Soraya Roberts | Longreads | May 2019 | 10 minutes (2,585 words)

Who do I have to fuck and kill to get a good erotic thriller? One of the first publicity stills from What/If, the new Netflix series starring Renée Zellweger, had the actress in a white dress, legs crossed, smiling enigmatically, her surroundings moody. It was a transparent reference to Basic Instinct, the vulvular Verhoeven from 1992 that marked the climax of the golden age of erotic thrillers, particularly the titillating cross-examination in which femme fatale Sharon Stone sits in a white dress, no underwear, legs alternating between crossed and uncrossed, smiling enigmatically, her surroundings moody. What/If is a sex reversal of Indecent Proposal, Adrian Lyne’s naughty take on the American Dream about a rich stranger offering a struggling couple $1 million to spend one night with the wife. The series flirts heavily with its soft-core antecedents. “This whole idea was ripped right out of a bad ’90s movie,” says Jane Levy (in the husband role in What/If). “I thought that film was quite decent,” is the awkward reply from Zellweger (as the Robert Redford character).

The difference here is that the 50-year-old actress’ knees remain firmly closed, just as the erotic thriller has ever since its mainstream demise in 1995. Her show is marketed as a “neo-noir social thriller,” presumably because creator Mike Kelley (of Revenge soap) considered the gender flip feminist, but its refusal to fully embrace the genre it’s attempting to be, either sexually or thrillingly, is the latest example of the erotic thriller’s latter-day impotence.

“Erotic thrillers are noirish stories of sexual intrigue incorporating some form of criminality or duplicity, often as the flimsy framework for on-screen softcore sex,” Linda Ruth Williams writes in The Erotic Thriller in Contemporary Cinema (2005). That’s the clinical description, but the most alluring aspect of these films (and, later, shows) was how clinical they weren’t. It was the “flimsy framework” around the saxophoned, vaseline-screened sex that really made them seductive. These films lingered on their characters, teasing out the personalities that were about to be pummelled, entering their layered lives of cutely chaotic homes and old friendships and workplace frustrations, not to mention the texture of the cities — New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco — in which that setup was about to unravel. The stories about these ideal homes being threatened by a sensual interloper served as a metaphor for the sociopolitical climate of the time, in which second-wave feminism and its single career women were wreaking havoc on traditional family values and, more specifically, on the power position that men had secured for so long.    

The hottest time for the mainstream erotic thriller was the 15 years from 1980 until 1995, when multiplexes were flooded with glistening, underappreciated masterpieces like The Last Seduction, starring Linda Fiorentino as the other kind of Queen B, and less successful limpets like Body of Evidence, in which Madonna proved that she can’t act when she’s naked either. Since then, per Williams, “the explicit has become implicit.” Unless you are a foreign auteur, mainstream prurience is sublimated into the supernatural and the traumatic — even the young adult — and the modern adult erotic thriller is stripped of grit to become 50 Shades of Grey, an appropriate title for the interchangeable sterile “intrigues” of the suburban set. What/If rides the trend of ’90s nostalgia, in which the culturally relevant (if not always critically acclaimed) is resurrected for the sake of kitsch, with little consideration for its original milieu. But the erotic thriller is a genre born of a cultural climate that isn’t so different from the one we are in now, so why can’t it make us come?

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You can measure the erotic thriller’s critical reputation by how little it has penetrated academia. Porn has spawned its own journal, and yet the study of titles like Wild Things appears to be relegated to only three books, including Nina K. Martin’s Sexy Thrills: Undressing the Erotic Thriller. She has a predictable explanation for the lacuna: “It’s for women,” she tells me, “and it’s not edgy enough.” It’s true: If you were old enough to masturbate in the ’90s, not only could you watch a young David Duchovny lubing women up on cable (Red Shoe Diaries), you could also Blockbuster and chill (which we just referred to as “renting”). Between the flaming porn and the brooding thrillers at the local video store languished sultry VHS covers with titles like Savage Lust scrawled over images of half-dressed couples embracing against black backdrops. “It gave a lot of people the opportunity to have a one-handed watch that actually had a story,” says Martin, “and that you could watch with someone as a couple and kind of get off.” The last one she remembers — the last good one, I would argue — is 2003’s In the Cut, one of the rare feminist erotic thrillers, which opens with a woman watching another woman going down on a man. But these days you wouldn’t get a major Hollywood star like Meg Ryan appearing in such a film (or behind it — it was a Nicole Kidman production), nor would you get a filmmaker of Jane Campion’s caliber directing it.

