Body of Evidence was released shortly after Basic Instinct, and it’s so similar to Basic Instinct, at least in its first act, that it doesn’t really make sense to criticise it for being derivative. Instead, this opening pastiche sets the scene for the first totally self-reflexive erotic thriller, paving the way for a second half in which the genre itself is effectively put on trial. As in Basic Instinct, we start with an old man found dead on a bed, surrounded by arcane paraphernalia. This time around we’re in Portland, and the leads are Willem Dafoe and Madonna, but the setup is basically the same – a curious attorney paired with a sexually liberated femme fatale.
Body of Evidence also extends the hyperreal sense of space that made Basic Instinct so memorable. Most of the opening scenes are set against huge windows or anchored in enormous establishing shots, placing Portland front and centre as the characters take refuge against what seems to be continuous rain. Erotic thrillers tended to present the body as a liquid surface, but Body of Evidence takes that one step further too, surrounding its characters with extravagant bodies of water. Rebecca Carlson, Madonna’s character, lives in the nexus between a house and houseboat – an enormous edifice improbably marooned in a byway of the Willamette River, which is where her body ends up submerged in the final scene as well.
In many ways, the eroticised space is the real thrill of this first act, since the story is fairly underwhelming. Frank Dulaney, Dafoe’s character, decides to represent Rebecca, and while he quickly falls for her, there’s zero chemistry between them, at least at the level of dialogue. In part, that’s because Madonna isn’t all that convincing as a character actress, so it’s great that the film embodies her as quickly as possible, shifting into an extension of her risqué choreography – an R-rated Madonna extravaganza along the lines of In Bed With Madonna, released two years previously. These early scenes tend to be most effective when Frank is investigating Rebecca, watching her through veils, glass and windscreens that capture a profound yearning for access to the naked female body on the cusp of internet pornography.
The film takes a hard left in its second act, however, effectively dissociating into two films – one focused on body, one focused on evidence – under the direction of District Attorney Robert Garrett, played by Joe Mantegna. Garrett insists that Rebecca murdered Andrew Marsh, the man found at the start of the film, by feeding him cocaine through a nasal inhaler, and then going too far sexually, knowing that his heart condition couldn’t take it. In other words, she’s tried for being too sexual, and too good at sex. Garrett describes her body, and her capacity for sex, as a murder weapon in and of itself, placing particular forensic emphasis on the newly visible fetish of edging: forcing a man to repress ejaculation over and over again.
Not only does this bizarre premise make it to the courtroom, but the court scenes make up half of the remainder of the film. These scenes don’t further the story in any way – they just provide a pretext for the other part of the narrative, legitimising the romantic and sexual relationship that develops between Rebecca and Frank behind the scenes. Beyond a certain point, however, the courtroom sequences also form a salacious spectacle in themselves – a parody of the moral outrage that greeted the erotic thriller, in which the crowd of indignant commentators quickly rally into a trashy daytime audience worthy of a Jerry Springer special.
If the trial represents the erotic thriller at peak preposterousness, then the other half of the film gives us the erotic thriller at peak oral fixation. With the court scenes taking on the burden of what little narrative remains, the second half has license to descend into total softcore. In a way, this is the boldest part of the film, and certainly the boldest performance in Madonna’s career – especially the central sex scene, which takes her and Frank through licking, nipple-play, wax torture, a champagne bath and, finally, one of the most extravagant fellatio scenes of the decade. Every part of the body is reimagined as a site of potential pleasure – this is Edel’s vision of fetishism, presented her as a distinct sexual orientation. When asking Rebecca what drew her to the murder victim, also a fetishist, Frank asks “How did you know he was like you?” before asking whether she can identify fetishists upon sight.
As the court scenes grow more histrionic, and the sex scenes more softcore, the story slips away, until there’s no real narrative any more – just a body and evidence, or a body as evidence (in France and Japan the film was simply released until the title Body). Sure, it’s a pretty basic structure – call it very basic instinct – but there’s also a certain economical brilliance in the way Edel dissociates and then recombines the porniest and most prudish elements of the erotic thriller, taking them to their respective extremes in the process. Madonna’s body has been on trial since the inception of the career, so by the end this also feels like a defining role for her – not always her very best, but easily her bravest and boldest.