Nothing Underneath

Jean Genet on Alberto Giacometti and Jade


“The visible world is what it is, and our action on it cannot make it be otherwise.”

Jean Genet, “The Studio of Alberto Giacometti”


Matt Gavin: There’s only three fun things in life, paisà: money, sex, and power.

David Corelli: Two out of three’s not bad.


Alberto Giacometti tried to get his wife to shave her head—he believed hair was a lie; she refused. So when the Swiss sculptor saw Jean Genet’s bald head in a cafe, he decided the writer should pose for him. It was a mutually productive relationship. Giacometti would complete multiple portraits of Genet and Genet would write an influential essay about the artist, “The Studio of Alberto Giacometti.” Genet profiles him in high modern style, now tactile with plaster and clay, now abstract with jarring, fragmentary interruptions, identifying in Giacometti the drive to “discover what remains of man when the pretense is removed.” 

When I look at Giacometti’s human statuary I see distortion: elongated figures, narrow heads, huge structures for feet. The figures aren’t monstrous, but they are strange. For Genet, they reflect an unvarnished world.

“Did I say this already?” Throughout the essay, Genet is self-conscious that by writing about singularity, he risks repeating himself. The task of describing something totally unique is impossible. “It goes without saying,” he says while saying it, “that I am above all trying to pinpoint an emotion.” That emotion is “a secret royalty, a profound incommunicability…an unassailable singularity” of a thing stripped of pretense, like a head shaved of its hair. In his use of perspective and space, his pedestal-like feet and small heads, Giacometti reduces the subject until he’s left with the irreducible, revealing “‘that object’ in all its naive freshness as object. Itself and nothing else. Itself in its total solitude.”

There’s a phrase burned into my mind from some long-forgotten book review about a longer-forgotten book: “For large collections only.” As in, don’t buy it unless you don’t care about the money. From the reviewer it feels both backhanded and passive, suggesting the most gauche reason to buy something is to have it. Book collections, art collections, collections of friends: the larger they get, the less attention we can give them. Pins become as valuable as the butterflies they stick. For large collections means, for the undiscerning. For the under budget. For collections characterized by size instead of quality, where a waste of shelf is worse than a waste of space.

Kyle Medford has a large collection. Well, had. RIP Kyle Medford, the San Francisco power broker, museum board member, possible pimp but certainly blackmailer, and above all murder victim whose death kicks off the action in Jade. Director William Friedkin begins the movie on a floating tour through Medford’s massive collection: ornamental masks, an army of glass dolls, fragile tea sets, ornate cabinets, folding screens, Renaissance-style paintings. The organizing principle of these empty vessels and unworn masks is that they are never enough. The rooms burst with decor. All this alongside photographs of a man we suppose must be Medford glad-handing with Reagan, Thatcher, Nixon, a patrician man in a suit we later learn is the governor. Money, check. Power, check. Add in sex and the entire worldview of Jade can be summed up in a one-dimensional pyramid: Nothing less and, meaningfully, nothing more.

What does the large collection do to the things in it? It relieves an object of the importance of its qualities. In Medford’s case, where the quantity itself is the showcase, each object can only contribute itself. Forget the intangibles: individual provenance, scarcity, pedigree; the web of makers, owners, users who all lived somewhere for some period of time. With no attention, the dense knot of context deadends. Instead, volume is the watchword. The purpose of Medford’s exhibition is to dazzle, to overwhelm visitors with his means and tastes. Jade encourages the audience to think of things in blanket terms: an African mask, Asian music. In place of a person, group, tribe, or country, there’s a continent instead, obliterating meaningful distinctions. A large collection asks us to bring to an object no special knowledge or expertise. Appreciate something for what it seems to be. Forget nuance. Ask no follow-up questions. Stripped of purpose, an object simply is.

Kyle Medford collects fertility masks, Jade’s dominant motif. A mask’s purpose is to facilitate secrets and hide identities. To obscure the truth. In Jade, masks abound. Yet faces go naked, identities unconcealed. Just as we finish the floating tour of the accumulated objects, the muffled tones of a conversation become an impassioned argument, the mild music intensifying. Friedkin’s camera drifts up the stairs as we hear Kyle Medford’s murder. There’s a mask displayed on the landing, in a place of pride, obscuring little, an ornament to the hall’s emptiness. Nothing hidden there. But who killed Medford? This is ostensibly a whodunit, yet our detective figure knows who’s done it from the start, and spends the film trying to convince someone—himself, someone else, it’s never clear—otherwise.

