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by Joe Giambrone

Spoilers may follow.

Recently watching Deception (2008), I was disappointed with the story, and then got to thinking about Bad Influence (1990) which is the same kind of story – done better.  A mousy, shy guy is introduced to the wild life of debauchery, but there are ulterior motives.  I had wanted to post on Bad Influence already and call it a Cult Classic.  So then I got to thinking about a lot of other psychological thrillers that use the allure of sex as bait to hook the audience as well as the lead character, play with their desires and manipulate their perceptions of unfolding events.

Femme fatales are as old as Blue Angel (1930), and probably predate her.  Some of the more memorable ones that stick in my mind are The Last Seduction (1994), Basic Instinct (1992) and Wild Things (1998).

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These types of films often lose their way by the end, either in plotting or in their moral compass.  The B list is littered with innumerable misfires that fell short somewhere along the path.  It is very difficult to spin new twists that we haven’t seen before and have them remain plausible, meaningful, and keep to a theme that resonates.

My problems with Deception, besides its slow dragging pace, are mostly with its ending.  Ewan McGregor has been played by a couple of grifters, and he’s framed for the murder of a blonde he’d fallen for, sorta.  The body in the morgue isn’t hers but a look-alike.  The real blonde is supposedly held hostage unless McGregor steals millions from his client and wires it to an account in Spain.

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McGregor then realizes that his blonde is in on it too, a femme fatale.  He sneakily arranges it that a partner’s signature be required to withdraw funds from the Spanish bank.  McGregor shows up in Spain to claim half the money, going into partnership with the murderous grifter (Hugh Jackman) who framed him.  There are two endings that can follow, the theatrical one and the deleted one on the dvd.  Neither works.

In the deleted ending, McGregor takes half the money and rides off into the sunset.  He’s basically given the murderous thug who framed him $10M, given up on the girl, and decided to disappear into wealthy obscurity.  He’s certainly lost his moral compass and become one of them, to a degree.  Was this the intended resolution of a story that had him battling to save a girl held hostage for so long?  It’s a disconnected resolution, and was rejected by the studio.

The theatrical ending goes over the top.  McGregor and Hugh Jackman stand outside the Spanish bank holding $10M each in suitcases.  McGregor offers $5M for the location of the blonde who betrayed him – he’s still in love.  Jackman says he’ll deal.  They walk to the park.  Jackman pulls out a pistol to kill McGregor.  From nowhere, the blonde shoots Jackman dead.  The blonde apologizes and runs off.  McGregor leaves $20M lying there in the park by the dead guy and runs off to find the blonde.  She says she can’t be with him and leaves.  McGregor, no money, no identity ends up in a city plaza, and the blonde just happens to be in the same plaza at the same time.  A smile.  The end.  Really?

Allowing that getting a fake passport that actually works these days is a tall order, especially in one day for a guy who knows nothing about crime, the girl also managed to get herself a firearm in Spain, secretly track the men and take out the armed and dangerous Jackman without the slightest hitch.  It seems totally out of the blonde ingenue’s character and beyond belief.  Then they just leave $20M for the cops.  This was supposedly “dirty money” in the first place and no one is looking for it.  Okay, McGregor chooses love over money, but the blonde isn’t really all that lovable, and she knows it.  He doesn’t fight for her, and just lets her go, which is where a plausible end should have been.  But then he miraculously stumbles upon her again while trekking through Europe?  It’s easy to blow the finish, and studio pressures for happy endings can really mess up any sense of direction a film may have built up.

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The draws in Deception and Bad Influence are wild sex encounters with strangers.  Deception uses an elite call list to arrange hook ups.  These are played quickly and coldly, lacking passion and rather voyeuristically.  Bad Influence uses traveling one-night only rave styled sex parties.  In both films, the devil’s salesman recruits the curious man to expand his horizons, edging him out of his cocoon.

