…and the quest to see everything

Queer Cinema: The Black Dahlia

Most of Hilary Swank‘s roles have always toyed with ambiguous sexuality, but when she looks uncharacteristically feminine, she has to talk with some fake, upper crust accent.

Her character, Madeleine Linscott, has the blatant surname of an aristocrat and a given name that would appall Emma Bovary. She’s the fourth wheel in Brian de Palma‘s The Black Dahlia. This film’s plot is complicated even for a noir. The threesome between Dwight ‘Bucky’ (Josh Hartnett), Kay (Scarlett Johannson) and her husband, symbolically named Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart) is interrupted with the real-life murder of Elizabeth ‘Betty’ Short (Mia Kirshner). As per the genre, Kay and Lee’s perfect, green lawn, post-war marriage is a façade hiding the secrets of their earlier, criminally involved lives. Bucky’s investigation also leads him to lesbian bars that ‘Betty’ allegedly frequented for money and pleasure, which led her to Madeleine, the latter is apparently Short’s doppelgänger even if she looks older. Madeleine condescends to the underworld, chasing Betty at first out of jealousy but eventually doing so in lust, in some way of trying to find herself through her mirror.

Of course, de Palma can’t help but tell his version of the story, reminiscent of the same camerawork that Hitchock gave up after 1948. In a way, his homages to his idol(s) make him (them) look bad and cheap. He also lets his players somehow simultaneously overact and limit their imaginations. Eckhart barks, Hartnett is bland. Johannson is the MVP here. Sure, her overtly expressive face is surprising, sometimes leading to laughably campy results. Yet she never leans on the sexuality that better directors world. She also evinces a lack of innocence that fits her character.

4 responses

  1. YAY, I agree that ScarJo is the best here although it’s faint praise. For some reason I keep thinking Hartnett is a good actor in hiding, god knows why. He’s never proven himself.

    July 3, 2011 at 8:37 pm

    • My reply is going to be so wrong in two ways. First, I think Heath Ledger’s death would have made an opening for Hartnett, but JGL, the better actor, filled Heath’s place instead. Second, and to actually address the heading for the post, I thin de Palma is better than handling the depiction of queer people in his movies than his idol. But that’s just me not having seen Dressed to Kill.

      July 4, 2011 at 9:22 pm

  2. CS

    I really wanted to like this, especially with Mia Kirshner in it, but I could not get over De Palma’s sloppy direction. While I still enjoy De Palma, I am starting to get tired of his constant homages to Hitchcock. Yes De Palma, we get that he is the reason you became a filmmaker but come on now…you do not have to tip your hat to him with EVERY film.

    July 16, 2011 at 9:12 am

    • I have vague memories of Kirshner in Exotica just because Grenwood and Khanjian stand out more.

      I give him passes for at least adding to the conversation when making him homages moreso than Tarantino does. Although if I had an anger management problem and I saw the little truck of oranges in that scene before the shootout, I wouldn’t have a TV right now.

      July 16, 2011 at 11:32 am

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