It was received wisdom among film critics by the mid '90s that every script by Joe Eszterhas is stale and repetitious – just dishing out the same hysterical formula over and over. Hot on the heels of the Showgirls (1995) affair in Eszterhas' career came Jade. Here the writer is back in his tried and true turf: the erotic thriller.
Erotic thrillers gradually changed, over the course of the '90s, from slick, high-budget cinema releases (like Verhoeven's Basic Instinct  which Eszterhas also wrote) to cheap, often lurid, sometimes semi-pornographic quickies churned out for the video-only market. It's on video that you'll find all the anonymous erotic thrillers about peeping toms with cameras, or upper-class wives who play out their secret fantasies of being slutty call girls, or amoral cops who fall in love with bondage mistresses.
I can get pretty fascinated with these thrillers – the more sordid, the better. There's a quite compulsive fix in these films concerning taboos, limits and transgression – becoming someone you're not, all of a sudden, because desire takes you to a strange place.
What I find most fascinating about the genre is that, on the whole, the films don't really celebrate all this transgression, identity-switching and loss of control. They're not progressive or radical fictions in this sense. Maybe only Zalman King's movies and TV specials – like the Red Shoe Diaries (1992) series – present themselves as positive, upbeat, libertarian erotic thrillers. That's because Zalman (God love him) thinks of himself as an artist in the tradition of Henry Miller or Anais Nin. What he makes is very slick, up-market soft porn – or erotica, to its niche market.
But the run-of-the-mill erotic thriller, with the binoculars, stilettos, knives and kinky perversions, tends to be a rather murkier, greyer affair. It's covered with the slime of shame. It's full of desire, but really very guilty about this desire, almost in a nerdy, adolescent way. In a word, erotic thrillers are sleazy. And sleaze is a truly fascinating topic.
At the end of watching Jade, the person next to me said: "Well, that's the sleaziest film I've seen in a long time". And how true that is. But I wasn't able to get this strange, sleazy film out of my mind for ages afterwards. Jade is not a bad movie. Virtually everyone bagged it instinctively in the wake of Showgirls, but it's on some levels a better film. I even think Eszterhas has managed to write a halfway decent script.
Sure, it has formulaic elements, some predictable twists, and the usual flurry of hysterical who-really-dunit revelations in the last action-packed ten minutes – not the best part of the film. The basic soup of detection and desire, confused guys and wild femme fatales, may not seem too promising – and certainly not too original. But it takes more than a few clichés, stereotypes and unoriginal plot moves to put me off the scent of an authentically sleazy movie. Jade is positively unnerving in its decadence.
The mystery plot is not especially complex – nothing like the intricate narrative of The Usual Suspects (1995), for example. Jade begins with the unseen murder of a VIP. Names of various government officials come up in the investigation led by a testy, troubled cop, David (David Caruso). These frightening, powerful men at the top start launching their own subtle threats, and not-so-subtle cover-up schemes. It turns out that most of these high ranking guys have been consorting with an elite ring of prostitutes – and one in particular, named Jade. All the clues suggest Jade's true identity: could it be the brilliant psychologist Trina (Linda Fiorentino), who happens to be the cop's ex-wife? And did she do the murder? This is certainly on the cards, since her psychological speciality is the topic of "hysterical blindness", in which deranged, stressed-out modern people commit unspeakably violent or perverse acts because they are "blind to the darkness within".
It's easy to make fun of corny lines like that. But this film is more than a scrambled, hokey whodunit. It is a sexually obsessed film, and it has the courage of its conviction in this regard. There are two central aspects to this obsession. Firstly, the men: all these old, wizened power-babies (David included) are horrible. They jockey with each other in a ritualistic way that appears to have castrated their tenderness a long time ago. David's buddy is Matt, played by the admirable Chazz Palminteri. Matt is now Trina's intimate companion. Matt never stops saying to David charming things like: "She dropped you for me because she said you're a lousy screw and I'm better". This is an archaic, primal male nightmare: the best buddy who steals your very manhood (cf Once Upon a Time in America, 1984). There's a lot in the film about how desperate, how sordid, how grasping and violent male sexuality fundamentally is. It all made me feel a bit sick.
I have to confess that a lot of the pleasure I experienced with this film comes solely from the contribution of its director, William Friedkin. He's an old pro whom I have always admired, and he has many fine and intriguing films under his belt. He's one of those directors, like Paul Schrader, Walter Hill, Tim Burton or Kathryn Bigelow, about whom you can truthfully and enthusiastically say: he has a good idea for every single shot. Sometimes this is a matter of pure craft: there are good action scenes in Jade, a car chase scene in particular, full of (as Friedkin described it in a TV interview) specific incidence, not just a wild flurry of movements. One need only check out Johnny Mnemonic (Robert Longo, 1995) to realise the shocking lack of such craft in many contemporary movies.
Sometimes Friedkin's good stylistic ideas are keyed to the moods, dynamics and suggestiveness of the drama: the charged surprise contained in the sudden cut to a glance; or a mysterious, resonant object. And a lot of the time, Friedkin's style is almost abstract embroidery, hard to pin specific meanings to, but atmospheric and quietly affecting nonetheless. So he does great things with intricate lighting patterns on brooding faces; with the facades of houses swathed in a slight mist, like the house of possession in The Exorcist (1973); with a prowling, furtive, swooping camera scouring deserted, opulent rooms. All of these Friedkin touches hypnotised me in a low-level way, and only added to the overall dread and sleaze of the story.
But Trina's character is the true heart of this movie. She's really enthralling, almost tragic. She's playing out an incredible double-life fantasy, but there seems to be very little joy in it for her. She's like a masochistic slave to her own libido, following it right down the low road to complete degradation. There's an unexpected echo here of Justine Ettler's Australian grunge hit novel of this period, The River Ophelia – not to mention Buñuel's masterpiece Belle de jour (1967). Friedkin gives us a few unsettling, quasi-porno scenes of Trina in the sack with a few stray hunks; it's rendered in grey video imagery, harsh flaring lights, jagged stuttering edits, like in Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers (1994).
What's disturbing and tragic about this woman's erotic double-life is that, not only is she a prisoner of her own desire, but at a certain point the men around her learn they can imprison her too, even more thoroughly and ruthlessly, by tapping into her fantasy scenario. The final line of the film – "next time we make love, introduce me to Jade" – is truly haunting.
© Adrian Martin November 1995