• YEAR: 1992
  • DIRECTOR: Uli Edel
  • KEY ACTORS: Madonna, Willem Dafoe
  • IMDB SCORE: 4.5


✔️ I would fuck the cast. Dafoe and Madonna are hot and look like they’re having a lot of fun. What more do we want??
✔️ I think it will inspire fantasies – I have certainly fantasised about wax play before and this is an undoubtedly hot movie!
❌ But it’s definitely not sex positive! Sexual, dominant and kinky women are dangerous, worthy of judgement and deserve to be punished. Not cool.
✔️ It does pass the Bechdel Test though! I read claims that this pass is a bit dubious but I think it safely passes this admittedly low bar!!
✔️ Is it rewatchable? That is the question. This is a bad film and I don’t think I’ll seek it out again but, to use the definition of the amazing Rewatchables podcast, would I stop scrolling if I flicked past it on TV? Would I turn it on if I saw it on the guide? I probably would!

As always, this contains spoilers so watch the film before you read on…

STREAMING: YouTube (rent £3.49, buy £7.99). For a full list of streaming options, check out JustWatch.com

[Content warning: misogyny, murder]

When I started this blog, I hadn’t really thought about the consequences of my sex score, beyond being an interesting way to rank what was important to me in movies about sex. But the more I write and the more movies I rank, I’ve realised that it can occasionally get it really wrong. Usually this happens when great movies try to represent difficult or complicated sexual politics and end up scoring badly – Gone Girl only scored two and Kramer vs Kramer got one despite being among the greatest films ever made. And sometimes my personal fantasies or crushes cause biases in the score so an objectively bad movie can score well simply because it’s hot. And this is what has happened today.

Body of Evidence. What a weird and terrible and misogynistic but somehow still HOT movie!

It tells the story of Rebecca Carlson (Madonna), a woman who has been arrested on suspicion of murder because it is believed that she ‘fornicated’ her weak-hearted lover, Marsh, to death so she could benefit from $8 million bequeathed to her in his will. Her lawyer is Frank Dulaney (Dafoe), who obviously falls for her and they have a lot of professionally inappropriate but incredibly hot sex, much to the distress of his wife (Julianne Moore). Carlson is found not-guilty but it turns out that she manipulated the evidence to persuade the jury of her innocence, using a past lover to both kill Marsh and provide evidence to support her innocence. I think. It’s a bit confusing. Anyway, this lover is then so incensed that Carlson also fucked Dulaney that he kills her. Oh, and Dulaney apparently faces no consequences as his wife picks him up from Carlson’s house and I presume he’s kept his job.

Madonna and Willem Dafoe from Body of Evidence, looking ,like they are about to kiss

Oh, this should have been so much better. It could have been so good! The cast, if nothing else, is outstanding and includes several Oscar nominees and winners. Frank Langella even has a small role! But Body of Evidence is instead a parody of an erotic thriller. As the Fatal Attraction podcast team noted, it literally starts on a dark and stormy night and then follows every erotic thriller and film noir trope you can imagine. The first scene reveals a dead man who died in the middle of a sexual act; the female suspect is sexually dominant and receives a lot of judgemental comments from police officers; that woman is dressed like a 40s femme fatale even though the film appears to be otherwise set in the 80s, emphasised by lighting that falls over her eyes regardless of her location; it’s raining a lot. Oh, and it’s really misogynistic! Of course it is.

Madonna in Body of Evidence, lying naked on the couch with a light shining across her eyes

Along these lines, Roger Ebert described Body of Evidence  as an ‘excruciatingly incompetent entry in the “Basic Instinct” genre,’ and I think this is a pretty accurate way to describe it. And it proves to me just how difficult erotica is as an art form. Erotic thrillers have to walk a pretty fine line between the ridiculous and the, well, erotic. It takes great skill to be arousing and not salacious, titillating and not stupid, and not many people can do it. It’s why the Literary Review hosts Bad Sex Awards for written erotica, and it’s why there are so many more bad erotic thrillers than good ones. If I’m honest, I’m not sure why some work and some don’t. Or why some become classics and some become a joke. Ebert mocked Body of Evidence by evoking how much worse it is than Basic Instinct, but what really makes it different?

