Wetwork

Sally Olds


The first two scenes in Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat (1981) give it up right away. Here is what will be important in the film: sex and work. Ned Racine, our protagonist, is shirtless and sweaty, gazing out of his window while a woman dresses on his bed. Ned is played by William Hurt, whose body in this film seems to have a mass far exceeding its limit, like a black hole of masculinity. His solidity belies his drift through a weightless life—a decade earlier, we would expect him to take his blonde affability on the road for a journey through free-love and drugs. But it’s just clicked over to the 80s and that decade’s aspirational materialism pins Ned and his friends to a sad (if affluent) part of Florida and a slow climb through the ranks of white-collar work. 

The second scene shows Ned in court, getting told off by the judge for defending a crooked businessman: 'Mr. Racine, the next time you come into my courtroom I hope you've got either a better defense, or a better class of client'. Into Ned’s torpor walks Matty (Kathleen Turner), a woman so beautiful she apparently needs no authenticating detail; she is white, blonde, and visibly wealthy—what else do we need to know? (Ned, on the contrary, is built from a whole world of detail: women, friends, workplace, lunch spot, exercise regime). Dressed fully in white on their first meeting, Matty is a cool breeze cutting through the Florida heatwave. A Matty from a decade ago could have joined Ned on his trip. She has the frank sexuality of a first-round hippie, only hardened and mannish in the way of a film-noir siren, or of someone who has watched the films and learnt the tropes. The other women Ned pursues all seem to get dressed back into service-industry uniforms. It’s clear that Matty is the better class of client he needs. Ned falls for her instantly, and just as quickly, she rejects him, telling him she is married. 

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The second time they meet (‘meet’ is a strong word: Ned tracks her down to a bar and plants himself beside her) Matty invites Ned back to her house—but not without conditions. He must wait in the car until she leaves. He will follow her back. He is only there to see her wind chimes and then he must go. The wind chimes are a symbol of feminine idleness and vacuity: a tacit invitation for someone to fill her empty days. When she kicks him out, he certainly acts as though there has been a breach of contract. He paces near his car, looks back. She is standing stock still, watching him intently through the glass of the door. In a display of threatened machismo, he throws a chair through the glass, strides in, grabs her and kisses her. The split-second before he reaches her she opens her arms—this is how we are supposed to know it’s consensual, that she wanted Ned all along. She kisses him back. 

One of the things that makes Body Heat worth writing about is its depiction of machismo in action. Ned is the archetypal Reagan Era male: greedy, carelessly amoral, spiritually bankrupt, demanding validation from women to compensate. Like the great womanizing artists of the 20th century, his time is split between sex and work; body heat, bodies in heat, disrupts work and work disrupts sex. Women, consequently, are either an escape or a hindrance. Like the waitresses at Ned’s lunchtime haunt, they are invisible until called on, annoyingly visible when no longer needed. As you might expect for a film of its time, Body Heat shows this attitude functioning, reaping rewards—but not, in the end, for Ned. Rather, Matty uses Ned’s entitlement against him, redirecting its gains to line her own pockets.

Matty doesn’t have a job but she pulls long hours nonetheless. Her life is structured by her husband Edmund’s absence, who works out of town and only comes home on the weekend. Weekends are her Monday and she spends all week living the full-time worker’s Sunday night blues. This inverted week/weekend structure implies a critique of the exorbitant demands placed on the agent who reproduces the means of production; her labour is so taxing she needs a week to recover from her shifts as a wife. We rarely see her during this time but are encouraged to glimpse it in relief. If her recovery is proportional to the intensity of her work, she must have a tough job. During her leisure hours, she seems aimless and, wind chimes aside, hobby-less—she is a hobby, looking for a hobbyist. She tells Ned that she frequents the neighborhood bar. She has a maid, Betty, who we hear of but never meet. She wears thin bright dresses, blouses and skirts, bare legs and heels. Her hair is almost always out.

