Thursday, June 12, 2008

Better Than Sex: David Lynch's Wild at Heart

Originally published at SpoutBlog:

Lauren Wissot recalls "the only time I can remember actually feeling embarrassed at the movies."

Better Than Sex: David Lynch’s “Wild at Heart”

“No tongue – my lipstick,” Diane Ladd’s conniving Marietta Fortune admonishes at the beginning of “Wild at Heart,” flirting with Harry Dean Stanton’s Johnnie Farragut, while perfectly setting the tone for the tantalizing sexual games to follow. Lynch’s typically bizarre noir contains one of the steamiest foreplay scenes ever to grace the indie screen. Strangely, this kinky non-sex scene involves not Laura Dern’s Lula and Nicolas Cage’s Sailor Ripley (whose love scenes are saturated with such hyper-real color and artistic angles as to overshadow the screwing), but the childlike Lula and Willem Dafoe’s greasy, so-creepy-he’s-charismatic Bobby Peru (”Just like the country,” he drawls, introducing himself to Lula and Sailor outside the hotel they’re all staying at, sliding snakelike into “Wild at Heart” nearly an hour and twenty minutes fashionably late). Dressed in black, sporting a Clark Gable moustache, Bobby’s the ultimate contrast to Dern’s big blonde hairdo, red lipstick painted, 20-year-old piece of mentally damaged white trash. That the episode doesn’t culminate in predictable fornication only proves that the iconoclastic director truly understands how to harness the power of the erotic chase––that is, that it’s hotter than the catch.

I first saw “Wild at Heart” on the big screen at a more innocent time in my life, when S&M conjured up only images of women wearing corsets and stilettos, bearing whips and canes. But seeing the above scene between Bobby and Lula hit a nerve in me, in fact several. It was the only time I can remember actually feeling embarrassed at the movies, voyeuristically observing this charged encounter onscreen. The characters were both fully dressed, no fucking was taking place – so why did I feel like I was witnessing the dirtiest hardcore porn?

Probably because I was. Bobby and Lula engage in a power play game which renders Lula stripped psychologically naked. Instead of tearing off each other’s clothes they’re clawing at each other’s psyches. The sexual act pales in comparison.

Cage’s Sailor is an Elvis wannabe (that the actor would later marry Lisa Marie Presley shows that sometimes truth is as strange as David Lynch’s fiction) and con on the run from the assorted hit men hired by femme fatale Marietta, Lula’s mama. He’s conveniently out changing the oil in the car when Bobby knocks on the door to the lovebirds’ hotel room, which is answered by Lula in black lingerie and red heels. Bobby explains he has to take a piss. When Lula orders him to leave he takes this as an invitation to toy with her.

Bobby can spot Lula’s kind a mile away – the type that employs her sexuality as both weapon and shield, learned far too young how to wield it in a jujitsu move, to gain power over the men who use her for it. Since Sailor truly loves Lula he doesn’t know how to play the game, whereas Bobby is a pro just like she. Crude and obnoxious, Bobby is also as hyperaware as an animal, always on the alert for ways to get inside his opponents’ heads. (He figures out Lula’s pregnant by the smell of puke in the room – then uses that information to convince Sailor to come along on a robbery so he’ll be able to provide for his new family.) Like every sadist Bobby takes delight in his ability to control, hold power, over others. He knows that power is sexy, and he uses his own sexuality to control situations as much as Lula does. They are two sides of the same coin, both fighting to stay on top, the heat lying in the friction this creates.

Bobby responds that he likes a woman with nice tits who talks tough “and looks like she can fuck like a bunny. Do you fuck like that, huh?” he whispers from the doorway all the way on the other side of the room. Of course, the question is rhetorical. He knows as well as we do that Lula is the one forever initiating sex with Sailor, her body draped languidly around him when Bobby first saw her. He glides in closer, bragging he can fuck like a jackrabbit, backing her ever nearer to the wall. “Am I scaring you?” Bobby inquires with a smile, looking downwards. “Is it wet?”

Lynch’s camera cuts to a medium shot so we see Bobby’s hand reach for Lula’s crotch as he reprimands her for leaping back so slow. “I thought you was a bunny – bunny jump fast!” he taunts as Lula, arms crossed in protection, backs over to the sunlit window. She’s not as mentally nimble as Bobby, still trying to assess the situation to figure out her best move. Bobby is getting too close for comfort – psychologically and physically. In the sparsely furnished room with industrial carpeting, a drab bed and a small mirror over a chest of cheap drawers, Bobby offers that her pacing “means something,” that she wants him to fuck her hard. “Open you up like a Christmas present,” he laughs. Is that right? All he needs is a simple yes or no answer.

When the petrified Lula finally recovers her voice and shoves Bobby away, he grabs her tightly by the head. “Say fuck me and I’ll leave,” he orders softly. She refuses so he screams, “I’ll tear your hair out, girl!” The over-the-top outburst seems less loss of control on Bobby’s part than it does effort to jumpstart Lula’s brain, to keep her both in the game and off balance so he can stay on top, for he promptly resumes the whispers, one hand still gripped in her blond curls. “Say it, say fuck me,” he purrs like a lover, Lynch’s camera in close-up to their lips, to Bobby’s USMC tattooed hand running leisurely down Lula’s revealing lace bra. He’s starting to break Lula down, like turning her own knife against her, force her to beg the way she’s made so many men into dogs. “Fuck me, fuck me, fuck me,” Bobby repeats like a mantra, each command eliciting heavy sighs from Lula that morph into the sounds of an oncoming orgasm.

When Bobby’s fingers finally arrive between Lula’s thighs Lynch cuts to a close up of their faces in profile, agony turning to ecstasy and back again. Lula’s red-painted nails spread to grope the air behind her like a wrestling tap-out, an “I give.” Bobby knows he’s won, sends her flying backwards with one push. She wasn’t a formidable adversary after all. “Someday, honey, I will, but I gotta get going!” he announces gleefully. The game is officially over. Warning her not to cry (i.e., don’t be a bad loser) he simply turns and walks out the door to the light strumming of an acoustic guitar, leaving Lula to click her red heels three times before breaking into a fit of bewildered tears, a different sort of “release” but one nonetheless. While leaving us still bound up in our unquenched desire, or as Lula would say, as hot and bothered as “Georgia asphalt.”

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