Voyeurism, Fetishism, and Genre in Wild Things

Like Meg, I thought a lot about gazes when watching Wild Things. I thought about the gaze and how it plays into the genre of film noir. Especially because of the performance aspect of the film, we (the audience) are watching the film as voyeurs. These characters are putting on a show for one another, for the police, their families, the public, for whoever may be watching and ultimately, for us. We fall into a voyeuristic and fetishistic gaze so easily and we are invited to do so, because if we believe what we see, align ourselves with the intended gaze, the director has control over how we view the film–what we see and how we see it. Under the influence of the gaze, we are easily fooled, beguiled by the objects onscreen; the director takes advantage of the gaze and ensures we succumb to the plots twists with a sense of surprise and shock.

What better way for a filmmaker to distract the audience than with sex? Sex is what makes this particular film work. John McNaughton encourages the sexual nature inherent to voyeurism in film, asks us to take part and fall under this assumed gaze. I thought an early review of the film addressed this aspect perfectly, especially this excerpt below from the article:

Two sexually precocious high school seniors are washing a Jeep in a residential driveway in suburban Florida, and indulging in a little water fight while they’re at it. The water does what water does, makes the girls’ skimpy clothing cling to their bodies, and clinging does what clinging does–drives men crazy.

But what men? The Jeep’s owner, a teacher that one of the girls has a crush on, is in the house. There’s no one there to watch the show they’re putting on, so who is it for? It must be . . . us!

Yes, the victims of John McNaughton’s offbeat noir thriller “Wild Things” are the members of the audience.

That’s not necessarily bad. “Wild Things” wants you to be in on its tricks; it just doesn’t want you to get ahead of them.

I think the car wash scene is a perfect example of fetishistic scopophilia, in which pleasure is achieved through the look alone. Here, the female image is “in direct erotic rapport with the spectator,” because of the absent male protagonist (Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema 139); the female body (Richards’ body in particular) “is the content of the film and the direct recipient of the spectator’s look” (Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema 139). In these types of moments, which are frequent in Wild Things we are taken in as we fetishize the female image. Our assumptions about the objects under our gaze mislead us. This voyeuristic way of looking, which the director encourages by frequently showing intimate moments, that we witness, under the impression that we alone are spectators, deceive us into believing that we know what is happening. In reality, these private, often sexualized moments, do not let us in on the tricks, but deceive us into thinking so.

So how does Wild Things keep us behind the plot twists?

We need to pay attention to what the director does not let us see. The director gives power to our wildest and worst imaginations when he has the highly pivotal moments all happen purposefully off-screen.

The alleged rape scene (Kelly):

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We witness Kelly in Mr. Lombardo’s private residence, without his consent, standing wet with a seductive smile on her face. Mr. Lombardo waves the ticket in the air casually, his face neutral. Next we see Kelly exit Mr. Lombardo’s home, visibly upset; her mascara is running, her forehead wrinkled, her shirt ripped in multiple places and with an altered air about her. We do not see what occurred within the house and we do not see Mr. Lombardo again in this scene, to gauge his physical or emotional characteristics that followed their encounter.

The alleged murder scene (Suzie):

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In this scene, we watch Mr. Lombardo comfort Suzie, while simultaneously giving Kelly a knowing and suggestive glance. We hear screams and watch Kelly as she covers her ears. We watch the bottle rise into the air and spill wine (or is it blood?!), but do not see that bottle make impact with Suzie. Instead, we only hear screams, watch Kelly’s reaction and assume as she does, that Suzie is dead. Mr. Lombardo emerges from behind the brush on the beach with the bottle.

The alleged self-defense/murder scene (Duquette and Kelly):

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Here, we watch Kelly make her way to the door after Officer Duquette enters and then demand to know what he is doing there. But that is all we get. We witness their altercation from outside of the guest house, only privy to the shadows on the door screen, and finally Officer Duquette falling out of the front door clutching his wounded body.

These scenes are all instances in which we rely upon our imagination to deduce the truth. We are led to inaccurate conclusions, because of the assumptions we have acquired under the various gazes. In the last scene discussed, we find ourselves thinking Duquette is the innocent one in the encounter, because we are led to identify with this figure of the male protagonist. Like in Mulvey’s discussion of the Hitchcock film Vertigo, the male protagonist here is a police officer, so we assume he is “right,” which makes Kelly “wrong.” Therefore, we take his later confession as the truth, because he is “concealed under a shallow mask of ideological correctness” (Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema 140). This position of authority also perhaps excuses his secret filming of the infamous pool scene (NSWF). In this scene, Duquette is in the “phantasy position,” and because he possesses the qualities of what Mulvey would call the “patriarchal superego,” we (the audience) are “lulled into a false sense of security by the apparent legality of [our] surrogate” (Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema 141). Thus, no need to feel guilty about looking nor second guess what we see.

These two gazes McNaughton employs throughout the film ensure we never foresee the final twist. How could we guess the dead girl manipulated the ultimate plan and ends up with the money and the boat? How could we guess Suzie had any agency when the female bodies throughout the film were only fetishized and demystified? How could the object of our gaze, in fact, be the master player in the game? Wild Things plays on the traditional cinematic way of looking, and because we fall under its influence, we miss out on what’s really happening in favor of fantasy.

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2 thoughts on “Voyeurism, Fetishism, and Genre in Wild Things

  1. I actually noticed that in the movie, how it was in scenes where we couldn’t clearly see what was going on where we assumed incorrectly what was happening. So how do you think the very end, which clearly depicts every single scene shown previously, affects the voyeur when he realizes his point of view was completely wrong? I know I was shocked, and shocked, and shocked again as each new plot twist was revealed. It was as if I’d been lied to by what I was watching, and it was weird to see that in a movie, even though each movie itself was a lie. It just goes to show how much the audience’s views can be manipulated to suit the director’s needs.
    Great comment, thanks for sharing.

    • Hi SS, I thought the same thing about the very end. I guess, it’s important, first to ask: Did McNaughton film these scenes and then decide not use them so he revealed them as outtakes at the conclusion? If that’s the case, and he originally wanted to use them, it would have been a completely different movie and a much worse movie ie. no twists and turns/no element of surprise.

      Or did McNaughton film these scenes for fun, always intending to show us at the end of the film? In which case, I think they’re used to poke fun at us, point out what we missed and assumed about all of these scenes so incorrectly…

      I think it’s the latter; the director seems very conscious about containing us within this one viewpoint throughout the film. Showing us everything would go against voyeurism–voyeurs are not omniscient. Voyeurs are always on the outside–sure, we may witness a private moment, but as an audience, our perspective is limited; we can’t truly get inside the interiority of the characters (objects) under our gaze. But it doesn’t bother us while we are watching, because our imagination fills in the gaps, which is exactly what John McNaughton invites us to do.

      Another film, which does a similar thing, although not as well in my opinion is “Pretty Persuasion.” If you enjoyed “Wild Things,” you might also like to watch this at some point.

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