I prefer Bad Influence over Deception for several reasons.  Here, James Spader is a mid-level corporate shlub, and he comes upon Rob Lowe, who has the keys to Lucifer’s kingdom.  The events are raw and faster paced.  Lowe reveals himself as a sociopath by degrees.  When Lowe murders a girl in Spader’s apartment his psychosis is delivered with shock, setting up a clear moral battle.  Spader is outgunned and outwitted, and there is no grey area about who he is or what he’s doing.  He’s not in it for the money, and he’s not playing games, as the evidence to frame him for murder is in Lowe’s hands.  Definitely a more satisfying film with more passionate actors who really disappeared into their roles.

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Many people complained about Basic Instinct, but I really don’t see what they had to complain about.  This is actually a pretty edge of your seat trip, directed by the incredibly talented Paul Verhoeven.  Of course Bill Hicks famously hated it for having not enough lesbian action.  Others claimed that the red herrings somehow distracted from it, but I don’t buy that argument.  The world created works for its intended purpose, and that was to introduce a new kind of Machiavellian femme fatale to seduce the detective who’s trying to solve her murders.  Once you buy into the initial premise, the rest flows naturally from there with a kind of inevitable siren call to the doomed sailor.  Michael Douglas tries to be heroic, but he’s weak, and in the end falls prey to his own weakness. Pitting a weak male against a strong, unyielding female is at the core of the genre.  Human frailty and the capacity for self-deception are what these films exploit and reveal.

The Last Seduction is a similar mind fuck, not as cinematically stunning as Basic Instinct, nor as morally unambiguous as Bad Influence.  This story twists into uncharted directions.

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Linda Fiorentino is a bad girl on the run, and she seduces Michael Raysses into helping her.  But her plans are more sinister, and her situation more desperate than she lets on.  Completely turning Raysses into her play toy, he winds up in a very bad place psychologically and literally.  Beware, the seductress is unstoppable.

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Wild Things lost it at the end by outsmarting itself.  It had a little too much Deus ex machina string pulling.  The first half set up an interesting seductive crime story, but the tendency to overthink the endings is where many of these films go awry.  So driven to try and come up with new tricks, these films lack plausibility.

In Wild Things, we have a plot against an unsavory rich bitch, the mother of one of the criminals.  The plot hinges on a false accusation of rape by the daughter and a friend, which is then retracted by the two school girls, opening up the parents to liability for defamation.  This was a pretty ingenious idea to get the ball rolling.  In the age of the Menendez brothers, spoiled, elite brats acting out against their own parents is pretty easy to accept.  With the wild sex that followed, giving trailer moments to bring in the boys, it seemed like Wild Things was in pretty good hands, but, they went overboard from there.  The plot brings in a police detective, multiple double crosses, and in the end – what the hell’s it about?  What’s it supposed to mean?  Not a lot, it seems.

Eyes Wide Shut (1999) brilliantly explores how seduction tempts the married.  Kubrick shot this with Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise, when they were still actually married to each other.  The film carves out a strange, winding dream of a story, the dangers being primarily psychological.  From flirtation to all out elite depravity, the institution of marriage serves as a silent character watching in the background.  Like all Kubrick films, Eyes Wide Shut is multi-layered and exquisitely shot.

Lastly, I want to talk about Lust, Caution (2007), directed by Ang Lee.  This is a powerful take on the seduction of fascism.  How sex can cloud judgment, even in time of war and great peril, is its theme, and Lee doesn’t flinch.  The stakes are high, and a guerilla uprising is the environment.

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Tang Wei is the beautiful undercover resistance fighter / spy, and she is to seduce the head of the Japanese secret police so as to set him up for assassination.  They are in Japanese occupied Hong Kong, 1938.  As the spy and target become intimate, and despite his brutal rough treatment of her, Wei begins to fall for the fascist.  Wei’s mind is conflicted enough that after several delays of the hit, she eventually and inevitably tips off the Japanese thug to his impending assassination.  Wei saves the fascist, but of course he has no such qualms about seeing her and everyone she knows executed immediately.

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Comments
  1. […] was surprised, but I do like sexy stories of adventurous characters who don’t easily fall into cliches. One reason I liked the cold and […]

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