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Atomic Blonde: Hollywood's Latest Exploitation of Gender Attraction

Atomic Blonde

Atomic Blonde offers up the queer movie kiss of the year when Charlize Theron as MI6 agent-assassin Lorraine Broughton gets a chick at a nightclub in her gun sight. They’ve both got spy business but the ulterior motive “in da club” is sex. Their eye contact is hot. Theron’s butch fierceness meets its match in full-lipped, soft-eyed Delphine (Sofia Boutella, last seen as evil incarnate in Tom Cruise’s The Mummy) and the two of them go into girl-on-girl action.

Theron and Boutella have the acting chops and movie star glamour to put the pseudo-lesbian showcase Blue is the Warmest Color to shame. Nothing in that film’s bumping-uglies marathon matches this scene’s bitches-in-heat sizzle. 

But something else besides queerness is happening in Atomic Blonde. It is the most recent example of Hollywood exploiting gender attraction—a cunt-tease without the art-movie pretense of Blue is the Warmest Color. Instead of using lesbian sex to dramatize coming-of-age confusion (Blue is the Warmest Color’s heroine eventually retreated into the heterosexual “norm” after she and director Abdellatif Kechiche gave the world a Sapphic freak show), Atomic Blonde is all Eurotrash killing and seduction.

Set in 1989 Berlin, a Cold War update of the sexual netherworld famously depicted in Cabaret, this film—with its '80s pop soundtrack offering Re-Flex’s “The Politics of Dancing” during Theron and Boutella’s lesbian flirtation —combines that era’s pop star androgyny with its spy story’s violent desperation. (It’s based on Antony Johnston’s graphic novel The Coldest City).

Yes, Atomic Blonde is basically a loveless action movie, directed by David (John Wick) Leitch, but it’s also another highly calculated career stunt by Theron. Like Blue is the Warmest Color’s scheming, muff-diving heroine, Theron has obviously considered her options for success. She plays Lorraine like she played Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road—with her eyes set on future merchandizing as an action-figure. It’s not hard to imagine Dior spokeswoman Theron hawking her own brand of Atomic Blonde adult toys among a line of Halloween costumes: platinum blonde wigs, leather coats, red stilettos and assorted drag queen paraphernalia.

Because Atomic Blonde also exploits West German Cold War politics before the fall of the Berlin Wall, gay viewers are entitled to a serious question: Would Germany’s Rainer Werner Fassbinder approve of this trash? Doubtful. Fassbinder’s Stasi-era thriller The Third Generation, about the Baader-Meinhof terrorist gang, combined sexuality and politics in more challenging ways than Atomic Blonde. The Third Generation was proof that not all gays think alike politically. Do all queer females idolize ass-kicking icons like Lorraine and Furiosa? Do all gays think in terms of winning RuPaul’s Drag Race?

Theron’s effort to cater to queer moviegoers is uncomfortably close to co-opting the queer marketplace. Her desperate sexuality is pretty humorless; it needs a camp element. Imagine if the scene where Theron asks Boutella “Why the gun, Delphine?” referred to famous lesbian art-house icon Delphine Seyrig? This would make Atomic Blonde the surprise sequel of the summer: Jeanne Dielmann, Dyke Assassin.

Tags: Armond White

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