PART OF QUAD SERIES, "CRIMES OF PASSION: THE EROTIC THRILLER"
Quad Cinema in New York began a series February 2nd: "Crimes of Passion: The Erotic Thriller," which runs through February 16th. The whole thing comes to a head on Sunday afternoon with a fantastic Brian De Palma triple feature: Femme Fatale, Dressed To Kill, and Body Double. Earlier this week, The Village Voice's Abbey Bender posted an article titled, "In the Quad Cinema’s Series of Erotic Thrillers, Women Do as They Damn Well Please." Here's an excerpt:
“A complex series of seductions and murders — that’s not something you see a woman do.” This line, spoken early (by a man, of course) in Bob Rafelson’s Black Widow (1987) — which features Theresa Russell as a beautiful psychopath who marries wealthy magnates only to poison them — sets a clean template for erotic thrillers to work against. The often-maligned genre, which flourished in the ’80s and ’90s and functions as an intriguing amalgam of film noir, sexy music video, and pure id, is the subject of “Crimes of Passion: The Erotic Thriller,” a luxuriously sprawling 24-film series running this month at the Quad Cinema. With Valentine’s Day around the corner, the rep house is bringing seduction and murder to the forefront. But it’s worth remembering, amid the enjoyable screen hysterics, that the erotic thriller would be nothing without its femmes fatales. To watch them rebuff the Black Widow line, again and again, is a reliable pleasure.
In addition to glossy genre icons like Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct (1992) and Adrian Lyne’s Fatal Attraction (1987), the Quad’s program also offers up some films that haven’t traditionally been described as erotic thrillers. But even more surprisingly, while surveying the canvas of titles on display, is the second connective thread that emerges: “Crimes of Passion” is, in a sense, a short seminar on the femme fatale. The stock character, as old as cinema itself, endures for a reason: Within a society that expects women to be docile, passive figures, the spectacle of a woman behaving badly ignites both lust and a perverse wish fulfillment. It’s a nuanced appeal that reaches beyond the male gaze.
Double Indemnity, Billy Wilder’s 1944 noir classic, is the oldest work in the series; Barbara Stanwyck’s portrayal, in that movie, of a married woman who seduces an insurance salesman into a murderous scheme stands as a template for the genre. Her deviousness would be scandalous in any era. She’s also an obvious inspiration for Kathleen Turner’s character in Body Heat (1981), an early pioneer in heaping horniness onto the handsome noir template and beginning to codify the erotic thriller as a newly steamy genre of its own.
The genre also owes a debt to Alfred Hitchcock. Vertigo (1958), with Kim Novak as a provocative woman who takes on two distinct identities, is one of the great cinematic examples of femininity spiraling into something confusing and sinister. And a particularly ardent Hitchcock follower, Brian De Palma, may well be the auteur of the erotic thriller. With three films, he’s the most-represented director in the series; each of them — Dressed to Kill (1980), Body Double (1984), Femme Fatale (2002) — prominently features crime, plot twists, and babely blondes. It takes some moxie to literally title an erotic thriller “femme fatale,” but De Palma’s the rare director who could actually pull it off. Though he has long had charges of sexism leveled against him, the women in his films project power and know how to use their sexuality to influence those around them. Femme Fatale doesn’t just gawk at its model-turned-actress star, Rebecca Romijn. It builds a head-spinning world of double crosses around her — and, ultimately, gives her the last laugh.