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Years before intimacy coordinators on Hollywood sets, there was the 1996 film Bound

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Before "The Matrix" turned Wachowski siblings Lana and Lilly into famous directors, they shattered Hollywood sex and gender norms in their 1996 debut "Bound." The film received a Criterion Collection reissue this past week, and as NPR's Isabella Gomez Sarmiento reports, it continues to break boundaries for how mainstream cinema treats lesbian relationships. And a quick note for parents - this story is about four minutes long and includes discussion of sex.

ISABELLA GOMEZ SARMIENTO, BYLINE: Susie Bright still remembers the letter she received in the 1990s. It was from two aspiring film directors who were fans of her book, "Susie Sexpert's Lesbian Sex World." They'd used it as inspiration in a script. So would Susie be willing to make a cameo in their upcoming movie?

SUSIE BRIGHT: Yeah, I was flattered. I was like, well, sure, and I hate to be rude, but the lesbian community is so sick of being twisted by Hollywood and is so defensive about all the garbage that gets put out there.

GOMEZ SARMIENTO: So she made a proposition.

BRIGHT: If I may be so bold, could I be your little helper on creating these characters in these sex scenes? Because I noticed that that part's rather bare on the page.

GOMEZ SARMIENTO: The Wachowskis agreed. So decades before Hollywood brought in intimacy coordinators to help choreograph and navigate sex scenes, Susie Bright took great care in making "Bound" an authentic lesbian thriller. The neo noir follows Corky, a criminal turned contractor who's hired to fix up an apartment after she's released from prison. She quickly meets the next door neighbors, a gangster, and his girlfriend, Violet, who makes her intentions clear.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BOUND")

GINA GERSHON: (As Corky) What are you doing?

JENNIFER TILLY: (As Violet) Isn't it obvious? I'm trying to seduce you.

GOMEZ SARMIENTO: The two quickly fall in love and into bed, not necessarily in that order. The film's main sex scene, filmed in one shot, takes place within the first 20 minutes. Bright says that immediacy was essential to the plot.

BRIGHT: These are two women who met in an elevator, sized each other up, got some very big surprises that led them to commit the perfect crime and to trust each other in ways that wouldn't have happened if this sexual intimacy hadn't exploded within the first, you know, day of their acquaintance.

GOMEZ SARMIENTO: Violet, played by a Marilyn Monroe-esque Jennifer Tilly, quickly convinces Gina Gershon's gritty Corky to help her swindle a small fortune from her boyfriend. A twisted story full of tension, blood, and betrayal ensues. Bright says that while lesbian films of the time, like "Desert Hearts" and "Go Fish," focused on romantic love, they lacked suspense and eroticism. "Bound" packed a heavy punch of both, through...

REBEKAH WIGGINS: Breathwork, eye contact, longer touches, tone of voice even.

GOMEZ SARMIENTO: That's Rebekah Wiggins, an intimacy coordinator in the film industry today.

WIGGINS: Jennifer Tilly is a great example of sexuality and vocal tone.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BOUND")

TILLY: (As Violet) You seem uncomfortable. Do I make you nervous, Corky?

GERSHON: (As Corky) No.

GOMEZ SARMIENTO: Since "Bound" came out, its place in the queer cannon has been redefined. The Wachowskis, at the time of "Bound's" release, were known as male directors. Some critics alleged that the film used lesbianism for shock value. Years later, Lana and Lilly Wachowski came out as trans women. Here's queer film historian Elizabeth Purchell.

ELIZABETH PURCHELL: I think the perception of the film at the time was like, God, these two straight men are making this, like, nasty lesbian movie where we're the villains, to now, like, here's these two closeted trans women making this, like, hot lesbian neo noir.

GOMEZ SARMIENTO: Presenting "Bound" at a screening much later, Lana Wachowski explained that she was moved to write the script after growing frustrated with how queer people were constantly depicted as serial killers or basket cases in movies. In "Bound," Violet and Corky are not saints, but there's no big bad punishment waiting for them on the other side.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BOUND")

TILLY: (As Violet) We make our own choices. We pay our own prices. I think we're more alike than you care to admit.

GOMEZ SARMIENTO: After "Bound," Susie Bright thought Hollywood would come knocking on her door to help make sex scenes sexy, but that did not happen, and it's something the industry still struggles with today, says Rebekah Wiggins.

WIGGINS: Everyone is nervous and scared of sex.

GOMEZ SARMIENTO: Both Wiggins and Susie Bright agree that crafting those scenes intentionally is essential to making movies.

BRIGHT: If you take the time and you take care to build your erotic scene so it supports the characters in the plot, you're going to have something that electrifies your audience and that isn't a gratuitous joke.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BOUND")

GERSHON: (As Corky) You know what the difference is between you and me, Violet?

TILLY: (As Violet) No.

GERSHON: (As Corky) Me neither.

GOMEZ SARMIENTO: And like Corky and Violet, it opens doors for more characters to be gay, do crime, and ride off into the sunset.

Isabella Gomez Sarmiento, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHE'S A LADY")

TOM JONES: (Singing) Well, she's all you'd ever want. She's the kind I like to flaunt and take to dinner. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Isabella Gomez Sarmiento is a production assistant with Weekend Edition.