Body of Evidence and Looking Camp Right in the Eye

illustration by Tom Ralston

If you hang around me long enough, you’ll learn my one true flaw is that my taste in pop culture is too widespread to be considered taste at all. Like a charcuterie board picked at with a salad fork, I take from pop culture everything that draws the eye and triggers my IBS, from Ashlee Simpson’s brief discography to anything fingerprinted with Ryan Murphy’s homosexual terrorism. I’ll say it here in writing so there’s no confusion: I love, more than any sapiosexual arthouse handjob, my exquisite garbage, my gauche array of dejected objects and medias the zeitgeist has archived into the “should not be enjoyed” bins out back. There is no known cure for my sparkling brain rot. My daily core workout includes at least four reps of full-bodied cringe followed by three sets of straight gagging over Imagine Dragons. I love the aura of all things tacky, from skinny scarves (objectively useless as a neck warmer) to Third Eye Blind’s most recent output (the ‘90s need not apply) to ghost hunting reality television (the best way to find out if your house is haunted is to yell slurs into the open dark of a nursery).  

My affinity for trash is so severe that many things the education system has deemed “important to know” have been permanently replaced in my brain hemispheres by cultural events no straight person would appreciate—I can’t remember how to write cursive letters anymore, but I can sing every word of Ali Lohan’s pop single allegedly released by Interscope, “All the Way Around.” I can no longer do long division—I’m 26—but I can tell you the exact time and place I first witnessed Madonna superimposing BDSM whips over Nelson Mandela’s face on Instagram in 2015 to promote the album Rebel Heart (3:00 p.m. CST, at Iowa City’s one and only Which Which location).

And it is still Madonna who stands in the center of my wretched J-14/Perez Hilton/Super Rush symposium because she represents all things camp: the horrific, the iconic, the dazzling, the boring, the colorful, the nauseating, the offensive, and the brilliant. From her perpetual “I’m British” cosplay to her party-hat cone bras, Madonna might be the only artist with a Mike Tyson album feature who can spin every cultural and fashion faux pas into shiny fool’s gold. A glamorous vulture, she brought voguing into the mainstream by picking at its bones, rolling the meat of queer culture around in her mouth like a lozenge. She’s released numerous gay club staples, single-handedly putting the “pop” back in poppers. And for those unaware, the “M” in BDSM stands, obviously, for Madonna. In 2005, the crimson-haired, ABBA-sampling Madonna on the cover of “Confessions on a Dance Floor” was my Virgil lighting the way through those tricky closeted homosexual caves. But these days, she is to the zeitgeist what a post-Regan bathhouse is to a puritanical zoomer twink. While best known for her music—which still lives on at T.J.Maxx and at any gay club named after a cocktail—she is also a notorious filmmaker and an infinitely watchable actress. 

As a filmmaker, Madge has directed two narrative films: 2008’s Filth and Wisdom and 2011’s W.E., the latter of which premiered at the Venice Film Festival and then promptly faded into obscurity. It’s a shame—the film is a balls-to-the-wall shot of excess, a gloriously trashy empirical romance with absurd blocking and fantastic music. It also features an incredible Andrea Riseborough performance, along with Oscar Isaac doing a Russian accent ripped straight from my bedroom after four tequila shots and zero attention. To the benefit of absolutely no one, Madonna hasn’t directed a narrative film since W.E. flopped both financially and spiritually. I imagine myself—a nothing if not dutiful faggot—to be the only person dismayed by the hole she’s left in the festival circuit since. And though you could have warmed your hands over the fierce critical resentment W.E. inspired after its world premiere, I found the film to be a much-needed shot into the pretentious arm of the arthouse, a Party-City-leased disco ball beaming neon onto every navel-gazing period piece set on an unlit moor. Despite her lofty, high-brow aspirations, Madonna couldn’t help but hit the concept of auteur filmmaking square in the nuts, giving us (fags) the most chic husk of a narrative since Inception.

Madonna the actress is certainly more varied than Madonna the director, but she’s no less ballsy, willing to try literally anything as long as she gets a chance to convince you she’s from the U.K. She’s magnetic, for example, in A League of Their Own, playing a sassy center fielder with Madonna-like dance moves. She’s also good in Desperately Seeking Susan, playing what Pauline Kael called an “indolent, trampy goddess.” But nothing can prepare an unexpecting public for her turn in the largely forgotten 1993 erotic thriller Body of Evidence, directed by Uli Edel. As much as I’d like to be the first person in the world to dub Body of Evidence an unparalleled masterpiece, all evidence suggests the opposite. For example, Edel has since turned his artistic eye to the lesser appreciated art form known as the “TV movie.” Even Julianne Moore has called her participation in this film “a big mistake,” despite remaining suspiciously silent about her involvement in 2007’s equally campy though significantly more morose Savage Grace. I digress. Anyone with a sense of humor won’t find better entertainment fodder for a night in with the in-laws. It is here that I declare bravely, with one hand on my heart, the following: Body of Evidence is the Citizen Kane of movies that won’t put you to sleep like Citizen Kane. For this alone, it deserves your open eyes, your wagging tongue, your generous pour of Barefoot wine. 

