No genre hyperbolised cinema, and what we think of the cinematic, quite like the 90s erotic thriller. Arriving at the tail end of neo-noir, which was already an exercise in heightened atmosphere, and envisaging the digital effects revolution that lay just around the corner, the erotic thrillers of the early 90s threw everything at the wall to create tableaux that stretched lush, decadent, analog visuality as far as it could possibly go. Concerned with the eroticism of the cinematic image above all else, these films often played as a concatenation and cannibalisation of every atmospheric director, style and period that they could get their hands on, effectively offering up their own hypercinema, and hyperreality, to arm themselves against the digitised images that were on the verge of consigning them to media history. As a synecdoche for cinema itself, the erotic thriller has thus been a recurring point of reference in our more properly post-cinematic era, especially because the rise of streaming platforms, and of high definition television in particular, has led to a situation in which television, and digital media, have appropriated the heightened cinematicity, and the cinematic classicism, that the erotic thriller once reserved for the big screen alone. No doubt, VHS was a critical part of this equation, but it always existed in a strictly hierarchical relation to cinema, as the sweeping tracking shots, hypermobile cameras and preposterously panoramic vistas of the erotic thriller made clear, along with their rich intertextual references to films and atmospheres released long before the advent of video.
Drawing upon the erotic thriller also means drawing upon the femme fatales who populated these thrillers, and who typically functioned as a cipher for their hyper-complex narrative and atmospheric architecture. In fact, that was the role that the femme fatale played in classic noir too, where her presence invariably twisted an apparently straightforward investigation into convolutions so contorted that they were frequently impossible to follow in real time. In the erotic thriller, however, this narrative function was more directly and explicitly linked to female sexuality, which was generally presented as inherently perverse, polymorphous and fetishistic, prompting a narrative scheme that was perverse, polymorphous and fetishistic in turn. It’s that vision of female sexuality, and feminised narrative, that contemporary iterations of the erotic thriller have to contend with, not merely because it often appears pretty suspect in the context of today’s gender politics, but because it runs the risk of slipping over into parody outside of the time and place when it was produced. While the erotic thriller might have emerged just as the big screen was starting to wane for good, it was nevertheless still assured of the hegemony of the big screen, and determined to make the most of the big screen for one last gasp of spectacle, allowing it to indulge in hyperbolic visions of female sexuality and male fantasy that are more likely to play as parodic, or comic, within today’s more variegated media environment.
Crafting a contemporary erotic thriller therefore means coming to terms with the fact that the genre itself is likely to play as inherently comic, or inherently parodic, in today’s cinematic milieu. That doesn’t mean that erotic thrillers can’t exist, or can’t be genuinely suspenseful, but that they need to craft a new and more ingenious kind of suspense around these more comic and parodic conditions of possibility. That’s just what Gone Girl did in 2014, establishing an atmosphere that teetered so precipitously on the threshold between thriller and comedy, and between authenticity and parody, that it managed to glean a new and more emergent kind of suspense from its very generic indeterminacy. In A Simple Favor, Paul Feig takes a different, but equally innovative approach, framing the erotic thriller as a genre that was always more conventional than it claimed, a study in normcore rather than a genuinely transgressive cinematic exercise. To that end, he takes a classic erotic thriller motif – a beautiful woman who suddenly vanishes – and mediates it through mommy vlogging, as both profession and aesthetic orientation to the world. At the heart of that premise is Stephanie Smothers, played by Anna Kendrick, a single mother, and moderately successful mommy blogger, who finds herself becoming good friends with Emily McLanden, played by Blake Lively, a more unconventional mother at her playground. From the very beginning, however, the markers of unconventionality are as bland and trite as you might expect from a normcore vlogger, pretty much amounting to the fact of Emily having a corporate job, a sensuous relationship with her husband Sean, played by Henry Golding, a promiscuous and adventurous sexual history, and a dislike for regular suburban protocol.
Whereas erotic thrillers typically reveled in moody palettes and gloomy textures that paired noir atmospherics with a lusher sense of colour and space, Feig inflects this friendship through a series of bright, pastel, upbeat tableaux that are clearly based on the mise-en-scenes of YouTube vloggers – compositions that have to “pop” out and welcome the eye at a moment’s notice in the endless browsing from digital channel to digital channel. That environment provides the basis for what the film considers conventional and unconventional, as well as a whole variety of other dichotomies that are set up in the first act – between being a good mom and a bad mom, between work and home duties, between the city and the suburbs – that are cursorily and parodically dismantled as the friendship between Stephanie and Emily develops. It’s only a matter of time, then, before we discover that Stephanie slept with her long-lost half-brother on the night of her father’s funeral, and that she was carrying on a relationship with him for the entirety of her marriage. Yet whether because Stephanie enunciates everything like it’s a vlog post, or Feig couches these revelations in the same upbeat palette of the rest of the film, this never feels like a confession of incest, just as A Simple Favor never feels like a film about incest, as the transgressive overtones of this confession somehow fail to ramify in any enduring manner.
