On Wild Side V.2
Florence Scott Anderton argues for a reappraisal of Donal Cammell's 90s horny cult classic, Wild Side
The erotic thrillers of the 1990s are a subgenre in need of reappraisal, not least because they present a borderline unhinged insight into sexual politics of the time that are still not entirely irrelevant today. Despite the 90s-infused teenage thrust to transgress, there’s something in this subgenre that offers a more honest discussion of sex and desire in film than many contemporary oeuvres do, often getting lost in didactics whilst withholding sex on screen from us. In this last piece Florence Scott Anderton looks at Donald Cammell’s ‘Wild Side’ as a case in point. Florence’s regular NTS show ‘Sounds On Screen’ is a treasure trove of film scores, unknown gems, and satisfying classics. Her writing on music in film can also be found in MUBI’s online publication, Notebook.
Wild Side, Donald Cammell’s final film, was first released in 1995 with a run time of 96 minutes. In 2000, four years after Cammell’s suicide, Tartan Films and Film Four performed a resurrection on the 1995 butchered version, releasing a director’s cut with a run time of 111 minutes. This version was cut by Cammell’s longtime editor and fellow Hollywood outlaw, Frank Mazzola, and China Kong, the film’s co-writer, who was also Cammell’s partner at the time of his death. In the 2000 restoration Cammell’s swan song comes alive. The film has movie mythology behind it, where scandal and on and off screen synergies fuse and the line between life and art fades. Cammell committed suicide not long after the 1995 cut was released. He hated it. The 1995 version was a painful let-down to him, totally dismantling his intended deranged and disorderly trip of a film, which we can now enjoy through the posthumous director’s cut.
Wild Side is a bisexual, horny, and witty cult classic. Anne Heche plays Alex, a banker in the upper echelons of finance who’s moonlighting as a sex worker. Alex is forced to leave her bank job early on in the film when her boss begins blackmailing her and falsely accusing her of taking drugs. When Alex goes to see a client later that day, she discovers he’s one of the richest men in the world and an out-and-out criminal (who won’t touch drugs for some reason). This is Chistopher Walken in one of his most elaborate performances yet as Bruno Buckingham and one of his best. When Bruno’s driver, Tony (played to perfection by Steven Bauer), overhears his boss arranging his tryst with Alex, he contacts her, revealing that he’s an undercover cop investigating Bruno and that he’ll arrest her for soliciting unless Alex helps him catch Bruno out. In a particularly hideous moment of the film, Tony rapes Alex knowing that she’s stuck, that the force will have his back and that she’s already been known to have been soliciting. While this subplot unfolds Alex has in the meantime been falling in love with Virginia, Bruno’s wife, played by an angelic Joan Chen.
Their love affair becomes the film’s central nerve in many ways and prevents it from tipping too far into the world of trashy absurdity despite its incredibly enjoyable subversive camp tone.
Alex and Virginia fall in love and play Bruno and Tony for fools. Unlike so many erotic thrillers of the 90s, the relationship isn’t framed from the perspective of porn inspired male fantasy, nor is it harping up the same path as the Wachowski sisters’ beloved lesbian favourite, Bound (1996). The relationship between all four central characters is twisted and meandering, and the film’s lack of linearity is distinguished by long stretched out scenes that give the film an oddly art house feel, that elevates Wild Side and stops it from being a flat, seedy American pulp noir.
It’s a mood piece with totally baroque performances that lend the film an exceptional oddness that make it the cult classic it is today. Everything in the film becomes increasingly grotesque and unnatural and yet it works successfully by sticking strictly to the rules of genre and softcore aesthetics. There’s violence and lunacy, everyone driven into their own wretched corner unable to escape the farce, as we cut from the flashes of artificial lights of a strip club to the flared out daylight of a Californian highway.
