That's the basic plot of Bound. A workable, maybe even routine premise for a noir thriller, right? The gimmick is that both Corky (Gina Gershon) and Violet (Jennifer Tilly) are women. That Bound is not bound by the commercial limitations faced by most noncomic films with gay central characters says much about our culture's sexual politics. It's a cinch that if anyone made a thriller, however excellent, which centered on the romance between two men, it would be marketed, at least initially, as marginal, art-house product. Yet Bound is being released by Gramercy Pictures to neighborhood theatres, and marketed via TV commercials which hint at the relationship between the two heroines--it's clearly seen as a selling point.
Why do erotic depictions of lesbianism cause less discomfort and tension to the mainstream than similar depictions of male homosexuality? It's not because the conservative moralists who regularly score homophobic hits on the mass media regard lesbianism as any less sinful. The bias is a cultural rather than a religious one, specifically concerned not with lifestyle but with graphic displays of sexuality, from kissing to, uh, well, you know. It's a by-product of a widely shared male fantasy.
Sex research shows that one of the most common and intense sexual fantasies among straight men is that of two women making love. Why men should find this so compelling is open to hypothesis.
To me the root seems cultural.
However absurd it may seem intellectually, men seem to have a hard time shaking the old notion that women endure sex rather than enjoy it, and only do it because men require it. Put bluntly, men assume that they're the sexual center of the universe, and the idea of a woman having sex with another woman--solely for the pleasure of it--offers an exhilarating, liberating alternate possibility.
For whatever reason, a scene or two of the sort known in the biz as "girl-girl" is virtually de rigueur in hard-core porno, and milder forms of such scenes are common in the soft-core "erotica" that chokes late-night premium cable. A more high-profile example is the work of screenwriter Joe Eszterhas, who has made a cottage industry of transcribing to the screen his own drooly--if laughably timid and self-censored--fixation on sex between women in films like Basic Instinct, Showgirls and Jade.
All of those entertainments match up rather nicely to the sex research on the fantasies of straight men, and they have very little to do with lesbianism as a subculture or lifestyle. The women depicted aren't meant to represent real-life lesbians; rather, they are fantasy figures so completely defined by sexuality that they are, in Krafft-Ebing's terminology, "polymorphously perverse." Yet the cliche has conditioned some of the revulsion out of lesbianism for men.
That's the point. Bound can squeak by with the mainstream not because moralists wink at lesbianism but because pop culture in this country ultimately caters, with dreary narrowness, to straight white male tastes. But, even though it's male fantasy, Bound, against all probability, refuses to be male fantasy in a vacuum.
That is especially remarkable in view of the fact that the writing-directing team that produced the film consists of two young, straight, married white guys from Chicago--Andy and Larry Wachowski (they previously collaborated on the script for the Sylvester Stallone actioner Assassins). The Wachowski Brothers, as they're billed (like a team of acrobats), leeringly--and effectively--stage a couple of grapples between Corky and Violet. But the Bros also take pains to make them both reasonably plausible as lesbians, rather than as women so horny that they'll sleep with women when no men are available. We don't learn much more about their characters than that, but this is, after all, noir, the genre in which characterization is handled on a need-to-know basis.
Gershon, the lean, shelf-lipped actress who played the same-sex-oriented stripper in Showgirls, shapes Corky in the traditional mold of a noir antihero. With a hard, no-nonsense edge covering some degree of inner pain, she comes off as sympathetic and believable.
Tilly does her usual caricature of a breathy child-woman. Who would have thought this woman, who seemed like a sort of freaky specialty act in her early performances, would have such a long and varied career? But she's well-used here, because the joke of the film is that she's not a stupid woman at all--so her bimbo act is the perfect cover. The amusingly brainless gangsters (John P. Ryan, Richard Sarafian and Christopher Meloni) fret and fume over what's going on, and never suspect that they are being scammed by the cupcake in their midst.
There's no mistake: Bound is not primarily sapphic erotica. The sex scenes, strong though they are, are confined to the first half-hour or so, after which Bound turns into a caper movie, and, despite the odd plot improbability, a pretty good one--tense and funny and full of swanky, imaginative imagery and even a dash of heart. Yet its sexual content is what makes the film distinctive. It's not a "lesbian movie"; it's something even more rare--a movie with characters who happen to be lesbians.
Directed by the Wachowski Brothers; with Gina Gershon, Jennifer Tilly, Joe Pantoliano, John P. Ryan, Richard Sarafian and Christopher Meloni.