Kathleen Turner made the modern Femme Fatale

She rewrote the rules of the film seducer in the 1981 erotic thriller Body temperature.
Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photo by Warner Bros.

“You’re not very smart, are you?” “I like that in a man.” When Matty Walker — played arrogantly by Kathleen Turner in her first film role — throws those two lines over her shoulder to the kind lawyer Ned Rashin (William Hart), he should have known that his days were numbered. . This is not a passage, it is a warning. But he is too horny, too stupid, to see what he is.

In Lawrence Cassdan’s directorial debut, the 1981 erotic thriller Body temperature, Matty and Ned meet on an unforgettable night. The kind that requires you to roll ice cubes on your body while sitting in front of a fan. The kind with the air so thick that it makes your hair stand on end and your skin permanently smooth. People who live in Miranda Beach, a fantastic seaside town in South Florida, do not understand the heat, but that’s different. It is as if Mother Nature herself foretells the dynamics of the greenhouse that will come soon.

Dressed in a tailored white dress that flutters in the breeze, overlooking the legs that go far beyond the horizon, Kathleen Turner is utterly, unquestionably destructive. “Miss Turner is brand new to movies and her only problem may be that she is too conventionally beautiful with her classy, ​​dark way of appearing as a movie personality right away,” Vincent Canby wrote in his review of the film for The New York. Times. But to enjoy her beauty means that you lose the real bravado of her performance, her understanding of what the camera wants and her kinetic intelligence as an actress. We miss how her work in one of the first erotic thrillers resurrected the fatal woman of classic noir in new, completely adorable ways.

The story places Matty as a smooth and cunning figure, several miles ahead of Ned’s local legal mind. This gives a certain advantage to their early flirtations on the sidewalk after spotting her leaving an outdoor classical music show. It brings out the tired lines that work in women in stark contrast to Matty – working-class women whose dreams come true during this little hour before the end of the night and the start of another exhausting day. The pleasure for these women is insufficient, but for Matty, the pleasure is non-negotiable. Ned realizes because of her demeanor and appearance that she is not from Miranda Beach at all. He has money and lives in nearby, luxurious Pinehaven. After pouring a snow cone on her dress, Ned offers to get her napkins and Mati raises her voice, all whiskey and honey, over the battle of the crowd: “Don’t you want to lick it?” When she finally disappears, Ned remains determined to find her. Wouldn’t you do that?

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However, the line that sticks to me is this from the beginning: “You are not very smart, are you? “I like that in a man.” It is the kind of biting observation that you can imagine slipping from the lips of dozens of previous femme fatales. There are obvious similarities to Matty, especially Phyllis Dietrichson, played coldly by Barbara Stanwyck in Billy Wilder in 1944. Double compensation, a film that set the standard not only Body temperature but all the noirs created in its echo. Writing for Body temperature, legendary caustic critic Pauline Kael criticized Turner’s interpretation, describing the actress as “following the floor marks made by previous actors”. This is exactly why I think Turner’s performance is so dazzling and rich to study. At Matty you can find Lana Turner’s Cora longing The postman always hits twice, the smoky grace of Marie by Lauren Bacall To have and not to have, the determination of Bette Davis Leslie The letter, and the thorny spirit of Gloria Grahame – the actress who is an example of the noir genre – in Crossfire, Sudden fearand In a lonely place. (Grahame, who understood her body and how she could arm herself, is probably the best actress to ever get into noir.)

But Mati has something else: a real, tangible, fulfilled desire. He does not just use sex and seduction as a weapon. he actively wants it. Erotic thrillers, after all, owe much to the abolition of the Hays Code, which forbade things like overt sexual behavior, explicit scenes of passion, adultery, complete nudity, and sexual hygiene from appearing on screen before it was completely dissolved. of stenosis until 1968. In the era of the Hays Code, criminals were punished or rehabilitated until the end of a movie, and so the fatal woman rarely came out alive or untouched. But freeing themselves from these restrictions in the 1980s, erotic thrillers could mix and rediscover the mysterious properties of noir, punishing men for their ignorance, but letting the fatal woman accomplish something she had not done before: to survive. She would not just surpass men in her orbit. he could fool them and get over them now, too. (Although it would remain mostly white. Black women and women of color generally rarely appear as fatal women in American erotic thrillers. For this, you should look beyond the US coast, especially in South Korea, where the species continues to bend, evolve and bloom.)