In Body of Evidence, Madonna stands accused of fucking an older man to death, a real “we’ve all been there” scenario if I’ve ever heard one. Here, I use “Madonna” in place of the character’s name because it quite simply doesn’t matter what any character’s name in this movie is. What does matter is that Madonna is put on trial because her WAP is lethal enough to cause fatal heart attacks in millionaires (welcome to The Revolution, Madge!), and if that doesn’t get the blood flowing, Willem Dafoe—toothed-up like Jack Skellington—is hired as her lawyer, and…well, you know what happens next. Willem Dafoe is an interesting foil to Madonna here since his wide grin and hollow eyes aren’t the first things that come to mind when I think “If I don’t cum right now, I’ll probably die.” And yet, as Madonna pours hot candle wax over his bare chest and reportedly sizable family jewels, it’s impossible not to feel an ever-so-slight cramp of ovulation.

While the plot of Body of Evidence is secondary to the trauma of its psychic impact on the viewer, the sparknotes rundown is: Madonna playing a woman who looks like Madonna is charged with the murder of an older gentleman via erotic asphyxiation. Willem Dafoe plays her lawyer, who attempts to prove that, no, actually, Madonna’s hot bod did not shawty-get-low this man to death. In between court proceedings, Willem Dafoe and Madonna bump uglies behind Dafoe’s wife’s back (Julianne Moore) and because he’s a cuck, he starts to wonder if Madonna actually threw it back hard enough to cause a Mortal Kombat fatality. Regardless, Madonna gets off (in more ways than one) and everything seems to go back to normal (whatever that means in a film like this), except for the fact that Madonna actually did conspire with a doctor to kill the older gentleman because her sexual powers make it so that she can get “any man to do anything she wants”—her words. Then, she is shot through a window by the doctor she conspired with and dies. Oops. Roll credits. 

Throughout the film, Madonna pouts and vamps like Dracula forced into Veronica Lake drag. The misogyny coursing through the veins of the film is enough to OD on, though this isn’t entirely shocking when you consider the entire takeaway of the movie is that beauty is criminal and good pussy is a weapon wielded by women with nothing else to offer. One need not stretch their imagination too far to imagine Ben Shapiro’s reaction to seeing Madonna dominate Willem Dafoe sexually with Yankee Candle’s fall-scented inventory. She’s a harlot, an unrepentant slut, says the film. And like any woman without a visible halo hovering above her head in the ‘90s, you bet she gets what she deserves in the end. It doesn’t matter if Madonna caused her older lover’s heart attack or not—the minute she’s put on trial, she is guilty of having too much agency. In this sense, the film is like any other male-directed ‘90s erotic thriller that encourages you to ogle its main actress before sledgehammering you to death about how good women don’t have vocal fry or own dark clothing. Even the film’s attempts at positioning Madonna as a “strong woman” are reduced to her position in the bedroom. The film operates on the working thesis that if you are a woman and you like to fuck on top, you’ve probably killed before. To this, I say: sure, why not. 

And of course, she does murder her lover. Not with sex, but with cocaine-infused poppers. And because she is guilty, she must die. Brutally, in fact. The final shots of the film feature Madonna blasted through a glass window into dark bay waters below—did I mention she lives in a houseboat? In the end, while she avoids jail time in court, she can’t outrun the entitlement of men who view her sexuality as synonymous with depravity.

If this all sounds too dour and depressing for a wine-and-cheese night at home, I promise you that Body of Evidence succeeds on a level of awfulness that needs to be seen to be believed, brie or not. While the misogyny in the film comprises most of its DNA, it features so outlandishly, is so totally devoid of subtlety or intelligence as to become subversively genius. If the point of the film is to critique the misogyny it so bluntly creates, it fails with aplomb. It’s almost admirable, how the film wants so badly for its viewers to buy into its warped visions of femininity, to glimpse some fragment of selfhood in the turgid waters we watch Madonna’s corpse float in. In fact, my refusal to include Madonna’s character’s name here is because I refuse to make the same mistake the film does—I refuse to acknowledge any of these characters as concrete, three-dimensional human beings. They are not. They are merely variables in this strange, overblown sex Olympics hiding out in the human condition’s clothing. The magic of the film, then, is simple. It foams at the mouth. It’s as hollow as the center of a fleshlight, as the feeling after using one. Body of Evidence is a small, disgusting wonder. Like a Reddit user posting Pepe memes under any display of womanly confidence, its impact on the culture is microscopic, laughably non-existent. What survives is Madonna, that vital organ pumping lifeblood into the film’s otherwise rampant decay. She dies in the film, but she’s also the only reason it lives on in my imagination.

In Susan Sontag’s seminal essay “Notes on Camp,” she states: “In naïve, or pure, Camp, the essential element is seriousness, a seriousness that fails.” In my mind, naïve Camp is the best camp because it is unaware of itself as Camp. Like an acquaintance that isn’t funny, but is funny to be around (an important distinction), naïve Camp shimmies with abandon, unaware that its goals are too lofty, too out there to inspire straight faces. In trying to make an “important statement,” texts that fall under naïve Camp tend to feel vapid in the most delicious sense, sour candy with little depth but sweet enough to frack some holes in your teeth.

