I can trace my fascination with erotic thrillers back to the 1998 Neve Campbell and Denise Richards vehicle “Wild Things.” My father and I watched it together at his suggestion (there was never much censorship in my bohemian Manhattan childhood home), and as a burgeoning teen cinephile I was enchanted by its polished, artful sleaze. The plot concerns Campbell (brunette, surly, poor) and Richards (blonde, popular, wealthy), who accuse their high-school guidance counselor of abuse. Soon, the story becomes a thicket of convoluted double crosses, and nothing is what it originally seemed. By the time the end credits rolled and revealed Campbell as the film’s criminal mastermind, I was ready to cheer. Like many of the most captivating women in these films, Campbell’s character is an outsider who uses others’ underestimation of her abilities to her advantage. Fooled by her lower-class status, her enemies think she lacks savvy, but she is in fact a cunning strategist who uses her sexuality to outwit them.
In other words, she’s a femme fatale — a trope that goes back over half a century. Noirs like “Double Indemnity” and “The Postman Always Rings Twice” established her as an archetype in the mid-20th century, but the erotic thrillers of the ’80s and ’90s made explicit her wielding of sexuality as a tool for getting what she wants. Whether she’s in an old-school hard-boiled detective story or an early-’90s erotic thriller, the femme fatale is a magician, fooling the men onscreen and the audience alike.
It’s easy to write off erotic thrillers as sexist schlock — which they might be — but there’s more to them than meets the eye.
The erotic thriller came to prominence in the prosperous Reagan era, which was politically conservative yet culturally trashy. These films fruitfully explored this contradiction, and by the ’90s, they were certified box-office gold. They distilled the excesses and anxieties of yuppie culture into psychosexually messy yet stylized commercial products, before fizzling out in the aughts. Building on the moody, femme-fatale-filled world of classic ’40s and ’50s film noir, the erotic thriller was always gloriously excessive, with a laser-sharp focus on beautiful women doing bad things. In films like “Basic Instinct,” “Fatal Attraction,” “Body Heat” and “The Last Seduction,” the calculated performance of self-assured femininity inspires fear, arousal and awe in equal measure.
It’s easy to write off erotic thrillers as sexist schlock — which they might be — but there’s more to them than meets the eye. Consider the spaces of lurid glamour in which they unfold: gaudy dens of iniquity shot in chiaroscuro lighting, filled with dense cigarette smoke and revelers enjoying cocaine as if it were Champagne. These are images of hyperbolic sensuality where pleasure approaches vulgarity. The femme fatale’s acts of deception mirror these environments, presenting images of desire in a way that’s as likely to make us feel queasy as aroused (in “Fatal Attraction,” for example, Glenn Close’s character boils a pet bunny to exact vengeance on a lover who has spurned her). In this context, the sexually frank crime novelist and murder suspect Catherine Tramell from “Basic Instinct” (played by Sharon Stone) is an immoral figure whose self-possession and allure make for exciting viewing precisely because she is immoral, and whose qualities I nevertheless desire for myself.
In these spaces of questionable morality, the femme fatale’s sex appeal gives her the upper hand. She’s always a target in rooms filled with men who want to leer at her. She knows this, and turns it to her advantage. While the erotic thrills are obviously meant to be found in her self-revelation, what seems more thrilling to me is how she works this trap. She’s a magician who can misdirect her audience with a quip and the raise of a perfectly sculpted brow. A femme fatale always knows how to use the erotics of the erotic thriller. When Catherine Tramell intimidates her male interrogators with candid discussion of her sex life and famously uncrosses her legs to reveal she’s not wearing underwear, the moment is so self-conscious in its studied sexiness that it becomes bizarre. Who would ever do such a thing in real life? But the men onscreen are so enthralled by her that she can do whatever she wants. It’s a fantasy of weaponized femininity in a misogynist world, and by the time Jeanne Tripplehorn exclaims of Stone’s character: “She’s evil! She’s brilliant!” I can’t help but wish that I too could be evil and brilliant, working my way into spaces where I shouldn’t be and surprising everyone with that stylish mix of sexiness and cunning that only exists in movies.
For me, erotic thrillers are best consumed as escapist fantasies about a mythic figure I myself could never embody: I’m too neurotic to pull off acts of deception, to say nothing of murder, and I’m simply too lazy to commit to looking glamorous every day. Like many women, I say, “I’m sorry” too often, and one thing the femme fatale absolutely never does is apologize.
But while I may sometimes wish for a femme fatale’s enviable style and mastery of seduction, I also realize she’s a trope that was largely written by men as an embodiment of fears around powerful women. The erotic thriller’s femme fatale can fit into any number of sexist tropes: She can be a teenage temptress, a home-wrecker, a sexy psycho. The creature of a period that cherished capitalist calculation and the pantsuit, she’s the nightmare version of a strong woman. I cringe at her while recognizing that I’m drawn to her. The thrills she and these films present are not merely sexual. She seduces some viewers — at least this one — into interrogating their assumptions about what a strong femininity can look like.
Abbey Bender is a writer whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, Sight & Sound and Artforum.