UK / USA, 1995
Review by Leo Goldsmith
Posted on 09 February 2007
Source Tartan Video DVD
Reviews: Demon Seed
Reviews: White of the Eye
To say that a movie features one of the best lesbian sex scenes in cinema is quite rightly a dubious assertion; to say this as a male critic of a movie directed by a man, exponentially so. And yet, in spite of the onanistic, unsavory, and altogether meatheaded way such a statement sounds, I am still tempted to make this claim of Donald Cammell’s Wild Side—but not, of course, for the obvious reasons.
To be sure, the scene is erotic—film Joan Chen and Anne Heche rolling around naked in a bed in the mid-90’s, and I don’t see how you could fail to produce something at least mildly titillating. But what makes their scene together genuinely lovely, even touching (and what takes them well beyond the realm of your average Girls Gone Wild installment), is its tone—deeply personal, slightly distant, and vaguely melancholy. Like few sex scenes in film, it is intimate to the point of excluding its audience, and much like the analogous scene in Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, it allows the spectator to witness an extremely private moment, but one to which the spectator is afforded no emotional access. Most depictions of sex on film seek to replicate a semi-cosmic, time-collapsing experience of lovemaking, but here we are simply watching others passionately engaged in it. We are not treated to breathy close-ups or detailed clinches; rather we remain over the covers and across the room, an observer of an act of love (and, yes, it is love) to which we are not invited.
I belabor this point not so much to revel in hot girl-on-girl action as to suggest that Wild Side has a definite point to make with its sex scenes. This is characteristic of Donald Cammell’s work in general: in his films, characters rarely sleep with each other without a definite narratological or psychological purpose. Wild Side features at least five depictions of sex acts, and in many ways, the film’s story is told through these acts. As a character notes late in the film, “It’s not about sex; it’s about power,” and much of the film requires the spectator to follow the uses of sex, as manipulative tool, as assertion of strength, and, if only occasionally, as an expression of love.
The first is an act of prostitution: Heche’s character, Alex, a Long Beach banker by day and high-end hooker by night, pays a professional visit to Bruno (played gamely by Christopher Walken, sporting long black hair), an almost mythological money launderer with a vast criminal network at his fingertips. Deeply paranoid and power-addled, Bruno trusts no one but his oxy, lumpen chauffeur, Tony, but here uncharacteristically allows the self-possessed Alex to dominate him sexually. Bruno’s motivations for this renunciation of power are cloudy. On the one hand, he is patently unhinged, and so his submission to Alex seems like a mere, reckless capitulation to his desire. But on the other hand, his masochistic surrender is itself an exertion of power: he wishes to test Alex’s limits to be sure she is not an undercover federal agent. And as a final test of Alex’s character, Bruno instructs Tony to also solicit Alex for paid sex.
Tracking Alex to her majestic seaside home (which seems to be the cause of her financial quandary and consequent night job), Tony requests her professional services and, when she refuses, rapes her. This grisly act, accompanied by the garrulous Tony’s declarations of love, is capped by a further indignity: Tony is, in fact, the undercover federal agent that Bruno has suspected was in his midst. And blackmailing Alex with the threat of arrest for solicitation and exposure of her nightly activities to her employer at the bank, Tony engages her assistance in a sting operation that will finally ensnare the elusive Bruno.
Prostitution, rape, and exploitation: the initial moments of Wild Side create a world of powerplays and mindgames, dominated entirely by men, in which sex is used as a tool to dominate, humiliate, and manipulate. This is the same world of gangsters that Cammell portrayed in his first film, Performance, as modeled on the hypermasculine-cum-homoerotic universe of Reggie and Ronnie Kray in London in the 60s. At the outset of Wild Side, Alex is the puppet of this masculine world, as she is also the victim of misogyny at work. But once she meets Virginia, Bruno’s mysterious, beautiful wife, Alex falls unexpectedly in love and finally sees a means of escape from this brutal world of (self-)destructive machismo. Virginia is also a puppet of this world, a pawn in Bruno’s latest high-finance scheme, and the bond that the two women form is in many ways as much a denial of Bruno and Tony’s macho dick-swagger as it is an affirmation of love. This exclusionary bond finds its apotheosis in the lengthiest of Virginia and Alex’s love scenes, shot with a handheld camera from a tasteful, but taunting distance, and somewhat comically intercut with shots of Tony and his boss, chuckling and congratulating themselves for their ballsy sting operation. When the two arrogant feds engage in a lusty man-hug, the montage juxtaposes their clinch with that of the two female lovers, marking the schism between the world of men and the world of women.
It should be noted that Wild Side’s attitude towards homosexuality is, in general, an aestheticized one: its representation of lesbianism, compassionate though it is, is finally utilized for its symbolic, rather than emotionally realistic, value. (Similarly, when Bruno outlandishly confronts Tony for “sniffing around [his] women,” forcing his chauffeur to place a condom on his penis and then bend over to receive it, his sexual threat is a purely symbolic act of power having nothing to do with sex, per se.) Cammell, ever striving to find ways of transcending the bourgeois constraints of our world, ever reaching for the extremities of human behavior by which we might reach the sublime, is obviously interested in the capacity of Alex and Virginia’s relationship to transgress the rigidity of masculine society, to find a way out. This is reinforced by Alex’s final line in voiceover, in which she heralds her entry into Mexico by noting that “I’m finally crossing over—into the third world where I’ve always known I belonged.” This third world is not only the literal third world, the part of the world unclaimed by capitalism or communism, but also a figurative (and, admittedly, somewhat reductive) third option, the synthesis that arises out of the ashes of thesis and antithesis. It is a site of transcendence, of androgyny, and of financial and sexual freedom, to which all of Cammell’s heroes finally escape. Alex and Virginia are seemingly the first who do so without dying.
However, I would be remiss in omitting the circumstances of the release of Wild Side and its aftermath. Once finished, the subtlety of purpose in Cammell’s film was unfortunately lost on his distributor, Nu-Image, and the film was substantially recut to better suit the market of late-night cable soft-core in which it was unfortunately destined to languish. The film was seized and reshaped by its distributor and touted by its producer, Avi Lerner, as a source of distinctly cheap thrills. “This picture is really something you haven’t seen before,” he was quoted to say, with nearly palpable delectation. “Every man will have something to keep in his home, and it’s something every woman would like to see.” But of course, Nu-Image’s reshaping of the film as pure exploitation runs directly counter to Cammell’s conception of the film as an indictment of the exploitation of women, and, in its overtly satirical reference to the then-recent hit Pretty Woman, an indictment of Hollywood’s exploitation of women in particular. Fortunately for us, Nu-Image has since restored Cammell’s cut with the help of his Performance co-editor, Frank Mazzola. But this restoration finally saw the light of day too late for Cammell to see it.