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It is easy to see the fatal woman both in her initial incarnation in the 1940s and in her renewal in the erotic thrillers that began in the 1980s and 1990s, as film theorist Elizabeth Cowie put it, “a special masculine fantasy “in which” sexual difference is played “. It is even easier to criticize Matty as a product of the male gaze, how hollow this term can be when it concentrates on the efforts of male directors and ignores women like Turner who helped bring their characters to the screen. The ideas that fuel the proliferation of male and female gaze in contemporary criticism limit the lens through which we examine female images on the screen, consolidating a gender essentialism that immediately confirms the very heteropatriarchal dynamics that these critics want to criticize and ignore. the ways they are marginalized. queer and colored people among us, especially – interpret the dynamics we see on the screen, finding the texture and the longing for such critical terminology does not take into account. Thus, while it has been strongly argued that the femme fatale was born of male nerves and fantasies, its ability to address but fantasies along the history of the arc ensured its longevity. The actors who bring these characters to life – like Turner, who created a plot for Linda Fiorentino in 1994 The Last Seduction and Jennifer Tilly in the 1996 lesbian noir mélange Reserved – understand this appeal.

It is important that their femme fatales are not intended to reflect the real-life struggles of women, nor do they. As writer Michael Boyce Gillespie has noted, the film is a poor mirror. In the most memorable cases, fatal women like Matty complicate the imaginary image of women to which we are accustomed, and Turner’s tendency for complication is best reflected in repetition – knowing what Matty can do in Body temperature (deliberately canceling a will, asking about the construction of a bomb, misleading Ned into believing that their beach meeting was cute), you will question every line, every gesture, every look he makes. The second time you notice them meeting in a bar lit by red cherries, you can see that she plays a role that suits Ned’s wishes, her body and voice – willingly and breathlessly – working in concert for seduction. Later, as she watches Ned circling the windows of a locked house, her breathing quickens, but her gaze never leaves him. He breaks the window with a chair – sex and violence, markers of erotic thrillers – and they hug, excited. Turner does not play Matty that simple. She is in love and lust, but no emotion prevails over her financial motivations. He is in a constant state of desire.

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Good performances are usually graded in moments that stand out: a long monologue, a well-crafted accent, a moment of ecstasy that is physically attributed. But Turner’s interpretation has no unique, remarkable scene. It is a great show through the crowd – in which her husky voice, her elegant body and her delicate gestures compose a portrait of a woman whose interior is forever beyond your reach. Turner plays Matty fulfilling Ned’s wishes. We will never really know who she is or how she sees herself, but Turner is cunning enough to let the cracks show. When Ned unexpectedly hits her at a restaurant with her mob-linked husband, all three dine. For the first and only time, Mati is nervous. (She also has a dramatically different style than she usually does with Ned, her hair beautifully curled and her dress more neat.) Turner spins a thin silver lighter between her fingers over and over again, even when her eyes and her voice have a lightness to them. She is stressed.

The film ends with the realization of her dream: rich alone and living in some distant, beautiful land by the sea, miles from the dirt of South Florida and the mistakes that overshadowed her life lead her to this path of false identities and of harsh manipulations. But what is strange is that she does not look ecstatic or happy. There is no bad smile on her face. On the contrary, her gaze is unsearchable, like the woman herself. Does she feel guilty about her irregularities? Is he thinking about the life he can live in the future? Is she thinking about the husband she killed? Is he thinking about the man he sentenced to prison? In the hands of Kathleen Turner, everything could be true.

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