For me, a lot of it comes down to the strength of the female character and the level of feminism within the movie. Body of Evidence doesn’t work because it is misogynistic and doesn’t understand that the hot, powerful, sexy female lead is the key to its success, not just a pretty face to draw in an audience. Think of Kathleen Turner in Body Heat. Or Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct. They’re incredible! The femme fatale character is one of few consistently strong roles for people who present as women in cinema and, while erotic thrillers do often drift into sexist tropes, they also show female sexuality in a way that is rarely otherwise shown on screen. Complex, dark women who are mysterious and probably villainous, but are still inspiring. Still impressive. Still know exactly what they want and how to get it. And I still want to be them, even if I don’t want to live their chaotic and treacherous lives. I want to be that glamorous, to have that much control over my sexuality and my desire. These characters have depth and they are fascinating to watch!

But sadly Madonna just doesn’t have that needed depth. Or at least, she isn’t able to show it in Body of Evidence. Owen Gleiberman for Entertainment Weekly wondered if Madonna thought she was ‘doing a Barbara Stanwyck smoldering-on-the-inside number’ but it doesn’t work. We don’t see enough on the outside to understand whatever’s going on inside. She just looks a bit…vacant. She is the parody, the weak point. Her attempts to pay homage to the greats of the genre look like caricatures, and it’s a mistake.

Madonna, trying to look like a 40s femme fatale with red lipstick and black beret

Except that that doesn’t extend to sex. Despite Madonna’s flaws and frankly limited acting talent, and despite the movie’s best attempts to undermine itself, I do think the sex in Body of Evidence is hot, which isn’t an opinion that is widely shared. Roger Ebert felt that ‘all of the paraphernalia and lore of S & M sexuality are here, but none of the passion or even enjoyment’ and Peter Travers writing for Rolling Stone added Body of Evidence to Madonna’s contemporaneous productions where she had managed to be unsexy when trying so hard to be exactly that, citing other such failures as an ‘album, Erotica, that wasn’t erotic and a $49.95 picture book, Sex, that wasn’t sexy.’

But they’re wrong. And they’re wrong because they’ve forgotten that they’re watching a film that has been made within a patriarchal construct that won’t accept strong and dominant women. In the erotic-thriller-parody world that Body of Evidence finds itself, it’s so caught up in the tropes and the utterly ridiculous plot that it can’t see what it is. Body of Evidence showed wax play and it was fucking hot. (Quick safety note – always use candles specifically designed for wax play if you want to recreate this. Normal candles burn hotter and the wax can really burn!) It showed someone being hogtied with their own belt so that they can be dominated. It showed a woman in full control of her sexuality, dominating and consensually hurting her lover, masturbating for him and fucking him hard. It showed him getting a handjob in a packed lift and showed their fucking blank faces as they tried to look normal and their involuntary gasps and smirks, and it felt real to me. Not movie star, not glamorous; dirty and naughty and so so much fun. Body of Evidence showed dangerous sex, risky sex, but sex that I recognised. It doesn’t always look slick and produced. Sometimes it just looks like two people having a lot of fun.

An image from Body of Evidence of naked Madonna, dripping candle wax

As an aside, has anyone else noticed that some actors have a role that is so iconic or so perfectly them or so affecting that it influences every other part they choose? I’ve taken to referring to it as their platonic ideal, a woeful misuse of a philosophical term but an effective shorthand for the idea of a core character that they have to act away from when playing different people. They’re not always rational associations and they’re not always their best movies, but they are the roles that make me think differently of them – I can’t fancy Jude Law because his platonic ideal is Dan from Closer who is a wanker; I am unsettled by Olivia Coleman in nearly every role she takes because I can’t stop thinking about her character in Tyrannosaur; I am genuinely still scared of Jon Voight because I was so freaked out by his ‘death’ in Mission: Impossible when I first saw in aged 11. And Willem Dafoe is the Green Goblin from the Spider-Man movies. He just is. I watch him on screen and wait for his grin to widen and his eyes to gleam with that manic energy and I’m not surprised when he makes unwise choices or turns out to be a villain, because that’s who he is!