If who killed Medford is out of the question, then might this suffice: who is that mysterious prostitute, she of the circumstantial presence and scandalous rumors? Who is Jade? Late in the film, that high-class call girl, mid-coitus, briefly wears a stocking over her face. The effect is distorting, anonymizing, a genuine mask. Or it would be, if she didn’t immediately remove it, revealing that Jade is…Dr. Katrina Gavin (Linda Fiorentino)! Anyone who has seen the poster for the movie is likely to have guessed this: the prominence of Fiorentino’s name, the paucity of other female characters in the film so far.1 Taking off a mask doesn’t require a surprise. But the presence of the stocking mask and the revelation’s late timestamp suggest something greater than confirmation, a suggestion that is roundly frustrated. The movie confirms what the audience has known all along: Unworn masks lack purpose. They’re artifacts made up of the material they are and the space they are not, and not much else. “The lines are there only to give form and solidity to the white spaces,” Genet writes. “Look carefully: it is not the line that is elegant, it is the white space contained by it.”

Shit, filth—Genet worshipped the fundament. Jean-Paul Sartre once called him “the Moby Dick of pederasty,” and he was the poet-laureate of a certain kind of street creature—hustlers, sailors on leave, thieves, and murderers. So his affiliation with Giacometti, who frequented the demimonde of gray Paris, seems natural. “There must be a connection,” Genet muses about the sculptures, “between these severe, solitary figures and Giacometti’s taste for whores.” In the sculptor’s own words, “What I like about hookers is that they serve no purpose. They are there. That’s all.” He harbors no illusions about his exchanges with prostitutes, no promises or obligations beyond the physical and financial transactions. In Genet’s estimation, Giacometti was recreating that pretense-less relationship with each sculpture. “Between each naked whore and him, there was perhaps this same distance that each of his statues keeps establishing between themselves and us.” Each statue recreates that naive freshness, the singularity of the object which is nothing more than itself.

What Giacometti reveals at the core of things, what Genet calls solitude, Friedkin overturns to prove it is all there is. As if to say, See? Empty. Not even a drip. 

Like in Jade: Look all you want, there’s nothing underneath.

Hair today, gone tomorrow. ADA Corelli (David Caruso) discovers that the recently deceased Medford has a collection of small keepsake boxes, each holding a lock of pubic hair. The first in a long line of baffling choices, this is basically the vibe of the movie, anecdotes told by the most self-consciously outrageous person at the dinner party. Corelli is drawn to one jewelry box in particular, inscribed with a Chinese character. He strides into a mahjong parlor to have it translated. Smoke fills the air. Tiles clack. Via a translator, Corelli offers the jewelry box: “Ask him what this means.” The translator says, “It means jade.”

Corelli, solemn, repeats it. “Jade.” If this isn’t immediately revealing, I’m right there with you. “It means jade.” But what does that mean? We’re asked to treat it as a koan when it’s just a word. Translated, not interpreted, hardly a revelation. Not even a clue! What to make of a movie composed entirely of evacuated symbols like this, scratch-off lottery tickets that are all scratch-off and no ticket? Caruso plays Corelli with the dead-eyed passivity of a sleepwalker, seeing without sight. We first realize Corelli knows too much at the top of one of the city’s steep hills, when he discovers his brakes have no brake fluid. At the last moment, he swerves to avoid a school bus full of screaming children, a moment of danger drained of its suspense by cliché. Everything is exactly as it seems, no more. In this large collection, the book is only its cover.

