Crimes of Passion is a 1984 erotic thriller, directed by Ken Russell and starring Kathleen Turner. Russell is known for his sexy and hallucinatory filmmaking (see Tommy, Lair of the White Worm, Salome’s Last Dance, et al.) so this should be interesting.
Kathleen Turner plays a woman with two sides: one is Joanna Crane, uptight clothing designer, and the other is China Blue, cheerful hooker. Joanna is being stalked by a private detective, Bobby (John Laughlin), hired by her boss. China is being stalked by an unhinged street preacher, the Reverend Shayne (Anthony Perkins), who may want to save her or kill her. The worlds of Joanna and China start to bleed into each other.
China has a dozen contradictory heartbreak stories about her past.
Reverend: “You wear your anguish like a breakaway chastity belt.”
China: “You wanted the truth.”
Reverend: “What else are you selling?”
China: “This is a fantasy business, reverend. You can have any truth you want.”
A lot of her work involves fulfilling fantasy scenarios, like Miss America or a flight attendant or a nun. Her sex scenes are often intercut with flashes of art or photography, implicitly what she imagines. What appears to be another stalker turns out to be a regular client who apologizes for being too rough with her. When Bobby goes through her wardrobe, he finds a variety of costumes and a pair of handcuffs. Handcuffs here function as a metonym of BDSM and deviant sexuality in general, as they do in Tightrope and 9 ½ Weeks, even if they aren’t used.
She does use the cuffs later. Her client is established as a violent and corrupt police officer, but he wants to be on the bottom, cuffed to her bed, while she rides him in studded leather gear. This is the most animalistic sex yet, brought on by the stress of her relationship with Bobby. It even implies that she anally penetrates the cop with his nightstick. The scene is intercut with stills of people being arrested by police. Apart from the reverend, the cop is the only client who disrespects or threatens China. He spits in her face when the scene ends and she releases him. Later, she cries as she washes her face.
I expected Joanna/China to have some kind of origin story explaining why she leads this dual life, probably related to rape and/or incest, but there is no explanation (apart from the contradictory stories she tells her johns). She explains to Bobby what she does as providing freedom and pleasure for herself. “That hotel [where she turns tricks] is the safest place in the world. I can do anything there, I can be anything I can dream of because it’s not me. Don’t you see? I’d only end up disappointing you.” (That she also indulges in a lot of liquor and pills as China Blue is troubling.)
The sexy, lurid, fantastic world China inhabits is contrasted with Bobby’s life of kids, suburban house, and depressed wife, a sitcom without the laugh track. Bobby finds out that his wife, Amy (Annie Potts), has been faking sexual arousal for years. He decides that if a marriage does not have passion, like what he feels for China/Joanna, the marriage is invalid.
(This is an interesting parallel to the novel of Exit to Eden, as the question is whether the passion of the kinky world can translate into a relationship in the “real world”.)
The film takes a turn into erotic thriller territory when the Reverend finally loses it completely, breaks into Joanna’s apartment and holds her prisoner. He menaces her with a steel vibrating dildo that also functions as knife. When Bobby shows up to rescue her, he is almost killed by the Reverend, dressed in China Blue’s dress and wig, but Joanna, dressed in the Reverend’s clothes, kills the Reverend with the dildo. (Perkins, true to typecasting, plays another gender-deviant psychopathic killer.)
Crimes of Passion focuses on the madonna/whore complex. Bobby’s wife Amy is the madonna, a devoted wife and mother who fakes passion and doesn’t miss it. Joanna is the newer version, the career woman wearing men’s-styled suits, who is also necessarily asexual. Her boss calls her a “mystery” and comments, “Gets along fine with the other women, but if you have a penis, she turns to ice.” China, the whore, is all passion, and Joanna struggles with reconciling the two sides of her psyche, and her feelings of guilt, personified by the Reverend. It’s Bobby who insists that love and passion can co-exist. The movie ends with them in a relationship.
The movie avoids any moralistic judgment about China’s kinks. She sees the fantasy/fetish scenarios she performs in as fun and sexy. However, it does suggest that a romantic relationship is more valuable than her fantasy encounters, requiring real vulnerability instead of her exaggerated persona. Vanilla monogamy isn’t better for everybody. I would hope that, however Bobby and Joanna’s relationship goes, it isn’t just vanilla sex between them.