And in Body of Evidence, this works in his and so in the movie’s favour. To me, it’s why the outrageous sex scenes work. Throughout the movie, Dulaney acts incredibly irrationally and unprofessionally – fucking a client is never a good idea but it becomes more so when that client is charged with being so sexual that she can kill with her body – but I believed that he would act that way because he’s apparently always a little unstable and irrational, and I believe that he would enjoy this extra risk. And taking it even further, because I believe he’s unstable, the sex scenes have an additional frisson over and above the fact that they’re pretty kinky. There’s a tension and energy within Dafoe that makes the screen vibrate somehow and makes his dominance by Madonna’s character all the more enthralling, like she’s tied up a beast. It’s really hot!

Image from Body of Evidence of Willem Dafoe, topless with wax on his chest and looking hot - in all ways!

(It should be noted that Dafoe has been described as having a confusingly large penis so maybe that extra energy that he floods into their sex scenes is literal Big Dick Energy!)

I can’t shake the idea that Body of Evidence fails because of misogyny. In the plot, in the acceptance of a dominant femme fatale, and in the wider acceptance of kink. Yes, Madonna could have been better and, yes, they should have toned down the erotic thriller homage, but more than that, they should have thought about the movie from a sexual feminist perspective, not just that of a guy who was turned on by Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct. 

Because the influence of that horny guy makes the film seem a bit…icky in places. According to IMDB, Julianne Moore regrets her own sex scenes, saying that ‘I was too young to know better. It was the first time I’d been asked to get naked and it turned out to be completely extraneous and gratuitous.’ Ouch. But I agree with her. I don’t know why we had to see Dulaney have sex with his wife and I don’t know why she had to run naked to the bathroom immediately after sex. Are we supposed to think that he’s not getting what he needs at home (urgh) or does it escalate the acceptance that his choices are bad to know that he does have a good woman at home (urgh again and forever)? It was gratuitous and, knowing that it was Moore’s first naked scene, makes it feel exploitative. Why? Why was it there?

And Madonna had complaints about the misogyny too. For reasons that can only really be explained by the Patriarchy wanting to destroy powerful women, Madonna’s sexuality and sexual expression has long been a reason to mock and judge her – and it’s got worse as she’s got older and refused to accept that women ‘shouldn’t’ be sexual and 60 – and I don’t think she’s wrong to deflect some blame for Body of Evidence’s failing to the same root cause. According to an interview she gave to Cosmopolitan in 1996, which I can’t find but was quoted in the IMDB trivia, the film had two endings, one where she died and one she didn’t, and she blames the director for making a misogynistic choice: ‘Film is a director’s medium. In other words: try not to work with a director who hates women. In my case, that means I’ll be photographed badly and end up dead in the end.

I’d love to see the other version of the movie, the one from the perspective of the female gaze, where Carlson wasn’t killed, where she wasn’t evil and didn’t fulfil the misogynistic judgements of the men who can’t bear to see women with power. ‘It’s not a crime to be a great lay,’ Dulaney claimed when he first takes on the case, but Body of Evidence and too many other movies go out of their way to prove that he’s wrong. It is a crime to be a great lay and to love sex and to know what you want, if that desire conflicts with the Patriarchy.


Madonna swearing in to court, in Body of Evidence

NEXT TIME…(once again teasing but trying to stick to my commitment this time) restarting my Disney Princess series with ROBIN HOOD!

Copyright All stills and photos are sourced from MovieStillsDB and CineMaterial, and are the courtesy of their respective production studios and/or distribution companies. Images are intended for educational or editorial use only.