Kathleen Turner created Modern Femme Fatale

She rewrote the rules of cinematic seduction in the 1981 erotic thriller Body heat.
Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photo by Warner Bros.

“You’re not very smart, are you? I like that in a man. ” When Matty Walker – played bitterly by Kathleen Turner in her first film role – threw these two lines over the shoulder of the enlightened lawyer Ned Racine (William Hurt), he should have known that his days were numbered. This is not a passage, it is a warning. But he’s too horny, too stupid to see it the way it is.

In the directorial debut of Lawrence Kasdan, the 1981 erotic thriller Body heat, Matty and Ned meet on a terrible night. The kind that requires you to roll ice cubes on your body while standing in front of a fan. The kind of air that is so thick that it makes your hair stand on end and your skin always fall slippery. It’s not like the heat is something that people who live in Miranda Beach, a fictional South Florida seaside town, don’t understand, but it’s different. It is as if Mother Nature herself foreshadows the dynamics of the coming greenhouse.

Dressed in a tailored white dress that flutters up with the breeze, giving a view of the legs that go far beyond the horizon, Kathleen Turner is absolutely, unquestionably, devastating. “Miss Turner is brand new to movies, and her only problem may be that she’s too conventionally beautiful in her elegant way, with black hair to immediately register as a film personality,” Vincent Canby wrote in his review of the film. for New York. Times. But to understand your beauty means to miss the real bravery of her show, her understanding of what her camera wants and her kinetic intelligence as an actor. She misses the way her work on one of the oldest erotic thrillers has revived the fatal woman of classic noir in new, perfectly lascivious ways.

The story places Matty as a smooth, cunning figure, a few miles ahead of Ned’s legal mind. This gives a certain advantage to their early flirtations on the promenade after seeing her leave for an open-air classical music show. He throws out the kind of tired lines that work on women, unlike Matty – working class women whose dreams come to life during that time before the end of the night and the beginning of another tiring day. The pleasure for these women is not enough, but for Matty, the pleasure is not negotiable. Ned realizes, by virtue of her behavior and appearance, that she is not from Miranda Beach at all. He has money and lives in luxury Pinehaven nearby. After spreading a cherry red snowdrop on her dress, Ned offers to bring her some paper towels, and Matty raises his voice, still whiskey and honey, over the crowd’s battle: “Don’t you want to lick it?” When she finally disappears, Ned is determined to find her. Wouldn’t you like to?

However, the line that catches me is the one at the beginning: “You are not very smart, are you? I like that in a man. ” It’s the kind of biting remark you can imagine slipping off the lips of dozens of previous fatal women. There are obvious points of comparison for Matty, especially for Phyllis Dietrichson, who is misrepresented by Barbara Stanwyck in Billy Wilder’s 1944 noir film. double allowance, a film that set the pattern for not only Body heat but all the noir created after him. Writing about Body heat, legendary caustic critic Pauline Kael criticized Turner’s performance, describing the actress as “following the signs on the floor made by the actresses who preceded her”. That’s why I think Turner’s performance is so amazing and so rich to study. In Matty you can find Cana’s wish for Lana Turner The postman always rings twice, the smoky grace of Mary by Lauren Bacall To have and not to have, Leslie’s determination of Bette Davis in The letter, and the thorny intelligence of Gloria Grahame – the actress who best exemplified the noir genre – in Crossfire, sudden fearand In a lonely place. (Grahame, who understood her body and how she could be armed, is perhaps the best actress who has ever slipped into a noir.)

