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Don’t Let The Wrong One In : Re-inventing the Femme Fatale

March 30, 2009

*Please Note – This Piece is Full of Spoilers*

There are ideas that seem to be of a certain place and time.  Call them icons, if you will.  One of the most powerful icons of the early to mid twentieth century is the femme fatale.  Born of a cultural climate where gender was not divorced from sex and where women were expected to be virginal and submissive, femme fatales rejected this essentialist vision of gender by being sexually aggressive, socially independent and more than willing to use their sexual wiles to render men subservient to their own desires and goals.  Decades after the arrival of the contraceptive pill and miles down the road towards sexual equality, you could be forgiven for thinking that a society such as ours has outgrown the need for bold cinematic challenges to our understandings of gender.  Indeed, nowadays the femme fatale seems like little more than an anachronism; as out of place in the modern world as a cockney spiv might be in pre-Credit Crunch London.  However,  even the most liberal of societies falls into lazy thought patterns, habits of conception that need to be re-examined lest they go stale, rot and become oppressive dogma.  Swedish Vampire film Let The Right One In (2008) is a film that rides out not only against popular theories of gender, but also against the commonly held belief that children are innocent, pliable creatures who need to be protected from adults.  It does so by rejuvenating and reinventing that most iconoclastic of icons, the femme fatale.

Film Poster

Film Poster

Rather than merely support this claim with examples from the film, I think a more interesting way of illustrating my point is by comparing Let the Right One In with a film from another era.  Joseph H. Lewis’ Gun Crazy (1950) is an underrated gem of femme fatale-driven film noir.  A tale of young love and big dreams leading to bloody violence and tragic death, Gun Crazy is eerily similar to Let The Right One In.  The only difference lying in the set of gender rules that are being attacked.

Film Poster

Film Poster

Both films begin with an images of dysfunctional and misplaced early manhood.  Let the Right One In opens with an image of Kare Hedebrant’s Oskar.  A skinny creature of translucent skin, bony arms and absurdly blond hair, Oskar is so pale as to resemble a photograph that has been left out in the sun.  Bullied relentlessly by his classmates, the friendless child to a over-worked single mother and an estranged father who might well prefer the company of the bottle, Oskar is lost.  Faded.  Bleached out.  Lacking any clear identity, Oskar latches onto a symbol of masculine potency; a pocket knife, which he uses to act out the kind of violent revenge fantasies he would never be capable of putting into practice.  “I don’t kill people” Oskar protests late in the film, “But you’d like to, if you could” the vampire counters.

Film Still

Film Still

If Oskar is a bleached portrait of pre-pubescent masculinity, Gun Crazy’s Bart is photograph taken with the lens cap on.  Standing in the pouring rain framed by neon signs, Bart has eyes only for the guns in the window of a nearby shop.  One incompetent act of burglary later and he finds himself in front of a judge while his sister explains how he has no parents other than her and while he may be obsessed with owning guns and shooting them, Bart is incapable of doing violence even to an animal.  Isolated and assailed with feelings of inadequacy, both Bart and Oskar are drawn to the traditional trappings of masculinity whilst also being repulsed by the very capacity for violence that grants those objects their semiotic potency.  Clinging desperately to images in order to, as Bart puts it, “feel awful good inside like I’m somebody”, it was perhaps unavoidable that both characters would decide to fall for people who are not only capable of incredible violence, but who also seem to possess the traditionally masculine characteristics that both Oskar and Bart hate themselves for lacking.

It seems somehow fitting that we first encounter Annie Laurie Starr at a carnival.  Much like the harvest festivals of old Europe, the arrival of a carnival in mid-20th Century small-town America must have seemed like an alien invasion.  Carnivals made their money by injecting a little much-needed but ultimately harmless chaos into the button-down lives of the local citizenry.  The carnival was a world where boundaries were pushed back; from the food that you knew you should not eat, to the games you knew were basically gambling or the freaks, geeks and side-shows that hinted at a world so much wider and so much more colourful than that enjoyed by most people.  Lewis sets the scene by having Bart and his (now adult) friends wander through the carnival with eyes like dinner plates.  Eventually paying to enter the sharp-shooting show, the boys encounter a woman a world away from the dowdy but good-hearted women embodied by Bart’s sister Ruby.  Laurie struts about the stage in trousers (a sartorial choice that will later earn her a rebuke as she tries to infiltrate a shipping company), her gun-belt drawing the eye to her hips in the first of many plays on her sexuality.  She pulls out her gun and fires a blank in the direction of Bart.  Here is a woman who not only owns her female sexuality, but she also seems to have a better mastery of male sexuality than the naïve and virginal Bart.

