In Lost Movie Reviews From the Autostraddle Archives we revisit past lesbian, bisexual, and queer classics that we hadn’t reviewed before, but you shouldn’t miss.
In 2015, Lana and Lilly Wachowski became responsible for the first gay trans woman on TV. Sense8’s Nomi Marks was unlike any character we’d ever seen and, frankly, unlike any character we’ve seen since. The series started with her being fucked by her girlfriend and it ended with them getting married on the top of the Eiffel Tower. A trans lesbian fantasy in a media landscape that still assumes all trans women are straight — when we’re included at all.
But two decades earlier, the Wachowskis directed Bound. And while their debut film is known as a masterpiece of lesbian cinema — as it certainly deserves to be — another adjective is needed. Sure, it stars two cis actresses playing cis characters. Sure, the Wachowskis were years away from coming out. But if we’re going to reexamine The Matrix through the lens of the Wachowskis’ transness, it’s time we do the same here. Bound is ready for its estrogen shot.
The man-hating lesbian is a stereotype. But if there’s any truth to this stereotype, its most palpable example won’t be found in the TERFs eager to protect their spaces, but rather in the “men” they’re trying to keep out. Now that I’m 3.5 years post-transition, I think gender is complex and generalizing about men — even cis straight men — isn’t productive. But four years ago — when I was identifying as just that — I would’ve said men were a toxic nightmare. Nobody hates men like a closeted trans woman who hates herself. No movie hates men like Bound. And its misandry is delicious.
Bound begins, like any great noir, with a dame to kill for. After a brief glimpse into her foreboding future, we find Gina Gershon’s Corky riding an elevator with Jennifer Tilly’s devastating Violet. Corky is a soft butch who is anything but soft. She has a battle axe tattoo — often visible in her tight tanks — and she’s good with her hands in more ways than one. She’s drawn to Violet like destiny — like any dopey dude from the heyday of Hollywood crime thrillers. But there’s only one dopey dude in that elevator and its Violet’s boyfriend, mafia chump Ceasar. Corky may not be opposed to making mistakes for a woman like Violet, but she knows what she’s doing every step of the way.
What we find then is a subversion of these noir archetypes. Bound doesn’t queer the genre just by making them both women — it queers the genre by deepening both characters. Corky isn’t a fool and Violet isn’t evil. They’re both just desperate. Hot and desperate and in love. Violet uses her sexuality to get what she wants, but with Corky it’s genuine. As Violet says, with Corky it’s sex — with everyone else it’s just work. It’s not subversive to have Corky trust Violet, but it’s absolutely subversive to have Violet prove worth trusting. She’s only a femme fatale in the sense that she’s a femme and if you’re a man and you deserve it she’ll kill you. But Corky isn’t a man and her gamble pays off. Yes, this is ultimately just a gay movie about overcoming trust issues.
The plan Corky and Violet concoct is brilliant. They use Ceasar’s arrogance, his stupidity, his toxic masculinity and pit it against the arrogance, stupidity, and toxic masculinity of the other gangsters. Joe Pantoliano as Ceasar and Christopher Meloni as Ceasar’s nemesis Johnnie are both so fucking funny. Sure, they’re terrifying time bombs ready to go off at any moment, but the disdain Corky, Violet, and the Wachowskis have for these men allows for a punching up humor that just delights. It’s so fun watching them play right into our protagonists’ perfect lesbian hands.
But misandry isn’t the only thing trans about Bound. I may have hated men before I transitioned, but that hatred wasn’t even close in intensity to the love I had for queer women. This was something I rarely expressed — never wanting to seem like a creepy man — but I found an outlet in art. My fiction professor in college was a middle aged lesbian and as I brought in story after story with queer women protagonists her puzzlement grew and grew. She gave me confused compliments and I just smiled, because what’s better than a compliment from your lesbian writing professor?
