I’ve seen a lot of trash on Netflix. I mean, haven’t we all? But it seems like the trending bar has become increasingly unhinged lately — whether because of some shadowy curation behind the scenes or because we’re collectively seeking out ever-wilder stuff as the drudgery of pandemic isolation marches on, I have no idea. What I do know, though: Deadly Illusions is the absolute trashiest I’ve come across yet.
The so-called erotic thriller (it’s neither erotic nor thrilling) debuted earlier this month and was the streamer’s most-watched movie on its opening weekend. Kristin Davis plays Mary, a bestselling novelist struggling with writer’s block who hires a nanny to keep her kids out of the way while she’s working. Grace (Greer Grammer) seems at first like a godsend, keeping house and occupying the children while Mary assembles her outline and smokes a baffling number of cigars. Mary takes a personal liking to Grace, insisting she come with her to go fancy lingerie shopping (???). Soon, Mary starts to sexually fantasize about the nanny, and then they actually start hooking up on the sly — or do they? The further Mary delves into her book project, the less she’s able to distinguish fiction from reality.
The movie, written and directed by Anna Elizabeth James, could have been cringey but campy, bad enough that it swings back around to good. The makings were there. Who wouldn’t want to see prim and proper Charlotte York transported from the Upper East Side on Sex and the City to a get it on with a younger woman in a bonkers psychosexual drama? At first, I was all in. When Grace pours a pitcher of milk into Mary’s bath, tosses in some rose petals for good measure, and starts to touch her employer beneath the water, I screamed at my television.
But the more we learn about Mary and Grace’s respective mental issues — it’s a troubling depiction of people with psychological disorders, to say the least — the more dull and even repellent I found the whole sordid project. Deadly Illusions traffics in decades-old tropes about the murderous queer seducer who worms her way into the nuclear family and attempts to destroy it from within. Grace is a sweet, innocent schoolgirl with bows in her hair one minute, a midriff-bearing jezebel the next. Turns out — spoiler, if you care — that Grace’s Madonna-whore complex is due to a horribly portrayed dissociative identity disorder born of severe childhood trauma. She isn’t only coming on to Mary but also her husband Tom (Dermot Mulroney), who’s as oafishly useless at batting away her advances as he is at her eventual attempt at literally slicing him to pieces. (“One thing you should know about me, Tom, is that I’m completely insane. And I always get what I want!”)
The justification for Mary’s interest in Grace is maddeningly typical. “I see so much of myself when I look at you,” she says to Grace during one of their trysts. Huh?? We’re given no real reason to believe that Grace (blonde, repressed, a would-be murderer) is anything like Mary at all. “I hope when I’m older I look as good as you,” she murmurs to Mary at another steamy juncture. Speaking for myself here, but my attraction to older women has absolutely nothing to do with my own hang-ups about aging gracefully and everything to do with the fact that older women are hot!
I am so bored of lesbian romances onscreen being portrayed as little else but feminine power plays of an older and younger woman seeing reflections of their past or future selves in one another. Rather than falling in love or lust because they’re actually interested in the other person in front of them, these characters — like so, so many before them — are only invested in seeing (and sleeping with) versions of themselves. The symbol of the lesbian doppelgänger can be a fun and even fascinating exploration of self-identification and queer desire. But when it’s poorly and lazily deployed, it reveals a fundamental refusal to treat queer characters
and, by extension, the real-life queer women they represent — as fully human.
To round out the movie’s offensiveness, the only Black character, Mary’s friend Elaine, gets killed near the end (Shanola Hampton, you deserve better!!!), and we’re forced to watch Grace’s former foster mother kicking a dog, her casual cruelty seemingly chalked up to her being of a lower socioeconomic class and not knowing any better. With the addition of this piece of Grace’s personal history — she grew up abused and penniless — we’re left to conclude that poor queers with mental issues (who are only queer, of course, because they were abused) are intent on destroying straight wealthy people’s way of life. (Grace wasn’t ever actually hired by the nanny-pairing business Mary sought for care, which infuriated her; Grace thought it might have been because she’s “not fancy” enough, therefore adding the fuel of class resentment to the fire.)
I get pretty tired, as a critic, of pointing out -isms in pieces of popular culture. My problem isn’t just the many ways Deadly Illusions recycles insulting tropes about everyone in it who isn’t wealthy and white without bothering to explore or subvert them. My problem is that yet another badly written, badly acted piece of garbage got top billing on one of the biggest streaming platforms in the world. I’m tired of Netflix churning out optimized junk that will scandalize and titillate but mostly just waste everybody’s time. Sure, we might have more of it on hand than usual until the world fully opens up again, but my time and yours are still precious and valuable. Even for our so-bad-its-fun watches, we deserve better than this. ●
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