But Matty has something else: real, palpable, fulfilling lust. She doesn’t just use sex and seduction as a weapon; she wants to be active. Erotic thrillers, after all, owe much to the abolition of the Hays Code, which banned things like open sexual behavior, explicit passion scenes, adultery, complete nudity, and sexual hygiene from appearing on the screen before the strictures were completely dissolved by 1968. , the criminals were punished or rehabilitated until the end of a movie, so the fatal conniving woman rarely came out alive or intact. But relieved of these restrictions in the 1980s, erotic thrillers were able to remix and reimagine the mother-of-pearl qualities of noir, still punishing men for their tense ignorance, but letting the fatal woman succeed in something she had not done before: survival. It would not have simply surpassed the men in its orbit; it could overtake them and survive them even now. (Although she would remain white in the first place. Black women and women of color generally rarely appear as fatal women in American erotic thrillers. For this, you will have to look beyond the shores of the United States, especially to South Korea, where the genus continues to bend, evolve and flourish.)

It is easy to see the fatal woman in both her original incarnation in the 1940s and her renewal in erotic thrillers from the 1980s and 1990s, as film theorist Elizabeth Cowie put it. male fantasy ”in which“ sexual difference is played out ”. It’s even easier to criticize Matty as a product of the male gaze, no matter how empty that term may be when he centralizes the efforts of male directors and ignores women like Turner who have had a helping hand in bringing their characters to the screen. . Ideas that stimulate the proliferation of male and female gaze in modern criticism narrow the lens through which we view images of women on screen, solidifying a gender essentialism that suddenly reaffirms the highly heteropatriarchal dynamic that these critics want to criticize and ignore the ways marginalized people – queer and human of color among us, in particular – interpret the dynamics we see on the screen, finding the texture and the desire for such critical terminology does not take into account. So, although it has been strongly argued that the fatal woman was born of neurosis and male fantasies, her ability to appeal to other the fantasies along its historical arc have ensured its longevity. Actresses who give life to these characters – such as Turner, who created a plan for Linda Fiorentino in 1994. The Last Seduction and Jennifer Tilly in the 1996 lesbian noir mélange tied up – understand this appeal.

The important thing is that their fatal women are not meant to reflect the struggles of women’s real life, nor do they. As Michael Boyce Gillespie noted, the film is a bad mirror. In the most memorable cases, fatal women like Matty complicate the fictional image of the women we have become accustomed to, and Turner’s penchant for complication is best picked in the review – knowing what Matty is capable of. Body heat (intentionally invalidating a will, asking about building a bomb, fooling Ned into believing that their nice beach date was a coincidence), you’ll question every line, every gesture, every look he throws . The second time you watch them meet in a cherry red light bar, you can see that she plays a role according to Ned’s wishes, her body and voice – willing and breathless – working in concert for seduction. Later, as she watches Ned encircle the windows of a locked house, her breathing grows faster, but her gaze never leaves him. He breaks the window with a chair – sex and violence, the signs of erotic thrillers – and they hug, delighted. Turner doesn’t play Matty as easily. She is in love and lust, but none of her emotions really replace her financial motives. She is in a constant state of desire.

Good performances are usually classified on remarkable moments: a long monologue, a well-crafted accent, a moment of physically rendered ecstasy. But Turner’s performance does not have a unique, remarkable scene. It’s a great performance by accumulation – in which her hoarse voice, elegant physique and tiny gestures add to the portrait of a woman whose interiority is forever beyond your touch. Turner plays Matty, who fulfills Ned’s wishes; we’ll never really know who he is or how he looks, but Turner is cunning enough to show the cracks. When Ned unexpectedly hits her at a mob-related restaurant with her husband, the three of them have dinner. For the first and only time, Matty is nervous. (She also has a dramatic style different from the way she usually looks with Ned, her delicately wrapped hair, and her stingy dress. they have a lightness. their. It’s tense.

The movie ends with her fulfilled her dream: rich alone and living in a remote and beautiful land by the sea, miles from South Florida’s dirt and mistakes that have overshadowed her life leading her down this path. false identities and truculent manipulations. But what is curious is that she does not seem ecstatic or satisfied. There is no mischievous smile on her face. Instead, her gaze is impenetrable, like the woman herself. Does she feel guilty about her actions? Are you thinking about the life you can lead? Is she thinking about the husband she killed? Is she thinking about the man she sentenced to prison? In Kathleen Turner’s hands, anything could be true.

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