The love towards and fascination with queer women the Wachowskis show in Bound reminds me of my pre-transition fiction It’s not just the decision to tell this queer story, but the commitment to telling it right. Only recently has it become normalized for filmmakers to acknowledge their limitations, bring on consultants, and try to represent identities they don’t have with accuracy. But in the mid-90s, the Wachowskis collaborated with writer and “sexpert” Susie Bright to make sure Bound felt real. Bright is responsible for the gay bar being populated with a realistic group of queer women — including Bright! — and she’s responsible for some of the best lesbian sex scenes in the history of cinema.
And oh those sex scenes! It’s been seven and a half months in quarantine and rewatching these moments was the best kind of torture. The emphasis on hands, the sweat on Gina Gershon’s stomach, the way Jennifer Tilly flicks her tongue when they kiss, the bottom sheet being pulled off the bed, Tilly’s perfectly manicured finger between Gershon’s teeth as she comes, their mouths, their legs, their bodies, their hands, their hands, their hands. GOD. I’m sorry if you’re cis you’ll just never understand what it’s like to want lesbian sex and to feel like it’s not only forbidden to you but physically impossible for you. The very core of your desire becomes nothing but fanfic. This ache is felt in the Wachowskis’ gaze.
This appreciation for lesbians goes beyond sex. There’s an affection towards Corky and Violet that, yes, is subversive, but also just feels genuine. They’re easy characters to love, because the Wachowskis love them so much. And they cast actors who love them too. Neither Gershon nor Tilly perform queerness as tourists. They care about these characters and care about making them human and sexy and real. Gershon’s fucking smirk. Tilly’s fucking voice. They’re perfect and watching them together is perfect and hot and gay.
Queerness and transness aside this is a really remarkable film in its style and in its plotting. The things that make it subversive also allow for creative opportunities that shake up a genre long established in its tropes. It’s violent and exciting and when the movie ends with Corky and Violet, sunglasses on, escaping with the money, it feels earned. “She’s a Lady” by Tom Jones plays over the soundtrack, Corky and Violet kiss, their truck drives away, and BAM the first credit reads: written and directed by THE WACHOWSKI BROTHERS.
We want these linear narratives around transness, re-writings of the past to try and simplify what often feels so complicated. But God I love that credit. Because revisiting Bound through the lens of the Wachowskis’ transness doesn’t mean erasing their identities at the time — it means acknowledging them. Bound isn’t just a masterful lesbian film made by two queer trans women — it’s a masterful lesbian film made by two queer trans women before they came out. That’s an intrinsic part of the film. Bound doesn’t even exist without the specific narrative of Lilly and Lana’s transitions. You think even a cis queer woman would’ve gotten the financing to make Bound as her first feature? Absolutely not. So often as trans people we mourn the years we lost, but here there’s cause to celebrate. Bound is one of the great Trojan horses in cinema history.
There’s a moment towards the end of the film when Violet is pointing a gun at Ceasar. She tells him that he’s lost and that if he wants to live he better run. Then something happens that I’d never noticed before. Ceasar says, “All these years, Diane. You still don’t know me.” Diane? He calls her Diane? Is Violet’s legal name Diane? Does Ceasar deadname Violet before she kills him? I started to get very excited about this little detail. I rewound the scene and turned on the captions. “All these years, Vi, and you still don’t know me.” I started to laugh. Of course, he didn’t deadname her. Of course, that’s not how this works.
Sure, it’s fun to find little clues that say YOU WERE TRANS or THESE FILMMAKERS WERE TRANS, but gender is so much more complicated than that. There’s another version of this essay that spends three paragraphs on the phallic nature of Corky’s drain snake, but when I say Bound is a trans film that’s hardly what I mean. No, I’m talking about Corky and Violet’s lips in a close up. I’m talking about the agony of filmmakers who wondered what it might be like to be a woman kissing a woman. I’m talking about the impossible fulfilled.
Want more movies? Check out Autostraddle’s 200 Best Lesbian Movies of All Time.