The erotic thriller came out of film noir, so it makes sense that one of the earliest neo-noirs, Body Heat (1981), was inspired by Billy Wilder’s 1944 classic Double Indemnity. Kathleen Turner never really washed off the sweat of her debut, in which she plays the wife of a wealthy businessman who convinces her lover, an inept lawyer — “You’re not too smart, are you? I like that in a man.” — to kill her husband. The film was so ecstatically received that it spawned the Body Heat Society, a woman-run film fan club before that was de rigueur. “It’s the perfect story of the perfect seduction,’’ founder Royelen Lee Boykie told The Chicago Tribune in 1987. But it was Fatal Attraction (1987) that really hit the collective G-spot. Producer Sherry Lansing wanted to make a feminist version of the British film Diversion, in which a married man has an affair and gets his comeuppance. “When I watched that short film, I was on the single woman’s side,” Lansing told Susan Faludi for her book Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women (1991). “I wanted the audience to feel great empathy for the woman.”

The men who ran Hollywood did not. To understand how the erotic thriller, which could have been a genre that celebrates women owning their sexuality, became its opposite, you have to understand the time in which it arose. This was the 1980s, the decade in which liberated women were trying to mind their own business and start a career and men were interpreting the shift as a direct shot at mankind and the murder of the nuclear family. That’s how Fatal Attraction’s single career woman becomes “the most hated woman in America.” The studio refused to keep Michael Douglas’s cheating husband unsympathetic, going against Lansing to make Glenn Close’s Alex Forrest a crazy-faced psycho killer. To protect the family man, they sacrificed the independent blond who knows what she wants, turning her into a woman-shaped threat to fundamental American values that can only be taken down by the traditional housewife’s phallus — sorry, pistol.

This was, according to Williams’s book, “the perfect erotic thriller blueprint.” And in some ways, Fatal Attraction, which dominated the box office and the cultural conversation, was perfect. Director Adrian Lyne had been chosen off the success of Flashdance, and it was his attention to detail — the authentic discussions between family and friends, the messy homes, the dizzying ambience of New York — that makes the movie a classic. “It adds the seeming irrelevancies that are most important,’’ he told The New York Times. But it was also Michael Douglas. The man who became the face of the erotic thriller — he also starred in Basic Instinct, Disclosure, and A Perfect Murder — was able to be hero and antihero at the same time, both championed and maligned. In Williams’s words, he was “the representation of flawed, crisis-ridden masculinity and the concomitant decline of male cultural and social authority.”

Only five years after Fatal Attraction, the blockbuster erotic thriller blew its load for the last time with Basic Instinct, which not only commanded record earnings, but was popular despite — because of? — the perceived anti-gay sentiment of its bisexual femme fatale. Then the genre died; it’s fitting that the man who brought the erotic thriller to climax with Basic Instinct also killed it with Showgirls. Director Paul Verhoeven had the chance to earn the NC-17 rating designed to bolster now well-established adult fare, but he failed and the erotic thriller became a studio risk. Perhaps this was enough to kill it, considering Hollywood’s increasing need to make bank, but it was buried for good by a political landscape that reinforced America’s growing puritanism, an industry saturated with cheap knockoffs like Fair Game (starring supermodel Cindy Crawford), and the rise of free online porn and graphic auteur cinema.

But it was only a little death. The specter of Beyoncé floats over a new form of mainstream erotic thriller, one which has been scrubbed for its debut. In 2009, Queen B reintroduced us to blockbuster eroticism with Obsessed, which was dubbed “the black Fatal Attraction” — a married man is terrorized by a woman at his office — but had none of its predecessor’s charm. Producer Will Packer is famous for his aspirational black rom-coms (This Christmas, Think Like a Man), and Obsessed shared the same generic aesthetic. The specificity of the best erotic thrillers was thus replaced by an all-encompassing generality — suburban-style wealth with interchangeable houses, offices, clothes, people, even storylines. Here, again, men were in charge (producing, directing, writing), so the politics remained largely the same — the man is castrated by the single woman, the mother is the reigning power who restores order — while Hollywood’s mixed feelings about black intimacy meant the erotic part was cooled way down. A stream of nonwhite erotic thrillers lifted this framework, most recently Unforgettable and When the Bough Breaks, though the genre’s biggest (white) release of the past decade did too.

