“I am a total f##king bitch,” Bridget Gregory (Linda Fiorentino), laughing while having sex on-top, in the saddle position.
A seemingly ordinary neo noir excels because of the central character – a femme fatale who is brought to forceful life by the acting of Linda Fiorentino under the subtle direction of John Dahl.
At first glance, the film seems common. The story appears familiar. A femme fatale manipulates men to get her way. Fans of film noir and crime drama have witnessed the plotline countless times. Yet, the main character differs from the femme fatale of cinema past. Unlike some of the dislikable characters who haunted classic film noir, Bridget performs as a likeable femme fatale. She’s a paradox.
The Femme Fatale
An Anti Heroine. In the film’s opening, Bridget Gregory directs and scolds salesmen in a boiler-room telemarketing office in New York City. She knows how to sell, close deals, and manage men.
After work, she races to her apartment to meet her husband, who brings home a large amount of cash. Bridget loves money –lots of it. She fondles it, smells it, and licks it.
The Primary Chumps
Chump # 1. Clay Gregory (Bill Pullman) is Bridget’s husband. He’s a bright fellow. A doctor preparing for residency, he illegally sells prescription drugs to drug dealers to please his wife’s lust for money. Stressed after netting $700,000 in a harrowing drug deal, he slaps Bridget, igniting a chain reaction.
Chump #2. Mike Swale (Peter Berg) serves as the patsy. He hails from small town. Not content with marrying a ‘cowgirl’ and having ‘cow babies’ in upstate small town, he yearns for excitement in his relationships. In small town, Mike meets Bridget. He’s an easy mark because his libido does most of his thinking.
Bridget craves all of the illegal drug money free and clear. Not willing to answer to anybody, she hungers for total liberation that she believes wealth brings and will do anything to get it. Her only interest is her own, and so greed is good.
Also, a darkish disorder dwells deep within Bridget. She seems to scorn men. She uses men to her advantage, catching them, conquering them, and bending them to her will. She values money, power, and independence over relationships. She enjoys humiliating men, deriding them as ‘eunuchs,’ ‘Neanderthals,’ ‘maggots,’ and ‘sex objects.’ A trace of revenge lurks in Bridget’s behavior towards men.
Bridget operates on her terms and her terms only – she controls the game and the men.
An Ancient Character Recast
Bridget emerges as a modern reincarnation of the lethal woman.
Since the beginning of time, the femme fatale has anchored deep in our individual and collective mind. Religion, art, literature, film, and mainstream media have portrayed the femme fatale in a code of sinister representations: harlots, misfits, molls, she-wolves, sirens, spiders, spies, vampires, vixens, witches, and other forms. The images conjure deception, destruction, and death, exposing weakness, lust, and greed under the veneer of society’s acceptable face.
During the classic film noir era, the femme fatale character flourished. The deadly women of classic noir were generally disliked, detested, and sometimes hated by patriarchal society. Their creators - James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler, et al. - echoed prevailing sentiment. Powerful, seducing women operating outside the confines of the household threatened the rigid order of dominating men and domesticated women. Frequently, classic film noir reinforced misogyny amongst the zealous fringes of the moral majority. As lightening rods, femme fatales induced moral anger, fury, and wrath.
In Bridget, John Dahl evokes some of the enduring cultural images of the femme fatale and also presents modern, distinguishing characteristics. Let’s look at some of the signs, and their meanings, that the director uses to sculpt the characteristics of his dangerous woman.
The Traditional Signs of a Cinematic Femme Fatale
Black Skirt, Black Stockings, Black Cape. In the presence of her prey, Bridget wears primarily black clothing. Chic and sexy, her clothes could be worn at a funeral, a witches’ brew, or a vampire outing. A familiar code, her clothes signal darkness, hinting of her ability to trap and drain life.
Animal Instincts. Bridget’s behaviors display the characteristics of a wild animal. When Bridget first meets Mike Swale in small town’s bar, she sticks her hand in his crotch, then pulls out her hand, and smells it. She sniffs the odors of her target’s genitals, analyzing sexual condition and social pecking order. She selects her sexual target. She’s the alpha wolf.
Psychopathic Gestures. In an act of utter disrespect towards the sacred values of mainstream Americana, Bridget puts out her cigarette in Grandma’s home-made apple pie. Bridget’s assault on Grandma’s wholesome goodness underscores the diametric difference of the independent femme fatale from the dependent family woman. Bridget is not Mrs. Susie Homemaker. Clever, calculating, and cold-hearted, Bridget’s attitude lacks affection, simpatico, and warmth. She does not say please. She does not say thank you. Her manners are reptilian.
Magical Powers. Bridget’s seductive power conquers. In ancient times, she could have seduced Rome for Egypt. Her ability to write backwards suggests evil. In medieval times, she would have burned at the stake.
