Side (1995) is a kinky little straight-to-video film that flew under the
radar upon its initial release. In fact, it’s one of those early career oddities
that fans search out once a star has made it big. I suspect I’m not the only
one who picked up a copy of it when Anne Heche and Ellen DeGeneres made their
big splash as a couple back in 1997.
With its promotional photo of Heche and Joan Chen in a near-naked clinch and
a tagline proclaiming, “Going Too Far was Just the Beginning,” how bad could
Not too bad, as it turns out. The film is a perfect outlet for the sexy/wacky vibe that has always been Heche’s specialty (upcoming Hallmark television movie excluded), and she’s in good company with fellow oddball Christopher Walken and enigmatic Joan Chen.
If you’re willing to endure (or skip altogether) a harrowing rape scene that happens early in the film, you’ll be in for a loopy, erotic treat when Heche and Chen finally meet.
Anne Heche plays Alex, a Long Beach investment banker whose boss
is pressuring her to get frisky with her rich clients in order to get their
business. She’s irritated but not irate at his suggestion. As it turns out,
it takes a lot to ruffle Alex when it comes to sex because she moonlights as
a high-class call girl. One of her clients is charismatic millionaire Bruno
Buckingham (Walken), who likes to talk about his illegal business practices
during their sexcapades.
Bruno is regularly untied after his bondage sessions with Alex
by his sleazy driver Tony (Steven Bauer). He worries that Alex might be an undercover
FBI agent and sends Tony to test her — if she’s a cop, she won’t have sex with
Tony. At Alex’s apartment, Tony reveals that he is the undercover cop
in question, and he rapes her. As far as Tony is concerned, Alex is “shark bait”
for busting Bruno. Tony forces Alex to do official business with Bruno by helping
one of his people open a fake bank account for money-laundering purposes.
It’s Virginia Chow (Joan Chen) who comes to open the account,
claiming it’s for her shoe company (specializing in fetish footwear, naturally).
Alex is immediately charmed by flirty, gorgeous Virginia and the
two are soon out the door for a liquid lunch. They exchange war stories about
love over martinis, and the sexual tension between them escalates. Alex admits,
“I’ve never fallen into, out of, for or against, or anything to do with love.
Sex, I can tell you about. But then we’ve only just met.” Virginia whispers,
“Then why don’t you?”
They head back to the office and make a beeline for the executive
powder room. Inconsequential chit chat about fashion turns into a full-fledged
seduction and Alex surprises herself by pouncing on Virginia. “I’ve never done
that before…” Alex rambles, but then she does it again, and again.
Cut to Alex’s seaside bedroom for a long, steamy sex scene. Later
Alex learns that Virginia was the person sent to the bank by Bruno (she’s his
girlfriend), a fact that will seriously complicate their budding affair.
Bruno wants to cut Alex in on his big business deal (even comically referencing Pretty Woman in the offer), and hopes to replace Virginia with her. But Alex is falling in love with Virginia and devises her own plan to rescue her from Bruno and bankroll their new life together by stealing his money.
What follows is a lot of door slamming, gun brandishing and even a suicide attempt. In all the chaos, Alex manages to con both Bruno and Tony, turning their machismo and self-centeredness against them. Stay tuned for the completely unhinged scene in which Bruno tries to get some Old Testament-style revenge for Alex when he learns that Tony has raped her.
At times the film is hard to follow, with unnecessarily complicated
twists and conversations that circle without ever landing. But the film is never
unwatchable. If anything, it’s a highly stylized showcase for Heche and Walken
to play dueling weirdos — a game that is infinitely entertaining.
I can’t help but wonder if the writer/director’s original vision
of this film was a different animal entirely.
Donald Cammell (Performance, Demon Seed, White Of The Eye)
and his editor were fired from the film before editing was completed, and
Cammell’s name was removed from the initial release altogether. Cammell was
rumored to have been so distraught over the studio’s butchery of his film (in
the name of commercial appeal) that he fell into a deep depression, eventually
leading to his suicide in 1996.
There are no less than three different versions of the film available (if
not hard to get) worldwide, evidence of its convoluted history. Fortunately,
one of those versions is a reconstructed director’s cut, re-edited after Cammell’s
death by one of his associates.
The re-cut has received rave critical reviews, so it’s worth watching if you
can find a copy (unfortunately, it's only available in Region 2).
Perhaps Cammell’s original intention was to create an arty psychosexual
thriller, not the eccentric shriek-fest which the film, at times, becomes. The
Last Seduction (1994) did it better, but then there were no lesbian sex
scenes for studios to excise in that film.
Ultimately, the lesbian love affair in Wild Side is the
only relationship in the film based in mutual desire, or with any depth. In
that sense, it’s a very pro-gay film. And if you’re a fan of any of the principal
players, you’ll probably enjoy it.