Naked Ambition

Eva, Ava and Weaponized Sex Appeal in Sin City: A Dame to Kill For

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We see Eva Green a lot in Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, and we see a lot of her, too. She’s so naked so often that her bared bust might end up being the most significant visual through line in the film. After a while, the allure of her exposed body cools and becomes commonplace. Like the torrents of whitewashed blood Robert Rodriguez splashes across frame after violent frame, Green’s overexposure becomes too much of a good thing.

At this point, it’s worth acknowledging the handful of elephants crammed in the corner: Eva Green is a mesmeric screen beauty, has a stunning figure and is a tremendous actress. Talking about her in A Dame to Kill For without sounding like a drooling perv is tricky (especially for male audience members), in part because her character, Ava Lord, is a veritable avatar of temptation and deception, and in part because, again, she’s in the buff for a huge chunk of her screen time. It’s well and good to make jokes about how Rodriguez wears out the welcome of her proffered physicality, but there’s a line, and stepping over it risks the commentary drifting into boorish objectification.

And that’s just not the type of reaction Ava’s looking for. She’s the type of woman who turns men into slaves; we’re told as much by her servant, the hulking, eloquent Manute, and we see as much in her many and sundry plots and schemes to bend A Dame to Kill For’s boys to her will. Were she to read her clips from the weekend’s onslaught of critic reviews, she probably wouldn’t know what to do with herself. The thought that her body could lose its effect on the coarser sex might strike her as petrifying. So at a glance, it appears that Rodriguez has utterly failed his film’s chief villainess by diffusing her sexuality.

But there’s a catch: we’re the audience, and we’re privy not only to the truth of Ava’s machinations but also to her methods. Sex is her armor and her armament all in one. We understand that even when the film’s male contingent doesn’t (or when they’re on the verge of forgetting). If watching Green’s lithe frame slink around from scene to scene becomes old hat fast, it’s only because we’re the beneficiaries of perspective. Ava’s sexiness becomes much less sexy when we’re given the full disingenuous panorama of her character. Nobody else in the film is given a window to observe her duplicity, save for perhaps Dwight McCarthy (though even for him, remembering her modus operandi requires a mighty struggle).

A Dame to Kill For isn’t a movie most will credit with much by way of brains, but kudos where kudos are due: In casting Green, Rodriguez struck gold. She vamps it up like cinema royalty, perfectly conveying the breadth of Ava’s faked desire and inner tedium without missing a beat. She plays with Dwight and doomed detective Mort like a cat with a mouse, but we can tell that she’s screaming out of sheer boredom on the inside. It’s damn near impossible to imagine another actress in the role, or at least an actress who has the same level of self confidence in her body that Ava does. Green flaunts, but never more than she needs to; she teases, but just enough to charm.

The more we get to know Ava, the more we see through her act (and by extension Green’s, as well). And the more we pierce that veil, the less that we appreciate the titillating thrill of seeing Green prowl around au naturel. It’s replaced with a growing respect for her gamesmanship. As she luxuriates in her tub, Ava effortlessly persuades Mort away from his wife to her side in the middle of the night. She knows what he needs from her—a show of fragility—and in just a few lines of dialogue she spins him a woeful skein that robs him of his senses, all the while wearing an expression so casual she might as well be plucking her eyebrows.

Such is the power of her femininity. Ava ends up destroying Mort (and shattering his family, though we do not see that consequence play out in the film) without hardly lifting a finger. Poor Mort makes the same fatal mistake as Damien Lord and Dwight: they underestimate her. Ever the predator, she toys with them before eating them alive.

Throughout the film, Rodriguez goes out of his way to adorn Ava in little and less clothing, and to frame her in the most revealing light possible. (Without offending the MPAA too much, of course, though A Dame to Kill For’s “R” label says volumes in that regard.) The obvious intention is to both get the boys in the audience percolating and bring the film’s more susceptible men to their knees. (Even Marv, the unstoppable killing machine and Rodriguez’s deus ex machina in all but one of his micro narratives, shows immediate weakness for her when he drops the film’s title into his dialogue.) It’s a kind of shock tactic. America still has a weird, complex relationship with nudity in visual media, finding hyper violence less objectionable by far; Green’s presence here may have done more to secure the film’s rating than any amount of decapitations.

Beneath that veneer of provocation, though, there’s a comment about the human form and vulnerability. We’re never more vulnerable than when we’re naked; to cover up that vulnerability, we deck ourselves out in coordinated, accessorized ensembles every time we go out for work or for play in accordance with our societal norms. We match our colors. We pick out complimentary accoutrements. We don the right set of kicks. But when Ava is naked, she’s practically invincible. Unlike most of us, she’s in full control of her sex, so she knows better than anyone else what profound effects mere nudity can have on a person. Forget about fashion trends, she owns the room by using only the gifts God gave her. Most of A Dame to Kill For’s warrior types wield guns and knifes. Ava has no need for either.

Ultimately, that’s what makes her so lethal. She engages her opponents on her terms rather than theirs. Most of the men (and quite a few of the women) of Frank Miller’s world are violent and combative, but Ava isn’t a traditional combatant—she’s not raising any fisticuffs here—but she’s still a threat. She’s climbing Basin City’s elite ladder by cozying up to mob heavies in her quest for agency, employing the most effective weapons she has at her disposal—her body and her wiles. She’s so proficient with both that she almost makes Dwight forget that she (metaphorically) stabbed him in the back and (literally) shot him in the front not an hour earlier by the time their chapter winds down to its conclusion.

Really, Ava is just the latest iteration of Vivian Rutledge, Phyllis Dietrichson, Cora Smith, Anna Schmidt, and so many other black widows of legend; she knows what she wants and she gets it using sex. It’s impossible to ignore the fact that A Dame to Kill For is built on a whole lot of male gazing, but Ava’s pastiche of influences matters just as much as who’s in charge behind the camera (if not more so). Green is sexy, yes, and she’s very much sexualized. At first, she’s a piece of meat Rodriguez puts on display in his charcuterie window. But as the film goes on, Ava gains ground and becomes an increasingly dominant force within her cinematic world. Eventually, the male gaze blurs and all of the libidinal pleasures of watching Green strut her stuff subside. Courting her means taking your life into your hands.

Nudity holds a number of meanings in Sin City: A Dame to Kill For. It points to the male power structure (both within the film and without) that sexualizes women for entertainment. It’s an indicator of status. Sometimes, it’s just there to start our blood pumping. But for Ava Lord, nudity is a path to sovereignty. We’re with her on that path as she slowly reveals herself not as a damsel in distress but as a ruthless, sexually empowered, aspiring mob matriarch. It’s exciting for a while, her unabashed sensuality, but as the curtain pulls back we slowly come to understand what Ava’s prurience is really all about. Maybe Rodriguez hasn’t made Eva Green’s boobs boring after all. Maybe he’s just made them dangerous.

Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film and TV on the web since 2009. You can follow him on Twitter.

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