The mystery begins with a single question: who killed Kyle Medford? The investigation turns up some incriminating photos in Medford’s safe (California Governor Edwards [Richard Crenna], caught in flagrante with a woman, not his wife) that suggest a blackmail scheme. Corelli, with a political stake in his own reputation for fairness, confronts the governor like he’s just been dealt the fourth ace in a game he had counted on losing. The governor responds the way politicians do in movies like this, with plausible deniability, and, if that’s not enough, a slimy frankness—and, so long as you’re here, could he keep the pictures. This confrontation spawns a web of greater intrigue and violence. A ring of high-class call girls is implicated, witnesses are gruesomely killed, there’s a high stakes car chase. The question of who killed Medford gets larger and larger. Except that the mystery is solved from the moment the ambitious ADA arrives at the scene of the murder. While investigators gather evidence, he finds and suppresses a single gold cufflink in the shape of an anchor. We won’t learn the identity of the cufflink’s owner until the film’s final scene, and the breadcrumbs that the enterprising viewer might pick up on—like a health club’s golden anchor logo—are distressingly generic. But Corelli’s refusal to follow this lead precipitates the rest of the movie’s violence. He searches for a plausible alternative, translating the keepsake box and confronting the governor with the blackmail material. Corelli insists on seeking something deeper, more insidious. His denial is the inciting event of every other murder in the film. It’s the governor’s goons who cut Corelli’s brake lines, who kill another sex worker and Medford’s neighbor in Pacifica, and who set their sights on Dr. Katrina Gavin, aka Jade, Corelli’s former girlfriend, current best friend’s wife, and anal-sex-obsessed prostitute. But the governor didn’t kill Kyle Medford.

Matt Gavin (Chazz Palminteri) killed Kyle Medford, took a hatchet to him while he was spread-eagle and nude. Gavin is the aforementioned best friend and husband. He’s the one missing a cufflink. Here’s what we know about Matt Gavin: high-powered attorney, plays racquetball with his best friend the ADA, acts shocked to learn that his wife is a high-class call girl (which he has known the whole time). Corelli hides Gavin’s guilt, though it’s unclear why. To shore up his chances in the election next year, perhaps. It could be the triangular sexual submission of a wife’s former boyfriend. Maybe Corelli just returns to sniff Gavin’s crotch like a dog. Gavin is a philanderer, more an expression of his power than his sexual prowess. The film’s most upsetting scene shows Katrina’s face as they have sex. Is it discomfort she feels as he grunts on top of her? Pain? Tears linger at the corners of her eyes, never falling, the existential angst of sex with her husband as life unlived. She is far more liberated, athletic, participatory, and even voracious, as Jade.

If a movie named Jade, or the knowledge that Jade herself is a call girl, fills you with a wincing anticipation of Orientalism, that’s exactly right, even as there’s something more Hollywood going on. James Horner developed his score from Loreena McKennitt’s song “The Mystic’s Dream.” It’s a clouded, moody love song, heavy on dream logic. Its contributions to the movie are mostly atmospheric. The lyrics are full of free-floating opposites and contradictions, like, “Where deep in the desert twilight / Sand melts in pools of the sky, / When darkness lays her crimson cloak / Your lamps will call me home.” The images recall McKennitt’s travels in Spain and Morocco, while the airy instrumentation is done in her trademark Celtic style. To this mishmash of global signifiers, Horner adds rolling drums and a bamboo flute, edging “The Mystic’s Dream” from cosmopolitan to confused. Amazon Music describes the score as “Asian tinged.” What’s more, anyone aware that Linda Fiorentino was the star of the film must have had an inclination that the character going by Jade is a white woman. The same casting ethos that requires nerds to be hot people in glasses only needs Jade to be a brunette. After all, what’s in a name? Palminteri, who made his reputation playing heavies with monikers like Cheech and Sonny, plays a character named…Matt. David Caruso plays David. Everything is itself and nothing else.

With Jade, Caruso was attempting the jump from TV to film, translating his skill at playing Detective John Kelly on NYPD Blue to playing detective in Jade. He visits crime scenes; he tackles a fleeing witness (which is bad) down a flight of stairs (which is worse); he interrogates suspects; he gives chase. Except the detective that Caruso plays is the Assistant District Attorney. In Jade, who an actor is trumps what a character does. The plot requires a particularly hands-on ADA, and takes a shortcut to making sense by capitalizing on Caruso’s image as a cop. It’s persona-first movie star casting, except Caruso wasn’t, and wouldn’t be, a movie star. Instead, he is David “David” Caruso.

Corelli careens down the hills of San Francisco in his brake-snipped car. The car flips, rolls, and the color leaches from the image as he loses consciousness. By virtue of its director, this sequence is anti-climactic. William Friedkin directed The French Connection, and this is all I get? When Gene Hackman chases an elevated train from street level, it’s impossible to forget the fragility of an aluminum can that weighs 2 tons and moves at high speed. It can batter and ram just as easily as it can crash. That chase is kinetic, a white-knuckle sequence that feels genuinely dangerous, one of the best ever on film. The botched hit job on Corelli? Not so much.

