Jul 012020

Body of Evidence (IMDB) is a 1992 erotic thriller/neo-noir film starring Madonna and Willem Dafoe. It was part of the genre epitomized by Fatal Attraction (1987) and Basic Instinct (1992), but didn’t inspire their level of critical attention.

To quote Sean McGovern at The Film Experience:

Body of Evidence arrived at a particular nexus of Madonna’s career. Riding on the wave of Like A Prayer, pushing boundaries with the Blonde Ambition Tour and the exuberant Truth or Dare, Madonna’s imperial phase began to dip with her boundary-pushing take on sex and erotica; namely, SEX and Erotica. While Madonna would remain unapologetic, Body of Evidence, and the accompanying explicit period in career concluded with one of the most consistent criticisms of Madonna: rigid-perfectionism and managed-spontaneity…


The most grating problem with Body of Evidence is how reductive derivative it is. Released a mere 8 months after Basic Instinct, it’s shocking to see how much of it feels directly lifted from it and other films of its genre.

A wealthy man turns up dead from an apparent heart attack, bound to his bed, with a will that leaves millions to his lover, Rebecca Carlson. The district attorney points the finger at Rebecca Carlson (Madonna), who hires lawyer Frank Dulaney (Willem Dafoe) to defend her. The film is structured around the trial of Rebecca, and her “body of evidence”, as she appears nude several times.

Sexuality is strongly linked to threat in this film, typical of its post-HIV era. Frank’s teenage son asks:

Teenage son: “Can you really screw someone to death?”

Frank: “No!”

One of the first things we see is a pair of chromed nipple clamps on the bedside of the dead man.

Detective 2:. “What the hell is this?” 

DA Garret: “That is a nipple clamp.”

Detective 2: “How do you know?”

Detective 1: “He’s from LA.”

DA Garret: “Hey, I just happen to be a well informed individual.”

Detective 2: “How does this thing work?” [holds it up to where his nipples would be.]

Detective 1: “Who cares? Bag it.”

Garret also identifies the marks on the victim’s bedframe as being from handcuffs. 

The dead man’s secretary, Joanne, discovered the body, and immediately accuses his lover, Rebecca. 

Rebecca is set up as single, economically independent (she owns an enormous houseboat and has the money to hire a high-priced lawyer like Frank) and sexually liberated. 

Frank: “People here [Portland, OR] have very conservative views about sex.”

Rebecca: “No they don’t. They just don’t talk about it. They’re such hypocrites.”

Frank: “Well, those hypocrites are going to be sitting in the jury box, listening to Garret say how you led Andrew into perversion.”

Rebecca: “I didn’t have to lead him anywhere. Andrew knew exactly what he wanted. All we did was make love.”

Frank: “In handcuffs.”

Rebecca: “It was different, but we were still making love. Have you ever seen animals make love, Frank? It’s intense. It’s violent! But they never really hurt each other.”

Frank: “We’re not animals.”

Rebecca: “Yes, we are.”

She says she loved the dead man and didn’t kill him, and says he lied to her about the severity of his heart condition.

Rebecca: “I never know why men lie. They just do. Men lie.”

Garret: “Would you describe yourself as a dominatrix?”

Frank: “Back off of this, Bob.”

Garret: “A sadomasochist?”

Rebecca does not answer.

Rebecca is linked to Orientalist exoticism when she brings Frank to a Chinese herbalist shop, where he spies on her receiving acupuncture in the nude.

Rebecca is contrasted with two other women: Frank’s loyal wife Sharon, a restaurateur, and Joanne, the victim’s secretary. We see Frank and Sharon have passionate but vanilla, missionary-position sex, and she immediately hops up to go shower. Joanne, Rebecca’s primary accuser, presents herself as the victim’s loyal secretary, but she’s revealed to be the one who got the victim drugs and appears nude in his home videos. 

Garret, the prosecutor, not only paints Rebecca as a killer but dehumanizes her, calling her “the murder weapon itself” in front of the jury. 

Garret: “If I hit you and you die, I am the cause of your death. But can I be called a weapon? The answer is yes. And what a deadly weapon Rebecca Carlson made of it. […] She is a beautiful woman. But when this trial is over you will see her no differently than a gun, a knife or any other instrument used as a weapon.”

Frank tells the jury: “Rebecca Carlson is not on trial for her sexual tastes.”

Noir stories are usually structured around a woman seducing a man from the lawful path, and in this case Frank does act on Rebecca’s provocations, having a sexual affair with her. She talks about her own sadistic and masochistic tastes, when she was stealing strawberries

Rebecca: “On the other side, they had these wild rose bushes. And the thorns would dig into my legs and cut my thighs when I slid down. But the strawberries always tasted so sweet.”

Rebecca sensually eats a strawberry.

Frank: “Because of how much it hurt to get them.”

Rebecca: “Yeah.”

Body doesn’t go too deeply into BDSM acts or aesthetics. Rebecca wears black in some outfits, but never leather or latex. (This was before Madonna went full dominatrix in the video for the “Human Nature” single in 1995.) We see bondage (a belt, and pairs of handcuffs), hot wax play, and that’s about it. The scenes follow the conventions of early 90s, Red Shoe Diaries-style softcore: upper-class decor, soft lighting, smooth jazz soundtrack. Only a moment of frontal female nudity and no frontal male nudity. Rebecca is as comfortable on top as on the bottom. Frank is often “marked” by his sexual encounters with Rebecca, including scald marks on his chest from hot wax play, and cuts on his back from broken glass. The latter is what gives this him away to his wife, which leads to him sleeping in his office. 

On the witness stand, Rebecca states that Andrew was a willing participant, and that he bought her the handcuffs as a gift.

Frank: “For you to use on him while you made love.”

Rebecca: “Yes. He liked that. He was always in charge in his life and his work, and in bed, he liked to have somebody else in charge. It was a game we played. […] I never hurt him. […] I never humiliated him either. He picked the games.”

This is a common trope in mainstream discussions of BDSM, the powerful man who submits to a woman as relief. This doesn’t parallel the dynamic between Rebecca and Frank, who alternate being the aggressor. 

Body doesn’t succeed as a thriller. The courtroom scenes are dull, mainly because there’s no tension between Frank’s infatuation with Rebecca and his job as a lawyer. Frank’s affair with Rebecca is a breach of both his marriage vows and his professional ethics, but he doesn’t cross any ethical lines in his defense of her. The story even acknowledges this, when Frank says he would have given the same defense of her, regardless. Rebecca justifies this by saying he wouldn’t have been as convincing. 

The film ends with Rebecca dead, shot by one of her accomplices, and with Frank reconciling with both his professional colleague and his wife. Normative homosocial and heterosexual bonds are restored, by the death of the disruptive woman. Sadomasochistic signifiers like the nipple clamps and the handcuffs serve to mark Rebecca’s deviance, and as she is revealed as a mercenary murderer at the end, any insights into sexuality or BDSM from her are invalidated.

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