When Ken Russell’s Crimes of Passion came out in 1984, critic Roger Ebert wrote that it was an “overwrought film… in which good performances and an interesting idea are metamorphosed into one of the silliest movies in a long time.” Ebert’s assessment is wrong. Crimes of Passion is one of the best cinematic examples of sex, violence, and what constitutes “the erotic,” a concept and an experience woefully misunderstood and missing from our prudish and nihilistic culture.
Kathleen Turner plays Joanna Crane, a straight-laced and successful designer, who lives in a perfect apartment with perfect furniture. By night, she’s China Blue, a blonde-wigged prostitute working in the neon district, servicing mostly scumbags and various other low-lives. She specializes in whatever brings pleasure to these men. Some like bondage, others rape fantasies, some just settle for a blowjob. Whatever the pleasure, China Blue delivers with cheerful pep, even when she’s trying to brush off the traveling “preacher,” Peter Shayne (Anthony Perkins), who’s apparently trying to save her soul by killing her with a knife-dildo, but it’s clear he needs to save himself (especially from the peep shows he regularly goes to).
Joanna’s boss suspects her of stealing the designs and taking them to one of his competitors, and hires Bobby Grady (John Laughlin), an electronics store owner in need of extra income, to follow Joanna. It turns out that Joanna isn’t stealing any designs, but is offering her pleasure services. Naturally, Bobby’s intrigued. It doesn’t help that his marriage is about to crumble. His wife, Amy (Annie Potts), is limp and lifeless when faced with sex. She’s constantly ignoring Bobby or coming up with one excuse after another to avoid any intimacy.
Driven to a repressed insanity, and after repeated attempts at being intimate with his wife, Bobby decides to see China Blue. She’s taken by Bobby’s attractive looks. He’s not like other men that visit her hotel room. He’s there for meaningful and deeper reasons. But is sex, in its purest form, meaningful or just violent? As Camille Paglia so brilliantly wrote in Sexual Personae (1990), “Sex is not the pleasure principle but the Dionysian bondage of pleasure-pain.”
This turns out to be partially true in the case of an encounter between China Blue and Bobby. Unlike in her other experiences with men, sex with Bobby becomes an erotic phenomenon. The pleasure ends up not one-sided, and China Blue slowly becomes Joanna at the climax. She cries the “tears of Eros,” to use Georges Bataille’s words.
Bobby can’t let go of her, and while he’s still thinking that he may be able to save his marriage, he has a connection to Joanna that’s deeper than the relationship with his wife. In one of the powerful scenes, Bobby and Amy are in bed, and he’s pleading with her to be honest with him. She tells him that she’s not in the mood to talk about anything, and certainly not about sex, which isn’t that important to her. It’s clear that Bobby is interested in a deeper relationship with Amy, and in giving her pleasure. In complete exasperation, Bobby says, “What do you think I am? Some kind of machine? That I just need a hole to cum in?” Amy doesn’t care, and this becomes a moment in which Bobby realizes that his marriage is beyond saving.
At the core, Crimes of Passion is a film about various dualities in identity. The very idea of a mask is what drives the main characters, yet Joanna, Bobby, and Peter are actually attempting to live an honest and authentic existence. (Bobby is the most honest, perhaps because he hasn’t been corrupted like Joanna and Peter.) What are the metaphysical masks that we wear? How often do they encompass sex, or are our masks at the core all about sex?
When China Blue is hired by a woman to pleasure her sick and dying husband because she’s unable to stand the sight of his sweaty, yellow face and body, something breaks down for Joanna. She doesn’t make a very good prostitute because she’s too intellectually and emotionally aware of the other. When the ailing man cries and wants to be simply embraced and held, China Blue takes off her wig, and introduces herself to him as Joanna. She leaves the bedroom and returns the money. Turner’s body suddenly takes on a vulnerable and limp quality. The compassion and empathy for the sick ends up being far more important than sex. Ethics enters into the conflict with the erotic.
Russell’s cinematography oscillates from clean and pure lines (Joanna’s apartment) and dark and grimy streets walked by prostitutes, rusty peep show cubicles, and dingy hotel rooms that are stained by more than bodily fluids—Joanna’s volatile emotions. She’s unable to move beyond the fantasy, yet she knows it’s destroying her being.
This is a film that revels in the sexual interplay between a man and a woman. (It’d be impossible to make such a film today. That’s how far into sexless nothingness we’ve fallen.) Bobby and Joanna don’t fit into simple roles of “male domination” and “female submission.” Nothing is ever simple when sex is involved. Their identities are intertwined, yet Bobby’s still seeking his masculinity. His wife has essentially castrated him by refusing sex. Who has the power in this emotional and physical set up?
This is a serious exploration of the power of desire, with skewed and disturbingly comical imagery. No matter what the aesthetics of the film may be, masculine and feminine sexual desire is at the center of Crimes of Passion. Paglia writes, “The quest romance of male sex is a war between identity and annihilation. An erection is a hope for objectivity, for power to act as a free agent. But at the climax of his success, woman is pulling the male back to her bosom, drinking and quelling his energy… Masculinity must fight off effeminacy day by day. Woman and nature stand ever ready to reduce the male to boy and infant.”
The end of Crimes of Passion attests to this quote. Bobby’s at the group therapy meeting announcing that he and Amy have split up for good. He describes his fear of going to the meeting but Joanna was understanding. “I was scared shitless to come back here,” says Bobby. “I told Joanna. And she took me in her arms and she said, ‘It’s ok to be scared.’ I felt… stronger. And freer. And more like a man than I’ve ever felt before in my life.”
It’s an emotional moment for Bobby. John Laughlin’s face is almost contorting with emotionalism as he says this. But he can’t let go of his masculinity and thrust. As he’s ending his confession to the group, his face suddenly takes on a mischievous, knowing, and erotic expression. (Similarly, we see this at the end of Stanley Kubrick’s 1999 Eyes Wide Shut.) Bobby’s gaze turns to the camera, breaking the fourth wall, and he delivers the final thrust: “Then we fucked our brains out.”