Cunning Intelligence. Her schemes leap several steps ahead of her prey. She sets up men for their self destruction. Working by wit, Bridget lures and traps, changing personas to fit the situation, adapting like a chameleon. Sweet and nasty, Bridget bakes chocolate chip cookies for one of her victims and then sticks nails under the tires of his car. Caring and crafty, she convinces a man to unzip his pants so she can ram him through a windshield. Methodical and mean, she investigates her patsy’s past, sniffing for weakness and fear. She outsmarts her quarry - dysfunctional men.
Predatory Copulation. Bridget does not just hump and dump – she ensnares. She feeds her men sex to leash them. Sexual climax comes at the expense of manipulation, subjugation, and ruin. Bridget’s calculating use of her sexuality rivals the power of Dirty Harry’s Magnum .44, and is just as symbolic if not more so. She’s armed and dangerous.
The Modern Signs of a Cinematic Femme Fatale
Bridget distinguishes from cinematic femme fatales of classic film noir and even neo noir.
The Main Character. Bridget is the central character of the story, not just a prop in a svelte dress foiling the male protagonist. We see her world from her view, from close to medium range. All eyes focus on her. She is the anti heroine who fully drives the story, enchanting and entertaining us with mischief.
A Liberated Feminist. Set aside her criminal behavior and bad manners for a moment and she illustrates the modern feminist – powerful, independent, and in-charge. Bridget lives by her own code, wielding her power in pursuit of freedom and sovereignty.
Wit and Humor. Bridget possesses a sharp sense of dark humor. At ease with herself, she enjoys her dry wit and deadpan style. Her satirical wit makes her stand apart from Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), Cora Smith (Lana Turner), Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner), Matty Walker (Kathleen Turner), Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone), and other humorless femme fatale heavies.
Eroticism. At turning points in the plot, the film’s simulated sex scenes accent the character of Bridget and drive the story forward with apt style. The scenes are erotic but not pornographic. The eroticism highlights Bridget’s power over men. Bridget could be the witty sister of Matty Walker of Body Heat (Kasdan -1981). The two films serve as examples of erotic noir – a branch of neo noir. The simulated sex in erotic noir differentiates from the suggested sex in classic film noir.
How She Seduces Viewers
Bridget is a paradox. Despite her bad behavior and attitude, we want to like her. Her likability separates her from many femme fatales. Although Bridget descends from the gene pool of femme fatales of the classic noir era, she’s not detestable like Phyllis Dietrichson of Double Indemnity (Wilder- 1944).
Why like Bridget?
She not only seduces, but amuses. She entertains tragically comic. Our pleasure of the chumps’ misfortune allows us to enjoy the majority of Bridget’s clever escapades. We laugh with her. We applaud several but not all of her conquests. Most of the time, we cheer her on.
Her brazen ability to operate outside the social norms of the silent majority mesmerizes. Her audacity marvels. Her smarts impress. She enjoys ‘bending the rules’ and ‘playing with people’s brains.’ As the storyline evolves, she unleashes the unexpected. A naughty prankster, she’s also a nasty troublemaker, a vicarious fantasy.
Dahl’s lens is the keyhole through which we eye Bridget. The director reveals the juicy life of a wild woman from a big city running amok in a small town. Bridget as an aggressive outsider contrasts with the naive locals. The sharp contrast focuses attention, keeping us on edge.
As film noir fans, we feed on scandal, lust, greed, seduction, betrayal, and ruin of our beloved, wayward characters. Film noir is our National Enquirer. Bridget beckons us with tantalizing headlines, front-page news, and sensational pictures.
Despite her strength of cunning and sexuality, Bridget’s weakness of absolute greed looms. Her greed is a familiar trait of film noir characters. Her defect raises the dramatic question - does she self destruct like so many film noir characters.
An Award Winning Character
Dahl constructs Bridget as an award winning character, but with a minor flaw. Dahl omits a back story about Bridget. We don’t know why she scorns the male species. In Luis Buñuel’s film Belle de jour (1967), which stars Catherine Deneuve as an upper-class woman who secretly spends her afternoons working as a prostitute (while her husband works as a surgeon), the director suggests the woman’s behavior was caused by her being molested as a child. Buñuel presents a brief, effective flashback. In Bridget’s case, Dahl leaves us wondering about the causes of her antisocial state.
Linda Fiorentino won prestigious awards and nominations for her efforts in The Last Seduction, as did John Dahl. Applaud John Dahl for selecting Linda for the role of Bridget. Above all applaud Linda. Her ability to play Bridget with sensual ease and subtle humor delivers a distinctive character. Linda’s performance cements the unabashed Bridget in our minds. Also give credit to screenwriter Steve Barancik whose script and dialogue allowed Linda to breathe life into the character. And appreciate Joseph Vitarelli for the jazzy music that highlights Bridget’s improvisational wit and satirical tone. All four artists created Bridget as a likeable femme fatale.
“I can be very nice when I try.” Bridget