Monday, 16 July 2012

The Last Seduction

My absolute favourite thing that I’ve seen over the last two weeks has been John Dahl’s 1994 film The Last Seduction. Apparently it was scandalously passed over by distributors initially, and doomed to languish on TV broadcasting – a cruel fate for so vividly cinematic a work. Gratifyingly, justice was eventually served, and it still managed to make a big enough splash on TV to be picked up again and given a theatrical release. And now all these years later I see it for the first time on TV, via the DVD. Go figure.

The absolute defining feature of The Last Seduction is Linda Fiorentino’s brilliantly amoral anti-heroine “Bridget Gregory.” This is the only case I can think of where the femme fatale of 1940s and 50s film noir is triumphantly updated for the 90s, with no softening or cop-outs (I haven’t seen Brian de Palma’s film yet, but I’m even more curious now). Bridget is really one of those characters who puts your ideas about what constitutes movie misogyny to the test, and beyond that what relation, if any, morality bears to art. Bridget is first introduced running a telemarketing scam selling worthless “vintage coins” to gullible suckers. It is then revealed that this is just a sideline, and that she has induced her doctor husband “Clay” into doing a $700,000 drug deal with hospital pharmaceuticals. When he returns with the money, she then steals it and leaves him in the lurch with the heavy loan-shark debt they’ve incurred setting up their dream New York apartment. Ostensibly she did it on the spur of the moment because he hit her, but everything else we see of her character indicates that this is just a convenient excuse he was boorish enough to give her, and that she would soon enough have done it anyway.

Arriving in a small town called Beston where she can hide inconspicuously for a while, Bridget proceeds to seduce a young hayseed boy named “Mike Swale,” who will in short order become her pawn to deflect  Clay’s vengeance. By the end Clay is dead, Mike is in jail for the murder, and Bridget has the cash all to herself, no worse for the wear. On paper, this might seem like a nihilistic movie, in which a conscienceless bitch decides this is her world and we just live in it, and is never contradicted in this belief. And yet I found this one brilliantly humanistic and principled, in that it zeroed in on the real lasting appeal of film noir and the femme fatale: namely that plenty of men don’t like repressive patriarchy any more than women do. When presented with a female character who decides to vindictively undermine this order, we’re ready to root for her unreservedly, and that is exactly what The Last Seduction does, with no compromise or cop-outs.

From the very first, this movie frames itself in terms that play on our expectations about gender. When Clay hits her, he is immediately so convincingly apologetic that we’re wearily resigned to the movie having her forgive him, and this just being a foretaste of volatile things to come. This not only turns out to be not the case, but she actually humiliates him in the most sadistically phallic terms by leaving a cruel farewell note with an emptied box of condoms! With this symbolic castration, we’re cued that the film is not going to privilege Mike’s down-home hayseed persona the way so exasperatingly many Hollywood movies do.

Many movies from the old Hollywood studio days had that class of character called the “designated hero.” The designated hero was usually the most blandly consensual figure of masculinity possible, put there to orient and centre the movie in the midst of whatever fascinatingly esoteric subject matter, supporting players, or of course women might be its real interest. These characters were generally boring at best, and outright hateful at worst, and thus it’s enormously gratifying to see The Last Seduction explicitly subvert the term and have Bridget declare Mike her “designated fuck,” turning him into essentially a living dildo for her casual sexual needs, and absolutely no more than that. In scene after delicious scene he attempts to assert his supposed patriarchal right to become the ordering centre of her life, and is summarily shot down. Even the choreography of the sex scenes is bizarrely different from what we’re used to in Hollywood movies, with her riding him reverse cowgirl inside a car, and one position involving hanging on a chain-link fence that defies description.

The film would still have been pretty one-note if Linda Fiorentino were all there was to it, however, and it’s here that J.T. Walsh is so invaluable. I always enjoyed the sort of reptilian scumbags that Walsh played, if only for the texture they added to a film. And, indeed, in The Big Picture I actually sympathized and identified with his openly cynical producer far more than Kevin Bacon’s insufferable Young Republican persona – a lot like Mike’s, incidentally. Thus, his equally cynical lawyer character “Frank Griffith” in The Last Seduction was a joy to watch. Almost all of Frank’s scenes consist of him picking up the phone to talk to Bridget from his dark oak-panelled office, wearing a deep navy-blue suit, deep in the most respectable enclaves of Lower Manhattan – complete with the American flag nobly billowing outside the window. It’s in this visual setting that Frank delivers lines such as “I’m sorry the law doesn’t make it easier for you to deal drugs and steal” and “Most fugitives are caught on the run Bridget, so stay put” with all the twisted geniality of a good lawyer-client relationship.

The ultimate effect of all this is to take us beyond even film noir – right back to Hollywood’s Pre-Code era of the early 1930s, when women were allowed to be individuals in movies and the Catholic Church’s beloved Production Code hadn’t yet enforced its anti-Wildean ethos of “really, if women don’t set us a good example, what on earth is the use of them?” The idea that women were only to be given the roles of moral guardians, repressing the natural sensual and asocial impulses of male characters – and that thus the idea of the “fallen women” was material of the highest tragedy – is what a depressingly large number of people still see as the salutary “innocence” of old Hollywood movies. Once one reaches a certain point of cinephilia, though, one starts to see this old innocence as in fact a repressive evil, and thus a film like The Last Seduction as an upliftingly moral rejoinder.

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