shoulders the burden placed on all women by a hypocritical, Puritan country. Her face appears to have been softened by controversy, made luminous, even vulnerable; even in her strongest, most wily moments, she always seems on the verge of weeping. And she often seems to deliberately break character and blur the lines between Madonna the singer-pop philosopher and Madonna the actress. When Rebecca is called upon to justify her lovemaking, she pontificates straight into the camera, echoing the simplistic sexual sloganeering that makes her music so popular.

The subtext of Body of Evidence A hinted at, but never really explored A is the idea that Rebecca isn't really on trial for murdering her husband, but for for her sexual past and habits. What the movie really reveals, besides breasts, buttocks, pubic hair, and a flash of Willem Dafoe's testicles, is how artificial, calculating, and creatively uncommitted Madonna actually is. In print, and on stage, screen, and compact disc, she sells herself as a marvelous contradiction A a zipless fuck who digs monogamy A and as a warrior queen out to liberate us from the shackles of repression A Spartacus with a riding crop and a bottle of K-Y jelly. But she invariably ends up revealing (at least emotionally) comparatively little. She seems more intrigued by the notion of sexual freedom and experimentation than the thing itself.

When she bonds, spiritually and physically, with nude lesbians, gay men, and liberated heteros, as in Sex and her documentary Truth or Dare, she always seems more like a tourist than an artist. Every provocative thing she does has huge, blatant quote marks around it, which automatically defuses her "message" and makes her palatable to the mass market. (Body of Evidence was originally rated NC-17 but was trimmed to an R for financial reasons, without a single peep of protest from the Great Blond Upholder of Artistic Integrity.)

To go out on a limb here, I think what Body of Evidence needed, besides a good script, was real, honest-to-goodness fucking, or at least a fictionalized version of it so spontaneous and uncomfortable that it blurred the line between mainstream entertainment and pornography. Such a leap would have made the movie not just pruriently interesting, but socially valuable, and if anybody has the clout to do something like that A to challenge long-held ideas of mainstream entertainment, and bring down the sham MPAA ratings system in the process A it's Madonna. But clearly, she's not really about sexual freedom or artistic risk, but hype and money; a movie like the one I've described might have derailed her carefully controlled career.

At last, the woman is truly naked A exposed as an utter hypocrite. For all her pontification about sexual freedom, Madonna is an overhyped, glamorized little tease. And so is this Body of Evidence.


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