As the icy blond seductress in Body of Evidence, Madonna seems like a different person from the playfully sexy pop star who made her screen debut eight years ago in Desperately Seeking Susan. In that movie, she had an exuberant, trampy insolence. Susan the bohemian street princess may not have been much of a role, but Madonna, flashing her navel and tossing her luxurious punk-lioness mane, conveyed pleasure in everything she did. She was imperious yet inviting, her ruby-red smirk both a tease and a come-on a luscious advertisement for sin.
Now, the exuberance the sensual invitation is gone. In Body of Evidence, she looks lacquered and remote; her flat, bored, strictly-business line readings make her seem less like a sex goddess than an accountant. She probably thinks she's doing a Barbara Stanwyck smoldering-on-the-inside number, and since all she gets right is the cold exterior, many will seize upon her zomboid performance as definitive proof that Madonna Can't Act. Still, what's most notable about Madonna here isn't her limited skill; it's her joylessness, her lack of presence. Where's the wit and naughtiness she used to parade on talk shows? In Body of Evidence, as in the pseudo-porn scrapbook Sex and the album Erotica, she turns herself into an S&M ideologue the grim apostle of high kink.
A preposterous erotic thriller from the Basic Instinct fingernails-ripped-my-flesh school, Body of Evidence is shamelessly and, on occasion, amusingly unadulterated trash. The movie is studded with sadomasochistic sex scenes that are meant to be daring and outré but that come off as merely frigid (call me a fuddy-duddy, but watching Madonna pour hot candle wax on Willem Dafoe's genitals didn't exactly get my pulse racing). Madonna plays Rebecca Carlson, a Portland, Ore., art-gallery owner whose rich, older lover has died of a heart attack following a night of strenuous sex. Dafoe is Frank Dulaney, the hapless defense attorney whom Rebecca introduces to the dark delights of bondage, pain, and sex in abandoned parking garages. In the will, Rebecca is listed as chief beneficiary, and she admits she pushed her lover into wilder and wilder bedroom antics. As a result, she is dragged into court. On what charge? That, among other things, she literally screwed him to death.
The whole premise is ludicrous. How could killing somebody through sexual intercourse possibly be illegal? Rebecca's erotic tastes may run to the exotic (acupuncture, home videotapes, handcuffs), but it's not as if she forced her lover to get overly excited. True, she's accused of slipping cocaine into his nasal-spray bottle. But if that's the real crime, the movie never justifies dragging the lurid details of her sex life into court. In essence, it's Madonna's sexuality that's being put on trial here. Body of Evidence is really asking: Should Rebecca/Madonna be punished for being a bad girl, or did she do it all yes, even the nipple clamps for love? The movie cuts back and forth between the trial, which is presided over by a comically self-righteous judge (she's the real dominatrix), and the freeze-dried sensationalism of the sex scenes between Madonna and Dafoe. The German-born director Uli Edel (Last Exit to Brooklyn) keeps it all bouncing along with a seasoned hack's junky solemnity.
Dafoe, stuck in the role of a good husband who can't help straying, has to convince us that Frank is fatally hooked on Rebecca's control-freak sex games. Mostly, Dafoe just looks distressed spiritually whipped. Rebecca starts out by tying Frank's hands behind his back with his own belt. Then they're on to hot wax and sex on a car hood (which looks good until Dafoe lies down ouch! on shattered glass). Body of Evidence follows up on the theme that has run through Madonna's recent work: that kinkiness and transgression represent the truest, most naked form of human sexuality that only by giving in to forbidden impulses can you ''justify'' someone's love. Whether or not there's any validity to this, it seems clear that sadomasochism, which Susan Sontag described as ''a staging of sexuality,'' has little erotic impact on film. It comes off as too rigid and controlled. In Body of Evidence, we seem to be watching not sex at all but some staid, pain-flavored ritual. The only vaguely erotic moment comes when Frank turns the tables on Rebecca and she accepts her submissive position with a surprising smile. It's the one encounter between them that actually feels spontaneous.
The movie completes the process Madonna began last year with the release of Erotica and Sex: She has taken her vision of sexuality sadomasochism as a feminist power trip completely out of the closet, stripping it of any hint of romantic suggestion. The result, I'm afraid, is that it has lost all its mystery as well. The Madonna who once celebrated sin as a heady, liberating force, a way of lovers opening themselves up to each other, now transforms erotic passion into something cold, forbidding, aristocratic. In her hands, sex suddenly seems like school (with Madonna as the whip-cracking headmistress). Watching Body of Evidence, you wonder if she'll ever feel like a virgin again. C