Throughout the film, Laurie usurps the traditional male role, right down to doing the driving in the first of Gun Crazy’s superb cinema verite back-seat shots of the pair driving around town looking for a parking space.  Laurie sets the terms for the relationship;  seducing Bart, offering him a job and then coolly clearing the way by ditching her old boyfriend Packet (shortened and feminised to ‘Packey’ as an additional slap in the face).  Most importantly, the couple only turn to crime to satisfy Laurie’s desires :

“There isn’t enough money in those guns for the kind of start I want. Bart, I want things, a lot of things, big things. I don’t want to be afraid of life or anything else. I want a guy with spirit and guts. A guy who can laugh at anything, who will do anything, a guy who can kick over the traces and win the world for me.”

This exchange takes place as Laurie languidly stretches out on the bed while Bart cleans his antique guns.  The scene is thick with sexual politics; Bart keeps his symbols of masculine power clean and boxed up, Laurie wants to use hers.  If Bart refuses to use his then, according to Laurie’s words, he is no guy.  Laurie underlines this act of sexual blackmail by putting her stockings on, making it abundantly clear to Bart what he will lose out on if he refuses to play ball.

(scene begins at the 4:52 mark)

Eli’s seduction of Oskar is played out in very similar terms.  We first encounter her as she surprises Oskar as he is acting out revenge fantasies in the courtyard of the apartment block the pair both live in.  Initially, Eli is stand-offish.  She primly informs Oskar that they cannot be friends and then tells him to go away, something Oskar refuses to do on the grounds that he has lived in the building for longer.  This initial encounter sets the tone as Eli and Oskar are constantly re-negotiating the terms of their relationship.  Oskar wins the right to use the courtyard but in return he lends Eli his Rubik’s cube.  In return for this act of kindness, Eli bathes and changes her clothes so as to eliminate what one assumes is the stench of death that follows her around.  From there the pair become increasingly close with Eli giving Oskar advice on how to deal with his bullies (“hit harder than you dare”).  Hanging over this apparently innocent friendship is Eli’s companion.

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We are encouraged initially to think of him as Eli’s father as he goes out and murders people so that Eli need not risk venturing out.  However, after a botched attempt at replenishing blood supplies, Eli rants and raves at the older man who can only beg her forgiveness.  Clearly Eli is someone who knows how to convince men to service her needs.  As with Gun Crazy’s Packey, Eli’s relationship with her companion foreshadows the future relationship she might have with Oskar.

When Laurie decides to move on from Packey, she does not even bother to inform him.  Despite having been lovers and despite Packey having been present at a previous robbery in which Laurie killed a guard (making him, much like Eli’s companion, a custodian to her secrets), he is now to be cast aside because he is no longer of any use to the ever-hungry Laurie.  The same hand-over takes place in Let The Right One In when, following a second botched murder, Eli’s companion is taken by the police.  In order to prevent the police finding their way back to Eli, the companion drinks a jar of acid, dissolving his tongue and scarring his face.  No longer of any use as a companion, Eli feeds from her protector with a good deal of tenderness but, once he is dead, she lets him drop from a seventh floor window without a second thoughts.  Within minutes, Eli is naked and climbing into bed with Oskar, negotiating exactly what is involved in “going steady” as he lies stock still and utterly consumed by pre-pubescent desire and need for affection.

