"One day, while taking a look at some vistas in Dad's stereopticon, it hit me that I was just this little girl, born in Texas, whose father was a sign painter, who only had just so many years to live. It sent a chill down my spine and I thought, where would I be this very moment, if Kit had never met me? Or killed anybody..."
Holly Sargis [Sissy Spacek] in Badlands, written and directed by Terrence Malick
The ‘fatal couple’ who spark off something deep and dark in each other is a powerful Noir theme which continues to generate gripping new stories.
In its fascination with divided natures and the tendency to self-betrayal, Noir often collapses the Protagonist and Antagonist into one person.
In ‘fatal couple’ stories, though, the object of interest is a dangerous connection between two people – a connection which will probably spell the end for them (and for many of those unlucky enough to cross their path).
The fatal meeting and morbid chemistry between the couple (usually) ensures their doom. Perhaps they really do complete each other – but in a way which enhances their latent drives towards darkness and destruction.
Even though there may be love between them (or at least a strong current of sexual obsession which they regard as love), it’s toxic and destructive: a folie à deux.
Alone, each individual may have remained a dreamer or thwarted fantasist. Together, they can do things they’d never have conceived of even a short time earlier.
They’ve recognised each other, and that has changed everything.
Many new story variations can be found by refining the exact nature of the protagonists’ chemistry:
- Is only one member of the couple truly capable of killing, with the other functioning as their ‘enabler’?
- Do they share the same vision, or are they both mistaking the other for someone else? As in the dreamy voiceovers by Sissy Spacek’s character in Badlands (above).
- Is one of the couple using the other to further their own agenda (Pretty Poison) or are things genuinely mutual? Perhaps the partner who appears to be in control is the one being manipulated?
- Is someone in charge, or is this a truly ‘equal’ relationship? Is one partner underestimating or misunderstanding the intentions of the other?
- What are their motives? Do they feel they have a ‘higher purpose’, or are they cruising on pure devilment?
Although the couple is often composed of a male and a female partner, interesting variations can be found when the protagonists are two males (Rope, In Cold Blood), or two females (Thelma and Louise, Bound). These can be gay or straight, or their orientation may be left ambiguous.
In the case of two women, there may be an element of going up against the patriarchy and defying gender stereotypes by enjoying wild and abandoned behaviour.
The sheer act of defiance represents a kind of victory, even if it leads the characters over a cliff.
Q: How much thematic and narrative mileage can you find in rethinking the sexual dynamics of the subgenre?
How can we find regional variations?
Sightseers is a British variant on the subgenre which takes it in the direction of black comedy. The infringements which drive the couple to murder are incredibly banal, and they are themselves presented as assertively ‘ordinary’.
It’s not quite clear if the couple are really angry about people disregarding the “heritage” qualities of pencil museums, trams and standing stones, or if it’s all just an excuse to unleash their own pent-up frustrations.
However, the theme of an partnership that, for a variety of possible reasons, speeds its members towards darkness and doom seems relevant to all cultures (a French example is Jean Cocteau's Les Enfants Terribles, which - like Dead Ringers - concerns the toxic relationship between two siblings; Heavenly Creatures a variant from New Zealand).
Using true stories
American filmmakers seem more apt to base movies on their own recent history. In Cold Blood was made soon after the execution of the murderers, and was actually shot in the very locations where the real-life action had occurred a few years earlier. The Leopold and Loeb case inspired Rope and Compulsion, as well as the more recent films Funny Games and Swoon.
The Moors Murders were a real-life British Fatal Couple whose story was filmed as the British TV mini-series See No Evil.
Q: Can you think of more local variations on the Fatal Couple genre?
Come to our NEO NOIR WORKSHOP on July 8 to find much more inspiration from this blisteringly contemporary genre.
More films to check out in the subgenre: Natural Born Killers, Bonnie and Clyde, Gun Crazy, You Only Live Once, They Drive By Night...