But Friedkin wasn’t outdoing himself. Jade’s big set piece gives up the idea of speed and distance. Instead, Friedkin reduces the chase, like a pot left on the heat while the water boils off, to its most elemental property: one car in front of another.

It starts when Corelli’s only breathing lead gets run down right in front of him. The culprit drives a black Thunderbird, the same make and model of the conspicuous car Katrina Gavin drives earlier in the film. But that is not a clue or a coincidence, merely a frame-up quickly dismissed in a later scene, and so, like the pursuit that follows, goes nowhere. The car races off, trailing viscera, and Corelli (once again, not a cop!) gives chase.

Tries to. At first the pursuit is thrilling stuff: speeding collisions, dramatic turns, cars racing off the lips of steep hills. But Corelli almost immediately loses the Thunderbird and parks his car, the first of many stops. Through dumb luck, he spots it again and tumbles down a green belt. The audience gears up for hot pursuit, and then: red light. Dead stop. The Thunderbird is mere car lengths away. The race is interrupted but the chase is ongoing, motionless.

The light changes and the Thunderbird makes a hard left across lanes of traffic, right into a parade. Corelli follows. Now, one car behind another one, the going gets good. Swarmed by parade marchers, onlookers and floats, both cars move at 2 ½ mph. Photographs of cars move faster than this. Not in the parade—they are the parade.

More casualties ensue and eventually the Thunderbird makes its getaway to the docks, where Corelli drives slowly past the half-open doors the pursued car may lurk behind. An engine revs. Corelli at a standstill. The Thunderbird, which has gone from 0 to 60 in the space of a single cut, T-bones Corelli right off the dock, and Friedkin concludes his anti-chase with the ADA treading water. No movement, no progress.

Corelli and the Gavins hear that Kyle Medford has been murdered while they are at the black and white ball, where the rich and the rich-adjacent rub elbows in unrented finery with the other people on their level. It’s the only place where we see who I think of as the hero of Jade, an elevated figure whose morality is beyond question: the balloons tied to an empty tuxedo jacket that float along the ceiling. It’s a parody of a man—headless, urgeless. In a fallen world, he floats above. And that’s the last we see of him, because Jade is about people as they are, not as they could be.

To be clear, I’m not making an “actually” argument. I don’t believe that Jade is “actually” good. Ignominious for good reason, it’s a punchline,2 a disaster that “helped seal the fate of R-rated erotic thrillers.” Neither hot enough nor sophisticated enough to match the nihilism of its obvious Eszterhas forebear Basic Instinct, the items in Jade’s favor are few. Fiorentino’s performance certainly, the Thunderbird chase, the absolutely immortal line said into (height of decadence) a mini-fridge: “Cristal, beluga, Wolfgang Puck…It’s a fuck house.” 

But there is something sticky about Jade and the way it thwarts interpretation. Pretty as an oil slick, deep as a puddle, Jade isn’t even against edification. It has no comment. Evacuated symbols, while not exactly a virtue, do offer their own crude surface pleasures: nude women reclining on hotel furniture; meaningless pop psychology; a neighbor with a telescope getting the last show of his life; the unspoken economy of backroom favors; a Chinatown where it is always New Year; and crooked cops, goons, and henchmen all caught up in a plot that it honestly took me until the fourth viewing to parse. The film’s fixation on anal sex feels self-consciously outré, as though following the decades of desensitization since Deep Throat a film seeking an adult audience needed a stretch goal for depravity. But that also feels like an entry point for the film. Purely recreational, with no productive intent: a liberatory, almost gymnastic project for the coiled mind. Genet writes that when Giacometti “succeeded in ridding the chosen object or being from its utilitarian pretense, the image he gives us of it is magnificent.” Rid of usefulness, what does Jade mean? 

It means the only thing it can mean. It means Jade.

  1. The only still-living woman of note in the film at this point is played by Donna Murphy, who could have pulled it off.
  2. In a deleted scene from The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Seth Rogen tells Steve Carell to steel himself to the chest-waxing treatment: “Be David Caruso in Jade.”