The Wachowskis directorial début, neo-noir thriller Bound (1996), could not have come at a better time. Released mid-90s at the height of the erotic thriller, Bound adds a twist to the heavily sexualized takes on film noir: lesbians. And these lesbians are not secondary roles nor their sexuality a dark, erotic twist to their characters. They are the protagonists whose sexuality does not define the plot in any way, but rather is carefully and naturally woven into the fabric of the narrative. The Wachowskis cleverly use this popular genre to both highlight and subvert the stereotypes of lesbian sexuality so easily exploited by their contemporaries.
At the center of Bound we find Violet (Jennifer Tilly) and Corky (Gina Gershon), femme fatale and butch lesbian entangled in a steamy romance and a heist plan gone wrong. Fallen for each other with the desire to free themselves from the lives they are bound to, prostitute Violet and ex-con Corky devise a plan to rob Violet’s Mafioso boyfriend Caesar (Joe Pantoliano). A suitcase of 2 million dollars that sits on Caesar’s desk waiting to be picked up by mob boss Marzzone and son (Richard C. Sarafian and Christopher Meloni) is the prize: so begins a classic cat-and-mouse game between the odd love triangle.
Throughout the film we are lead through a landscape of highly stylized stereotypes that we cannot help but laugh at. We ask ourselves of the early exchanges between Violet and Corky that are overflowing with not so subtle sexual innuendos – is this supposed to be a ‘real’ movie or soft porn? But what Bound ultimately achieves is to make use of film noir with humor in order to subvert the many stereotypes it upholds, particularly with regard to female homosexuality.
In a pair of back to back love scenes we are introduced to two alternative perspectives of lesbian intercourse. Both are embedded in the narrative early on in the film, marking the erotic interaction between the two women as central to the plot. As consecutive scenes, they act as mirrors to each other and beg for comparison. The first offers an exchange shrouded with mystery, innuendos, and symbols; it relies heavily on stereotypes to convey a fantasized image of the encounter. The second strips the two characters bare (literally) of stereotypes, and does not leave it up to fantasy for us to visualize their intimacy.
In the first, Corky is called to Violet’s apartment to recuperate the earring she “accidentally” dropped down the drain. What follows is a long sequence of witty and flirtatious exchanges that draw out the intensifying sexual tension in the room until it can no longer be contained solely by dialogue or imagination. Corky is depicted as the typical butch lesbian through the masculine loose clothing she wears, her traditionally masculine job as plumber that makes her both economically independent and marks her out as belonging to the working class, her somewhat James Dean-y attitude and of course her labrys tattoo through which she clearly identifies as lesbian. Violet on the other hand inhabits the femme role; her high-pitched husky voice that delivers her flirtatious lines seems excessive and laughable, but not unintentionally so. When asked what she would like to drink, Corky says “Beer.” Violet responds, “Beer, of course.” What else could a butch lesbian want other than the classic male worker’s drink? In this clever exchange the Wachowskis exemplify a self-aware use of stereotypes that we are supposed to laugh at because they are ridiculous. The comic relief we are given at this point follows throughout the rest of the sequence, particularly when they are interrupted by Caesar walking into the apartment.
Caesar interrupts the scene at precisely the moment where the growing sexual tension explodes into physical expression. Like in classic film noir, we are left with our own fantasy of what could have happened to satisfy our spectatorship. We are allowed to imagine, but not to see. This same paradigm is shown to be what restricts lesbian relationships to the realm of fantasy within visual media. The very shift from fantasy to reality (when the two women actually engage in intercourse) is interrupted by no other than a man that reasserts his authority through his mere presence between the two. The problem that ensues is the creation of a void regarding authentic visual representations of lesbian intimacy, and thus no way of dismantling the detrimental stereotypes that surround them.
Violet: I’m not apologizing for what I did. I’m apologizing for what I didn’t do.
After the interruption, Violet rushes after Corky into her pick-up truck to deliver this key seductive line that links the two love scenes together. What Violet apologizes for not doing is exactly what cinema has not done: gone through with it. In the scene that follows, the Wachowskis fill in the void of lesbian representation by offering an explicit visualization thereof. A scene without dialogue or stereotypical markers, this scene is in every way unlike the first. It is not a laughable accumulation of clichés but rather an innovatively realistic approach made to highlight the inaccuracies of the latter.
The first thing to call our attention is the reversal of active/passive roles within the physical exchange. Whereas Violet is depicted as stereotypically femme and therefore passive in the first scene, she is now clearly portrayed as an active figure within the intercourse. She is the first one of the two that we recognize, lying on top of Corky, her hand later shown to be the instrument of pleasure. Corky on the other hand, naked and stripped of the visual elements that would allow us to categorize her as butch, is as feminine as it gets. The choice of Gina Gershon, a sexy feminine icon, to play Corky now makes sense as it allows for butch stereotypes to be challenged. Where the first scene made use of classic editing and montage techniques to cut up the scene’s different shots, the second makes use of a continuous circular long-take that pans fully around the couple. The scene therefore flows naturally and beautifully, uninterrupted by both classical Hollywood editing and uninvited male gaze.
In watching this Wachowskis masterpiece, we become aware of how bound we are to stereotypes in much the same way than the characters are. It becomes difficult to imagine alternative realities without visual examples to represent them. In Bound, this lacuna of representation is responded to by offering a humorous dismantling of stereotypes through the juxtaposition of these two wonderfully crafted love scenes.