I can trace my fascination with erotic thrillers back to Neve Campbell and Denise Richards’ 1998 vehicle “Wild Things.” My dad and I watched it together at his suggestion (there was never much censorship in my bohemian Manhattan childhood home), and as a burgeoning teenage moviegoer, I was enchanted by his polished and shrewd sleaze. The plot concerns Campbell (brunette, surly, poor) and Richards (blonde, popular, wealthy), who accuse their high school guidance counselor of abuse. Soon, history becomes a thicket of convoluted double crosses, and nothing is as it originally seemed. By the time the end credits rolled and revealed Campbell as the film’s criminal mastermind, I was ready to applaud. 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. Duped by her low-class status, her enemies think she lacks common sense, but she is actually a cunning strategist who uses her sexuality to outsmart them.
In other words, she’s a femme fatale – a trope that dates back over half a century. Blacks 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 use of sexuality as a tool to obtain what she wants. Whether she’s in an old-school hard-boiled crime novel or an early ’90s erotic thriller, the femme fatale is a magician, tricking men on screen and audiences alike.
It’s easy to dismiss erotic thrillers as sexist schlocks — which they might be — but there’s more to it than meets the eye.
The erotic thriller rose to prominence during the prosperous Reagan era, which was politically conservative but culturally trashy. These films successfully explored this contradiction, and by the 90s they were certified gold at the box office. They distilled the excesses and anxieties of yuppie culture into psychosexually messy but stylized commercial products, before crashing back and forth. Building on the brooding, femme fatale-filled world of classic 1940s and 50s film noir, the erotic thriller has always been gloriously over the top, with a laser-sharp focus on beautiful women doing bad things. In movies like “Basic Instinct,” “Fatal Attraction,” “Body Heat,” and “The Last Seduction,” the calculated performance of confident femininity inspires fear, excitement, and awe in equal measure.
It’s easy to dismiss erotic thrillers as sexist schlocks — which they might be — but there’s more to it than meets the eye. Consider the spaces of sinister glamor in which they are set: garish dens of iniquity shot in chiaroscuro lighting, filled with thick cigarette smoke and revelers sipping cocaine as if it were Champagne. These are images of hyperbolic sensuality where pleasure approaches vulgarity. The femme fatale’s acts of deception reflect these environments, presenting images of desire in a way that is as likely to make us feel uneasy as excited (in “Fatal Attraction”, for example, the character of Glenn Close boils a pet rabbit to get revenge on a lover who rejected her). In this context, sexually outspoken novelist and murder suspect Catherine Tramell of “Basic Instinct” (played by Sharon Stone) is an immoral figure whose self-control and allure makes for thrilling viewing precisely because she is immoral, and whose qualities I nevertheless desire for myself.
In these spaces of dubious morality, the femme fatale’s sex appeal gives her the upper hand. She’s always a target in rooms full of men who want to ogle her. She knows it and turns it to her advantage. While the erotic thrills are obviously meant to be found in her self-disclosure, what strikes me as more exciting is how she works that trap. She is a magician who can fool her audience with a quip and the lifting of a perfectly sculpted forehead. A femme fatale always knows how to use the eroticism of the erotic thriller. When Catherine Tramell intimidates her male interrogators with a candid discussion of her sex life and uncrosses her legs to reveal she’s not wearing underwear, the moment is so embarrassed in her studied sex appeal that it becomes bizarre. Who would ever do such a thing in real life? But the men on screen are so fascinated by her that she can do whatever she wants. It’s a fantasy of armed femininity in a misogynistic world, and as Jeanne Tripplehorn exclaims about Stone’s character, “She’s evil!” She is brilliant! I can’t help but wish that I too could be evil and brilliant, smash my way into spaces where I shouldn’t be, and surprise everyone with that sleek mix of sexiness and cunning that n exists only in the movies.
For me, erotic thrillers are best consumed as escapist fantasies about a mythical figure I could never embody myself: I’m too neurotic to commit acts of deception, to say nothing of murder, and I’m just too lazy to commit to looking glamorous everyday. Like many women, I too often say “I’m sorry,” and one thing the femme fatale absolutely never does is apologize.
But while I can sometimes wish for a femme fatale’s enviable style and mastery of seduction, I also realize that she’s a trope that’s been widely written about by men as an embodiment of fears around powerful women. The femme fatale of the erotic thriller can fit into any number of sexist tropes: she can be a tempting teenage girl, a home breaker, a sexy psychopath. A creature of an era that cherished capitalist calculus and the pantsuit, she is the nightmarish version of a strong woman. I recoil from her while acknowledging that I am attracted to her. The thrills she and these films present aren’t just sexual. She appeals to some viewers — at least this one — by questioning their assumptions about what strong femininity might look like.
Abbey Bender is a writer whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, Sight & Sound and Artforum.