Noir in the ’90s: Retconning the Femme Fatale in ‘The Opposite of Sex’


or those who subscribe to such theories, the 1st of November marks the advent of the Feast of All Saints: a day upon which Roman Catholics commemorate the saints and martyrs who, throughout Christian lore, have been granted celestial residency. Log on to Twitter-dot-com at 00:00 this same day, however, and you will see a different—though no less divine—cause for celebration: “Noirvember”, a term coined in 2010 by critic Marya Gates for the purpose of paying worship to the shadow-swathed cosmos of film noir, an illustrious landscape born of hardboiled detective novels and artsy German Expressionism. Cinephiles the world over join ranks during this exuberant thirty-day stretch, chronicling their faithful rewatches and new-cherished discoveries—an agreeable diversion from the run-of-the-mill toxicity of (hashtag) FilmTwitter.

Scroll through the wonted heavy hitters (Double Indemnity (1944), Out of the Past (1947), The Big Heat (1953), Kiss Me Deadly (1955), Touch of Evil (1958), et al.) and you are bound to run into a dizzying surplus of underdogs, not least from the wide-ranging sphere of ‘neo-noir’—a self-reflexive revival that kickstarted in the Seventies with Chinatown (1974) and the like. But of all the newfangled homages to those monochrome diamonds of yesteryear, I would bet money that Don Roos’ deliciously unsavoury The Opposite of Sex—a smart-mouthed, tonally scattershot indie from the spring of ’98—is miles from the forefront of most folk’s minds when they mull over modern-day exemplars of the stylised crime picture. 

“My mother was the kind of mother who always said she was her daughter’s best friend. Whenever she did, I thought, ‘Great! Not only do I have a shitty mother, but my best friend’s a loser bitch!’”

And there we have our introduction to Dedee Truitt, a cherubic trailer-trash hellion whose bitter and twisted temperament belies her paltry sixteen years, and who—by the prowess of a never-better Christina Ricci—serves as the meathook upon which this mischievous dramedy hangs. Escaping her Louisiana roots after the demise of her abusive stepfather, Dedee lands on the palatial doorstep of her gay, affluent half-sibling (Martin Donovan), whereupon a cyclone of bottle-blonde devilry takes duplicitous hold of some unsuspecting casualties.

The archetypal motifs of classic noir are conspicuously laid out here: the sardonic narration, the ill-fated love affair, the contentious adversary (a scene-snatching Lisa Kudrow); the wad of stolen cash, the mortal encounter in a scuzzy motel room . . . but it is the manner in which Roos deconstructs them that makes Sex such a wild and gratifying jaunt. Gone are the clichéd dark alleyways and roaring rainstorms; instead we’re given sun-drenched daytime vistas speckled with that distinguishable soft nineties glow—a glaring contrast to the obsidian dialogue that’s darker than fresh-brewed coffee (no milk, no sugar) and refreshingly free of politically-correct pasteurisation, with Dedee’s intrinsic homophobia, misanthropy, and downright cold-heartedness lending bold and venomous bite to the proceedings.

It is through this deplorable creature’s unmerited victory by the close of the film that Roos and Ricci deliver their shrewdest piss-take of the ‘femme fatale’ figure as we know it. As Dedee warned conceitedly from the outset (via voiceover), “I don’t have a heart of gold and I don’t grow one later, OK?” For once, she’s true to her word. Where most noirs culminate with the fated retribution of their chief Jezebel, The Opposite of Sex allows its pint-sized perpetrator to scheme, seduce, manipulate, and betray her way through 105 minutes with scarcely so much as a slap on the wrist. Usually it’s only the good guys who get to drive off into the distance . . .

Dedee breaks the mould.

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