Monday, February 11, 2008

The Great Movies: "Body Heat"

At the Movies with Michael5000

Body Heat
Lawrence Kasdan (1981)

There's a scene in Body Heat that I'd like to ask you readers of the female persuasion about.

It goes like this: The hero has just met a woman. They exchanged small talk that suggested mutual attraction, and she invited him back to her house for a brief visit. After a few minutes, she tells him it's time to leave; when he wheedles, she politely but firmly shows him to the door.

As he unlocks his car, he sees that she is watching him through the window. So, he races back up to the house and begins trying all the doors as the woman retreats into the house's interior. Unable to get in, he grabs a piece of lawn furniture and hurls it through a glass door. He strides in through the shattered wreckage and seizes the woman passionately. Her response? "Oh, yes!" she moans, and pulls him down on the floor with her to initiate some frenzied hot sweaty sexual intercourse.

My question is: would that really... you know... work?

No, I didn't think so. It's a hyperexagerated example of the common but bizarre movie notion that two people who are really, really enjoying their hot sweaty sexual intercourse just won't care if they knock over a lamp and it explodes into fragments on the floor. In real life, of course, humans just aren't that cavalier about their expensive belongings, or about shards of glass or ceramic bursting around their hot sweaty naked bodies.

It's a shame that such a -- what is the noun form for "ludicrous"? "Ludicrosity?" -- lurks at the heart of an otherwise fine film. Body Heat is a film noir, one of the most stylized of genres, and for the most part it adheres beautifully to the conventions of the genre while maintaining basic credibility. Like The Big Sleep (reviewed last month), a movie to which it is heavily indebted, it is a sexy puzzle about people playing a dangerous game in which not all of the facts, or all of the rules, are knowable. In this context, the door-breaking scene is only unfortunate in that it takes style too far, at the expense of the necessary ingredient of recognizable human behavior.

Plot: Seedy young lawyer meets the highly attractive wife of a mysterious and apparently quite dangerous man. They begin meeting regularly to enjoy sexual intercourse. They are in love. No good can come of this.

Dialogue: True to the noir style, the dialogue is both mannered and gritty. This is a subtly dialogue-driven movie; even the characters with just a handful of lines have a handful of really meaningful lines, and this creates a richness to the film. The supporting characters have strong personalities and are superbly acted.

Visuals: Lush and lovely. Noir is heavily associated with the black and white palette, but Body Heat is shot with rich reds and warm sepia tones, which along with the small-town Florida setting convey a wistful note of faded elegance. In the climax scene, the characters are filmed in brilliant chiaroscuro against the black of night. Slick.

Prognosis: Although Ebert was being overgenerous to call this one "Great," it is certainly one of the Good Movies. It should be thoroughly enjoyable for anyone who enjoys film noir or complex plot twists and turns, or who just likes their movies stylish and a little shabby, seasoned with that sweet sweet note of despair.


Rebel said...

Welcome to what is known in feminist theory as "The masculine lens" through which reality is often portrayed in TV & films (and especially in porn... but I'm not even going there).

No... it would not work.

Cartophiliac said...

I saw that film when it first came out. I don't remember all those plot details... I just remember that Kathleen Turner was hot... So, there was a story too?

d said...

the one movie where kathleen turner is actually a woman. instead of a weird man/woman hybrid playing a woman.

great film.

Anonymous said...

I believe it was Paris Hilton who said "'Heat' was hot".

fingerstothebone said...

Actually, in the context of the movie, that scene makes a lot of sense. The Kathleen Turner character was looking for a schmuck to kill her husband. Someone in lust, someone she could manipulate, and someone who could do violence. And voila! He came through.

Michael5000 said...

@Rebel: Yep.

@karma: Did she? No doubt she was contesting a linguistic structuralist argument, as might have been put forward by Levi-Strauss, to the effect that "heat" is only conceivable in opposition to "coldness."

@fingers: Kind of. If we can buy the plot as a whole, true, we can buy that she would audition her hubby-killer that way. (This raises the problem of the believability of the plotline, but that's a sleeping dog that I'm going to let lie.)

But even at that, the scene doesn't work. When we see it, we are still a good hour and a half away from knowing what the female character is up to, so the action still registers as alien behavior on the part of both characters. Now, it could have been STAGED as bizarre behavior, a clue that all is not as it seems. Instead, though, the film just treats it as SEXY behavior, which it ain't.

McGuff said...

Are you tellin me that people on the west coast don't make sweet love on living room floors strewn with shards of glass? I mean, it's better than erotic asphyxiation. Wimpy.

Ironic real life twist - after mentally composing the above paragraph yesterday, waiter knocks over and breaks wine glass in front of me, and I end up with several tiny shards of glass in my palm and fingers.

Alright, no glass lovin'. Grass lovin's another thing altogether.

And yes....awesome movie.

fingerstothebone said...

M5000 — But don't you think a successful story has you going back and re-evaluate what you've just seen within the framework of the whole story?

It's been years since I saw the movie, so my memories are a bit fuzzy:

If you're going to believe the plot line, that this woman has been pretending to be who she wasn't for years and has probably been plotting to kill her husband for years, then it's completely believable (to me anyhow) that she's capable of 1) enjoying the experience or 2) pretending to enjoy the experience. She was a sicko.

And look at it another way, if the roles were reversed and a man was manipulating his partner using sex and violence, would you doubt that he was enjoying it? Probably not. You might think he was a sicko though.

Anonymous said...

I distinctly remember wincing at that scene and then thinking that the actors were great because they were able to overcome such a ridiculous thing and get the sexy down.

I thought they were trying to be French because I'd watched many French films in which I could not understand why sex was happening or how I missed the attraction part.

Michael5000 said...

@fingers: Yeah, OK, you've got a good point. There, I said it.

@boo: Your second paragraph made me do my snorting laugh.