“Uh, oh, uh, oh, uh, oh, oh, no, no,” sang Beyoncé over and over in 2015 leading up to the release of 50 Shades of Grey, for which she recorded a heart-pounding version of “Crazy in Love.” E.L. James’ S&M “book,” I suppose you would call it, which started out as Twilight fan fiction, was a phenomenon among housewives and the biggest mainstream erotic thriller in a decade, attracting an audience of mostly women who were so desperate for some hot sex on-screen that they were willing to pay $13 to see a movie based on a story that read like its writer had never actually had sex. 50 Shades of Grey is potentially the least foxy film of all time — wooden acting, wooden script, wooden directing, but absolutely no wood. “Are You Curious?” the marketing kept asking us. Don’t be: It basically looks exactly like Obsessed, except in a farcical display of our current conversation around consent, the heroine has to sign a contract before she can fuck. This was two years before we started talking about how men in Hollywood have abused their power, which could be why the two men who produced this cock-up thought it made sense to have Dakota Johnson play a woman who is willing to sign a paper in order to have Jamie Dornan’s rich, dead-eyed white man bore the pants off her (we can get that for free!).

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“Your pants are on fire.” “You have no idea.” Within the first five minutes of Indecent Proposal, Demi Moore and Woody Harrelson are having flaming sex — various positions, various body parts — on their kitchen floor. This is frenzied makeup fornication after a fight that resulted in his boxers landing on the boiling stove. In What/If, the analogous couple takes four episodes to get seriously steamy — like, in a shower. OK, they also have sex, but it is so pure it involves garters and is artfully shot through the slates in a banister. This is the erotic thriller now, a pale imitation of its white-hot heyday, in which romance is an afterthought and the thrill is gone. That clinical uptightness that was missing from the originals, which made them so seductive, has me wondering why they even bother anymore. But then again, it tracks that a culture steeped in nostalgia but fixated on box office performance would strip the erotic thriller, a once lucrative genre, down to its superficial parts — a gesture at sex, a glance at intrigue, the broad strokes of a vague threat to patriarchy — to sell it out to the widest audience possible. This would in part explain why the new films and shows have been denuded of their specificity — in character, in location, in aesthetic — though that also aligns with how aspiration is framed now, a time of sporadic employment in a digital (not that kind) dictatorship, as a sterile McMansion in which the comfort of wealth has replaced the comfort of relation.

Then there’s the sex. While men don’t want women to own their sexuality and are skittish in the wake of so many of their male peers screwing up, women don’t want to be objectified or reduced to their sexuality anymore either. Even if Fatal Attraction would make sense coming from a man right now, Martin thinks actresses, awakened to gender parity and intimacy standards, would be unlikely to take on the role. “It’s such a loaded grey area now,” says Martin, observing that sex is either problematized within a relationship as in Sex Education and Gypsy, or it’s associated with trauma as in Top of the Lake (another Campion) and Sharp Objects. That the rare erotic thriller comes from auteurs out of Europe (François Ozon) or Asia (Park Chan-wook) is unsurprising considering their divergent approach to sex and gender. In America, meanwhile, the spectacle has taken over the sexual — women are more concerned with saving the world than in exploring their sexuality. And, sure, I’m all for women solving the climate crisis, but we also have sex lives. And all the talk around consent suggests that it’s the perfect time for cinema to explore the nuances of sexuality (not to mention the widespread panic over millennials having less of it — I mean, would you in this economy?)

Instead, any prurience that threatens to limit the largest possible impact has been folded into the supernatural, since Twilight, which also introduced sensuality into the YA world, culminated in series like You and Riverdale. All of this is not to say that you can’t still find erotic thrillers, just that they have retreated to the margins. What was once a mainstream film — A-list actors and filmmakers — about a queer femme fatale, is now a queer erotic thriller — unknown actors and filmmakers — that only surfaces on streaming sites like Netflix for niche audiences whose algorithms call it out. You can get free porn online, you can pay for a good thriller in the cinema, but you can’t get both together. No wonder I found myself nodding along to the last two words of What/If, a scene in which Zellweger’s femme fatale orders a martini, perhaps to distract her from all the sex she’s not having. “One olive,” she says. “Very dry.”

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Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.