Conversely, the qualities that supposedly make Emily a figure of transgression tend to feel quite rote, culminating with a quasi-lesbian moment with Stephanie that would lead onto a smouldering sublimated romantic import in a traditional erotic thriller, but doesn’t really lead anywhere here, and feels quite bland and blank when it does happen. Between the banality of Stephanie’s very real transgressions, and the tameness of Emily’s supposed transgressions, the film takes on a normcore vibe, and an intensified normality, that is partly satirical, but also partly unsettling and uncanny as well. To some extent, that’s because intensified normality is always somewhat uncanny, but it’s also more specifically related to the uncanniness with which the film, and Feig, grasp the broader role that the erotic thriller played in normalising even the most transgressive of impulses under the aegis of American suburban sanctity, and so normalising suburbia itself as an intrinsically transgressive state of affairs. In that sense, A Simple Favor is weirdly truer to the erotic thriller genre than many of the films released during the genre’s classic period – it captures the “real” function and preoccupation of the genre – producing moments that are silly and scary in equal measure.
Nowhere is that clearer than in the film’s depiction of the art world, since after Emily vanishes – the crux of the film – one of the ways in which Stephanie deals with her loss is by relocating a nude painting of her friend, and then finally taking it to New York to see if the painter might function as a prospective lead. At first, this painting seems to signal the gulf between Emily and Stephanie, and the enormously transgressive and free-spirited sensibility that Emily has to impart to her friend. As Stephanie moves into Emily’s house, however, and becomes entwined with husband Sean, the painting gradually takes on a more comic valency, culminating with the spectacle of her awkwardly lugging it up a Soho street to where the artist, played by Linda Cardinelli, self-deprecatingly and self-parodically compares her lesbian relationship with Emily to the milieu of Robert Mapplethorpe. Yet as absurd as that gesture might be, and as much as the film might skewer the near obligatory lesbianism of the erotic thriller, this also produces a gradual change in Emily’s appearance when we next see her – a more flagrantly queer and mannish vibe that crystallises around her use of the same skull-capped walking cane that Mapplethorpe used in his iconic self-portrait in older age. Elasticised between comedy and suspense, this relation between Emily and Mapplethorpe is no doubt implausible, but the way in which its implausibility is gradually naturalised is an eerie effect in itself, and arguably even eerier than a regular erotic thriller.
In fact, that unsettling pattern repeats itself over and over again, as one bizarre revelation after another is folded so seamlessly back into the pastel palette of the film that the cumulative normality of it all starts to grow stranger and more unsettling than any single revelation could ever have achieved if it was signposted more emphatically. It is as if Feig had turned the premise of the erotic thriller into a spooky spectacle of its own, as the film’s insatiable normalising ambience allows him to pack in an almost unbelievable number of twists, none of which quite stands out on its own, but none of which feel absurd or impluausible either. Taking Stephanie all over the country, and through one investigative topos after another – checking out an abandoned summer camp, researching microfilm in a library – the film revels in narrative architecture as both a mechanism and subject of normalization, moving from one overdetermined explanation and motivation to the next, while never quite disrupting the reality-principle of the film, or the equation of the erotic thriller itself with the reality of the world depicted in the film. Like many contemporary films that draw on the erotic thriller, that world is shot through with a diffuse cinematicity, a kind of generalised “cinematic” affect, with a few key touchstones – Hitchcock pops up time and again, as does a certain 60s sense of cool – but an essentially free-floating referentality. Beyond a certain point, then, the subject of A Simple Favor isn’t simply the way that the erotic thriller normalises a certain kind of reality, but the way cinema normalises a certain reality – an increasingly uncanny vision in a world in which cinema is no longer hegemonic.
It’s a wonderful final twist, then, that Stephanie’s mommy vlog becomes the key way in which she and Emily both communicate with and incriminate each other over the course of the film. Not only do they both define themselves as mommies – rather than just mothers – above all else, but Emily’s vlog posts become the interface at which their respective efforts to shape reality according to their own particular agendas are both enacted and orchestrated, Put bluntly, Stephanie’s vlog becomes the mechanism and subject of normalisation as the film proceeds, a synecdoche for the erotic thriller genre that ostensibly “frames” it, meaning that by the final scene there’s no clear way to separate the putative transgressions that the film provides from the ideological role of film as an agent of normalisation and standardisation. That’s an extremely uncanny experience as a spectator, poising you in a strange space between comedy and suspense that feels every bit as vertiginous as Gone Girl, but perhaps even more prescient of the radical media divergence lurking beneath the film’s studied and immaculately cinematic ambience. In doing so, Feig reclaims the erotic thriller as something to vlog about, a mommy genre above all else, much as the epilogue informs us that Stephanie has gone on to found a mommy cold case vlog, which has allowed to her to solve precisely the kinds of crimes we have just watched unfold.