Before he meets Matty, Ned conforms to the masculine tradition of post-work recovery: drinking beer and bedding women. Matty offers him a streamlined version of this process: almost unlimited access to sex and intimacy in a single person. He comes over on weeknights, and has to leave before the maid arrives (Matty strips the bed after sex, telling Ned she is scared that Betty spies on her). During their weeknights, she is impulsive and happily vulnerable, talking freely of how much she needs him and how unhappy she is with Edmund, who she describes as 'small, and mean, and weak'. When he is in town she is a different woman. Closed and defensive, her conversation with him stops a little short of rudeness. Her clothes change too. Out to dinner at an elegant restaurant, they run into Ned. He is visibly surprised at her appearance. She wears pearls and a long-sleeved pink dress with a high collar. But the hair gives it away; she sweeps it up, nailing the conservative-chic of an 80’s secretary. It’s clear she’s there to work.

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Matty knows that the labour she performs—as trophy-wife, as caretaker of her husband’s needs—genders her as feminine. Under the cover of this stereotype, her deliberate passivity presents as helplessness and desperation. From there, it’s easy enough to coax the men around her into displays of machismo. Her husband doesn’t need much encouragement. He comes with all the male chauvinist pig accessories: age, wool suits, gold watch, entitlement and, most importantly, a beautiful woman. Edmund, in turn, is a legitimating accessory in Matty’s role as helpless wife. More than this, he is an obstacle that Ned, with his can-do vitality and his own impressive sense of entitlement, longs to overcome. Matty does this well. She places strategic road-blocks in Ned’s access to her, first in the form of her husband, then the maid, in order to frustrate and therefore intensify desire. Ned only goes crazy with lust after the door is slammed.

Likewise, the effects of these prohibitions are amplified by the basic agony of leaving a new lover to go to work. Matty uses work—her weekends with Edmund and Ned’s weekdays at the office—to structure desire in her favour. The office has already done the hard-yards for her. It trains its subjects to take pleasure in deferring fulfillment—the Protestant ethic of hard work for work’s sake—or at least settle into a daily rhythm of delayed gratification, producing excess desires that are easily gratified in the time between knocking off and clocking on. The structure of work is similar to the generic ‘she-loves-me-she-loves-me-not’ arc—with enough she-loves-me moments to keep the pursuer hooked—that protagonists of Hollywood films like Body Heat tend to follow in their relationships. In other words, Matty is able to exploit Ned in the same way that work coerces workers: with deadlines as limits on their time together, a minimum wage of affection and sex, and the promise of a comfortable super fund in the form of her inheritance and fidelity. She uses work and desire’s shared premise of delayed gratification to usher Ned towards breaking point. 

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When Matty excuses herself to the bathroom over dinner, Edmund casually tells Ned that he would probably kill anyone who tried to steal Matty. He describes the man Matty was with when he met her, a would-be business associate. 
        'He’s like a lot of guys you run into. They wanna get rich, they wanna do it quick, they wanna be there with one score. But they’re not willing to do what’s necessary. You know what I mean?'
        Ned replies, 'I’m not sure. You mean do the groundwork? Earn it?' 
        Edmund guffaws. 'No. No, I mean do what’s necessary. Whatever’s necessary. I hate guys like that.'
        'I know. I hate that.' Rueful smile. 'I’m a lot like that.' 

The first working day after their agonizing dinner, Matty sneaks into Ned’s office and out of their routine. Rather than work intruding on pleasure, for once pleasure obstructs work. After the brutal reassertion of hierarchy—husband, wife and outsider—this small disruption feels like freedom, what their lives could be like without any obstacles. Into this suspension of reality, Ned announces, as if he arrived at the idea himself, that they are going to kill Edmund. Murder, like money, is the fantasy of no boundaries, of unlimited access to resources in the form of property, sex, love and power. It looks like the opposite of doing the groundwork, of earning it. Of course, as Ned finds, wetwork is just as hard as holding down a regular job. 

