Film, 1996, 4.5 stars
Written and Directed: The Wachowskis
You know, I actually didn't think that the violence in Bound was that bad until I watched it with a friend who was decidedly squeamish. She hated it with a passion. But I definitely think she's in the minority.
Bound is cleverly written, technically brilliant (gotta love those Wachowskis) and I believed that glamour babes Gina Gershon and Jennifer Tilly were turned on by each other, despite reports that they had to get themselves loaded on tequila before the much vaunted sex scene. Whatever they did, it worked.
That rumour reminds me of something Susan Sarandon once said in The Celluloid Closet. When asked if she had been drunk during her sex scenes in The Hunger, she responded "Who would need to be drunk to make love to Catherine Deneuve?" Bravo. You'd think that straight or not, it really wouldn't be a hard day at the office for either Tilly or Gershon.
To go too much into the plot of Bound would be to do the film a disservice, because the plot twists make the film and you really don't want to know too much going in. Gershon plays Corky, a thief just out of jail after having served five years for the what she calls "The redistribution of wealth". She had a lover and partner who screwed her over and is justifiably cynical now, about women and her former profession.
Corky is trying to go legit and takes a job renovating an old apartment. In one of those movie twists we all know and adore, the apartment just happens to be right next door to Violet (Tilly) and her mobster boyfriend Ceaser. Corky soon figures out that sleeping with Ceaser is just Violet's day job. Violet's real passion is women, and she wants Corky. They become lovers, but for Violet that just isn't enough. She wants out of the mob and doesn't think she deserves to leave empty handed, so she asks Corky's help with one last job - to relieve the mob of 2.2 million dollars and to frame Caeser for the theft. He'll be either dead or gone, and she'll be free and rich.
Bound is narratively tight, energised, and undeniably sexy. She may only charitably be called a B-movie actress (despite the academy award nomination for Bullets Over Broadway) but not many actresses can communicate "I want to fuck you" with no words as easily as Jennifer Tilly. It's like the woman was born to seduce. Despite claims by many lesbian film critics though, I don't believe that the lesbianism in this film was designed to titillate men. I think it was designed to titillate everyone. The chemistry between these two women is so palpable it defies sexual orientation. Gay or straight you have to admire it, you have to respond to it.
Bound was a mainstream film with two lesbian main characters who fuck, swear, kill and steal. That isn't going to come along every day. Just for that it deserves a special place on the lesbian film honour roll. After all, I refuse to join the ranks of those people who insist that a film can't possibly be good if more than 100 people saw it. (Of course, in the gay community it is that a film can't possibly be good if more than 100 straight people saw it.)
I'm not saying that lesbian films should actively court male viewers or seek to feed the stereotypical, classic male fantasy of two women together, but if the price of not feeding it comes at the expense of never getting films like this, then that is too high a price to pay. After all, a film can be anything you want it to be. Film texts are fluid. There is room for reading many different types of desire in this particular text. What matters is that we, as lesbians, can see the desires we need to see and recognise in the film to enjoy it. As far as lesbian texts goes, this is less problematic than most. (Turns out, there ended up being a reason why the Wachowskis were able to do women justice onscreen…)
This was a film that was designed both to shock and to evoke an era of filmmaking long past. It was awash in sex, blood and many stylistic elements lifted straight from classic film noir tradition. Of course the Wachowskis were able to show far more sex and violence than a fifties noir ever could. Noir as a movement specialised in exploring the darkness in the soul by using that darkness, coldness and high contrast in the mise-en-scene. Dark clothes, dark lighting, cold steel weapons, cold ice cubes in tall glasses of alcohol. When colours are used they are used for contrast; the slash of red lipstick on our femme fatale, the splashing of bright, red blood in white paint. The film is a virtual symphony of our darker sensibilities, without a single moment of reality to overburden our walk on the wild side.
One of the most refreshing things about Bound was the filmmaker's no holds barred approach to lesbian sex. The Wachowskis obviously knew that in a film about two lesbians with such absurdly good sexual chemistry everyone would be wondering "when are they going to fuck?". So they get sex of the way in the first reel and then go on to raising other tensions, such as "will they get the loot, or be killed trying?"
There isn't an over-concentration on the character's sexuality. Also, neither of the women is punished specifically for being gay. Attempting to steal the loot? Yes. For being gay? No. Too many lesbian (or lesbian themed) films in the past have tortured their characters emotionally or physically merely for the act of being gay. This film says it straight out - if there's one thing a woman should not apologise for, it is wanting sex. Of course, stealing from the mob is whole different matter.
If I could change anything in Bound it would be the clunky lesbian bar scene with the over-the-top leather babe and her cop girlfriend. It was almost as if the Wachowskis were saying, "You think our heroines are butch/femme stereotypes? Well, look at this!". Then again, the "Well, now that we're all caught up" dialogue between Corky and her long-time bartender friend was classic noir tradition dialogue, so maybe I'd keep it just the same.
If you are indeed too squeamish to handle hot sex, people getting their fingers cut off, people getting shot and punched in the face, then perhaps this is not your scene. If what you like is lesbians, sexual chemistry, gorgeous women, action and suspense then Bound just might be your favourite film ever.
Followup - Drew Gregory over at Autostraddle as an awesome take on Bound as a Trans Classic - couldn’t hope to write this perspective better myself so am just linking to it as it really resonated with me.