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Let The Right One In also manages to mirror Gun Crazy’s extraordinary motel scene.  Just as Laurie decides to come clean with Bart, so too does Eli as she talks Oskar into accepting that she is a vampire who kills people in order to survive.  This final re-negotiation is sealed with a display of sexuality.  In a scene hugely reminiscent of Verhoeven’s latter-day erotic thriller Basic Instinct (1992), the blood-soaked Eli changes clothes, leaving the door partly open as though inviting Oskar to take a peak. Just as Sharon Stone’s Catherine Tramell flashes her naked body in order to exert control over Michael Douglas’s Nick Curran, so Eli flashes her groin at Oskar.  An act that sets up the film’s needlessly bloody finale.  In both Gun Crazy and Let The Right One In, the femme fatale uses her feminine wiles to lure the chosen man into a state of submission.  That state achieved, both Laurie and Eli set about making sure that their men can never return home to their families.

What Oskar sees when he takes a peak at Eli is where Gun Crazy and Let The Right One In show their different cultural contexts.  While Laurie is as dominant, violent and sexually aggressive as any man of her era, she is undeniably a woman.  However, Eli’s groin reveals neither a penis, nor a vagina but a smooth surface adorned only with old scars. When Eli tells Oskar that she is “not a girl”, it is easy to take this as an attempted admission of Eli’s non-human status.  That she is a vampire and so, technically, “not a girl” despite her feminine-sounding name and her long hair.  The film does not really explain the issue of Eli’s lack of genitals but the original novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist reveals that Eli was born a boy and then mutilated by the vampire who sired her, effectively trapping her for ever in an intersexual state.

If the first wave of femme fatale films deconstructed the narrow social role ascribed to women by society at the time, then Let The Right One In makes a much bolder argument.  Eli’s use of her feminine sexual characteristics to groom, seduce and effectively enslave a weak-willed and confused male means that she perfectly fits the traditional femme fatale role.   However, what makes Let The Right One In so revolutionary is that Eli’s intersexual status allows the film to attack not only traditional gender roles but the entire philosophical underpinning of our thinking about gender.

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Many of our society’s attitudes to gender reveal the tacit acceptance of the idea that there is an intrinsic link between which genitals you are born with and which gender you should adopt as the basis for your identity.  Evidence for this can be seen in childhood accusations of being a “sissy” but also the tendency among both straight and gay people to be more attracted to people who conform to society’s gender expectations.  The Journalist Tim Bergling refers to the gay community’s dislike of effeminate men as a form of ‘sissyphobia’.  By virtue of assuming female sexual characteristics to suit her own purposes, Eli is demonstrating the fictitious nature of this link.  Eli chooses to resemble a girl not because of the genitals she was born with or because of the genitals she possesses, but because it allows her to use the sexual and emotional desires of men.  Having assumed a partly feminine appearance, Eli does not feel particularly obliged to conform to society’s expectations of how a girl ought to behave.  One reason for Oskar’s intense attraction to Eli is that while Eli is a complete outsider, she is not in any way bothered by this fact.  Indeed, she only starts to wear explicitly female clothes and dress in a way appropriate for the weather in order to please Oskar.  She constructs her own identity and acts the way she wants to act not because of a desire to fit in but because of her powerful inner desires for blood.

Regarding the issue of pre-pubescent sexuality, it is possible to read the film as being all about paedophilia.  Eli is an elderly man who passes himself off as a twelve year-old girl in order to seduce a pretty young boy.  This is a valid reading of the film up to a certain point but I cannot help but feel that it fails to take into account the ambiguity of the film’s ending.  Seen as a metaphor for paedophilia, Let The Right One In’s ending is undeniably downbeat, but Oskar is smiling in the final scene and seems to be happy about the decision he has made.  So rather than seeing the final scene either as the fruition of the kind of love story dealt with by writers in the Paranormal Romance genre, or as a metaphorical climax to a prolonged period of grooming and seduction, I think it is preferable to see the ending in more muted tones and as a recognition that, even though Oskar is pre-pubescent, he is driven by sexual and emotional urges that allow him to make his own decisions.  The metaphorically negative and genre-based positive spins one can place on the ending are recognitions of the fact that in life we make decisions that can turn out for the good or for the bad.  Just because Oskar is a child, it does not mean that he cannot make those kinds of decisions for himself and live with the consequences.

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