The murder unfolds in a few brief scenes. In a classic division of labour, Ned hits Edmund over the head, Matty cleans up the mess and they dump his body in an empty building. Afterwards, things start going wrong almost immediately: evidence mounts against Ned, while Matty remains largely untouchable. Ned’s cop friends start showing up unannounced, asking him questions. Ned and Matty fight. Then the twist: Matty isn’t Matty—she has adopted this identity, which belongs to an old school friend, in order to pin the murder on Ned, escape without a trace, and enjoy her inherited wealth. By the time Ned realises, his fate is sealed. 

The revelation vaults us back through the film, rewriting every interaction. More specifically, rewriting every assumption we made about agency and exertion. Who did what? Why didn’t we notice it the first time around? 

The answer, at least in part, is that we never notice it. Body Heat plays a sly game with visibility and erasure, exploiting the viewer’s own relationship to women and work to plot the film. When we first meet Matty, she has already erased her past in order to create the perfect alibi. But more importantly, both the film’s plot and Matty’s plot succeed to the extent that Matty's labour is invisible. If we can’t see what she does as work, we can’t see her femininity as something performative and performed—as a technology that she can employ or discard at will. Vice versa, if we viewed Matty’s actions as work we would be far more likely to see through the bluff. Her labour is invisible enough to stake a film’s twist on, natural enough to hang her betrayal on. The judge's warning at the start of the film turns out to prophesy Ned’s downfall. Matty was not the better class of client he needed; she has more in common with Ned's underworld, service-class companions than he could have imagined. The twist is not just that Matty is someone else; the twist is that she was working the whole time.

Perhaps, then, the stakes of denaturalising what we see as work is denaturalising gender. Certain kinds of labour genders bodies in certain ways. Just as caring-tasks corroborate Matty’s femininity, which she then uses to manipulate Ned and Edmund, her performance of femininity renders these tasks feminine. And as soon as they read feminine, they are sapped of their symbolic value—they look less like tasks and more like truths. Matty encourages this process for her own ends but transplants its usual consequences—the exploitation of women for free labour—onto Ned, who finally gets a taste of what it’s like to work at something and have nothing to show for it. 

After the murder, in the small window before the revelation of her betrayal, when the disruptions have abated and the money is almost theirs, Matty tells Ned that the maid is trying to blackmail them. She is threatening to give Edmund’s glasses to the police, which will provide damning evidence of their guilt. 

We don’t see Betty and we don’t know if Ned does either, or if he ever has. It’s up for debate whether she actually exists, or whether she is just a threat deployed by Matty. In this way she is the fantasy of the ‘good’ maid taken to its logical conclusion: a productive ball of energy neither seen nor heard but able to be exploited round the clock. She is the specter of hard work, both in the sense that she evokes the task of domestic labour and in that Matty works her hard as the pin that holds her plot together; her role as maid, concrete and well-defined, allows Matty’s work to seem invisible by comparison. If work is work only when valorized subjects do it, people like Betty haunt the idea of a post-work or fair-work society. The relation between her and Matty role-plays liberal feminism’s idea of empowerment: the leisure of a few whose load shifts onto the backs of others and is suddenly rendered invisible again—in this case, literally so. If Ned is the archetypal Reagan Era male, Matty is the next generation’s answer to that archetype: the power woman, liberated to become as greedy and exploitative as any man.

At the end of the film, Ned lies on a prison bed while Matty reclines on a beach, presumably far from Ned, the maid and all of their troubles. She stares straight ahead, slips her sunglasses on her nose. The lenses are set into the frames of Edmund’s glasses and we see her for what she is: a wolf in wolf’s clothing. 

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Sally Olds is a Brisbane-based writer and one of the founding editors of Bumf. She occasionally writes music reviews for 4ZZZ, and tweets @oldsy91.