On the other hand, deliberate Camp, Camp that tries explicitly to be considered Camp, ends up smelling a bit like 2019’s Met Gala, a confusing disaster I’m convinced I fever dreamed after eating one too many edible gummies. Besides being an occasion where the most high-profile celebrities inadvertently revealed to the public that they don’t read, the clear deliberateness with which Camp had been thrust upon us viewers on Twitter—and for the most part incorrectly—felt too curated to be surprising or enjoyable. That being said, the event wasn’t completely devoid of naïve Camp. We did get one shining example: Karlie Kloss looking Camp right in the eye, before delivering one of the most flaccid looks that carpet had ever seen. The confident air Kloss brought to the assignment, paired with the utter failure to follow the prompt, constituted the purest form of Camp 2019 could offer us. It is an iconic moment that lives on in infamy. Every year, Kloss resurfaces on the timeline, one eye captured in her concealer’s oval mirror as a ghost of Met Galas past. In other words, retrospective Camp, naïve to the core. In trying to achieve one thing, she achieved something entirely different, something the world (but mostly me) could partake in with ravenous glee. 

This is also how I view Body of Evidence. I believe the film is an example of naïve Camp, a serious film failing utterly to convince the viewer to buy into its framing of self. Body of Evidence is so convinced of the importance of its message about misogyny, that women are viewed as objects by men and are punished for their sexuality every time they so much as try to exert dominance over their circumstances, that it fails to see how it recycles the same tired tropes of the erotic thriller by punishing its central woman to death. The film’s attempts at dark and sensual aesthetic-making are stifled by piss-poor lighting—has a courtroom ever been so unconvincingly tailored as to cast Madonna’s face in constant shadow?—dialogue so bad it makes Shyamalan read like Donna Tartt, and incomprehensible scenes of flirtation between its stars that could double as AI communication test demos. At one point, Madonna’s character asks Willem’s lawyer “Have you ever seen animals make love to each other, Frank? It’s intense. It’s violent.” “We’re not animals,” he replies. “Yes, we are,” she retorts. And that, my friends, is how I met your mother. 

Even the casting of Madonna, a figure one could argue is both naïve and deliberate, is Camp to the bone. One need not look further than the tackiness of her Hard Candy album art as proof. Featuring Madonna snatched in a WWE-esque belt while licking her hand wrap with a lollipop backdrop, deliberate doesn’t get more deliberate. As she neared her 50s in 2008, the album art was a clear provocation to the generally straight-minded public at the time, and the message of the image was simple: sex appeal has no expiration date. However, the underlying thesis of the image also seemed to suggest: neither does garishness. Explaining the art to Entertainment Weekly, Madonna summed it up best: “I’m gonna kick your ass, but it’s going to make you feel good.” It doesn’t get more deliberate than that.

But the Madonna in Body of Evidence is naïve Camp at its best. Watching the film, it’s clear Madonna thinks she’s in a “serious thriller.” The utter sincerity with she delivers lines like “That’s what I do; I fuck. And it made me $8 million!” is symptomatic of an actress unaware of just how much the camera gawks at her character with shoddy, objectifying angles. The humorlessness of the film ends up spotlighting its ridiculousness, thereby dragging it in a circle with a dominatrix leash all the way back to being funny again. Upon its release, critics noted the utter lack of chemistry between its leads. I argue that this sparkless eroticism serves the film’s campy exterior and explicit lack of interior. In a film where Madonna’s beauty is the source of so much chaos, Willem’s straining to appear seduced causes him to look always on the verge of aneurysm. This seems counter to what the film wants us to believe—that Madonna’s seduction prowess is inescapable, a black widow’s snare. But the graveness with which he simulates sex immediately contradicts this. A performance akin to a tectonic plate cosplay, Dafoe turns himself and his co-lead into two soulless masses with one united goal: to create friction no matter the cost.

Ultimately, to view Body of Evidence through the lens of Camp is to acknowledge the film’s aesthetic merits despite its emotional ineptitude. The phrase “style over substance” is often used as a criticism for films that invest too much into the spectacle of the narrative over the emotional depth found within. But when looked at through the lens of Camp, this criticism falls flat. Camp is, after all, an aesthetic mode, or a “vision,” as Sontag states. Watching film through a Camp-tinged filter—this is an underrated act of restoration. Spinning trash into trash brushed with gold leaf. Dignity be damned. And so if Body of Evidence is worth anything, it is worth the depraved joy it inspires in me, if no one else. The misogyny is too clownish, too obviously exaggerated to inspire discourse requiring an ounce of sincerity. Madonna’s presence serves to amplify its spectacle, its dirty, wax-stained glamor, and Willem serves to undercut it, leaving us, as viewers, stranded in the film’s strange purgatory, straddling the sex ropes between grime and glitter, solemnity and flamboyance. In the end, Body of Evidence deserves critical re-evaluation if only to drive home its status in my mind as the Karlie Kloss of the Erotic Thriller: a film so delusional it has become, over time, a work of accidental genius.