Throughout, the acting is exaggerated to the point of ridiculousness, but it never once feels implausible. Likewise, the script belongs to the world of soap opera, which under Cammell’s direction nevertheless manages to hold moments of serious emotion. In the world of Wild Side made up of 1990s Anna Sui corsets, crooked cops, and high-flying careers driven by sex and money everything is possible. Walken’s hotel robe is a masterpiece of costume design (and is almost a sister garment to the garish silver pant suit Walken wears in Abel Ferrara’s 1998 cyberpunk erotic thriller New Rose Hotel a few years later).
The film is entertaining simply in that it is immersed in genre and its codes, much like other erotic thrillers of its time, from the Joe Eszterhas classics and flops to artful feminist takes like In The Cut (Jane Campion, 2003) to out there straight-to-cable-TV-Shannon-Tweed-insanity like Electra (Julian Grant, 1996). The subcategory of 1990s/early noughties erotic thrillers is sorely in need of re-evaluation and rightful critical reappraisal.
Also because there is sex. Sex sex and sex. With Twin Peaks (David Lynch, 1990-) fresh on the mind, Joan Chen’s softly-spoken Virginia is delicate and controlled, whilst Anne Heche is electric as Alex, her tough exterior crumbling gratifyingly into unexpected tenderness. And it is so tender - surely this is love? The steaminess of the relationship could only been made better by the impeccable fashion throughout, such as Alex and Virginia’s respective coord suits.
Wild Side’s cult status also comes in no small measure thanks to Ryuichi Sakamoto’s lush score for the film, which works with Mazzola’s off-kilter editing from the get go, pulling us straight into the action. Sakamoto creates a lulling, sleek, and seductive erotic dreamland with undercurrents of synths, classy strings and an air of knowing.
Sadly after Cammell's suicide the only version available for some time was the TV version, and with a film as peculiar as Wild Side only the director's cut can do it justice. In a post Basic Instinct (Paul Verhoeven, 1992) landscape where erotic-thriller-direct-to-video fare was a global money-making phenomenon, it’s no surprise the film got this treatment. The wrong type of producers wanted it out there and had no intention of making sense of Cammell’s bizarre artistic intentions. But this is not a piece in the Gregory Dark puzzle (there is a time and place I will argue, for that kind of soft porn), it’s Miami Vice with a Lynchian twist.
After the director's cut was released Mazzola and Kong gave a series of talks to discuss the experience of re-cutting the work and how Cammell’s aesthetic artistry was lost at the time of its original release. As they say in one interview:
“The film was produced in the first instance by Nu Image, could you tell us something about this company?
China Kong: They were a low budget action type outfit. The original producers were actually the producers from an American TV show called Cops. It was reality based TV. I think that's why they went for this script, as they liked this cop, they thought he was the good guy. It was very subversive in how he got the financing. We tended to do movies that way in which we had couched in a cops and robbers story something else.
It ran into trouble very early on - in the casting of Ann Heche. Nu Image didn't want her, and she was obviously the right person. They were pushing several other people. How can I say - busty. They thought Ann was too strident and too strong willed.
She brings an extraordinary tenderness to the love scenes. That's one of the remarkable things in that in the midst of this mayhem and Christopher Walken going over the top you have this tender love story at the heart of it. Moving forward when Donald presents the final edit that's when the excrement really hits the air conditioning system.
China Kong: They hated it. They hated the homoerotic undertones of the cop and Christopher Walken's performance. The huge bend-over scene. I've no idea what they thought was going on there as it was very scripted. They thought it was weird, and they just wanted to get straight to the lesbian sex, which they thought more, titillating. They didn't like the film at all.”
Wild Side is the final work by an unconventional and counter cultural director, who made four features throughout his life that were mystifying, fearless and in opposition to the drudgery of oppressive filmmaking systems he loathed so much. Performance (1970) opened Cammell’s filmmaking career and Wild Side closed it; an art film off kilter and out of time, a perverted and charismatic cult classic that you should revisit immediately.