What is a thriller? What does it mean to thrill? To be thrilled? Sally Potter’s short film Thriller (1979) frames these questions within the context of gender and narrative by examining the circumstances surrounding the death of Mimi, the tragic heroine of Puccini’s La Boheme. Potter’s film begins with Mimi realizing that she is dead and setting out to investigate how and why she came to be that way. She arrives at the conclusion that she has been killed for the sake of the plot, in order that her beloved—as well as the audience—can get off on the spectatorial pleasure that attends her untimely death. Dead women make for good stories.
The relationship between the dead woman and the good story is Potter’s subject, which structures itself as a detective story. Like all detective stories, Thriller is about epistemology. Unlike other detective stories, however, Thriller makes no bones about the fact that its surface-level investigation of a murder is actually an investigation into narrative convention. Thriller could be called a piece of feminist film theory written in images rather than in prose, to be placed alongside the writings of Laura Mulvey, Kaja Silverman, Teresa de Lauretis, Molly Haskell, and others who first became active in the 1970s and ’80s. Potter is specifically interested in the trope of the beautiful dead woman—what Poe, one of the masters of the “thriller” genre (and the progenitor of the detective story) called the most poetic subject imaginable. (Fittingly, his corpus is veritably littered with the bodies of beautiful dead women.) Potter’s film is thus not only a “thriller” by virtue of its being a murder-mystery-like inquiry into Mimi’s death: it is also about the role that women’s deaths play in thrillers like “The Fall of the House of Usher,” or The Big Sleep, or Psycho (the musical score from which Potter quotes winkingly).
Or La Boheme, which Potter suggests may itself be a thriller. Lush and romantic, La Boheme’s thrills are of a different sort than those of Psycho or Edgar Allan Poe’s fiction. Or are they? Potter suggests that the trope of the dead woman provides a narrative thrill that cuts across genres and art forms, nations and centuries. The audience that thrilled to Mimi’s death at the premiere of La Boheme is the same audience that first thrilled to the death of Marion Crane in the shower in 1960—and, because both La Boheme and Psycho have become canonized, timeless, audiences continue to watch Mimi and Marion die over and over again into the twentieth century. This thrill is perhaps not related to fear or terror at all (even though the designator “thriller” is often used as shorthand for a tale of mystery or suspense), but rather to the frisson of pain and pleasure that we are coached into experiencing when we bear witness to the death of something beautiful, desirable, innocent, young, female. In other words, the woman’s death is the source of the spectatorial thrill that we experience in La Boheme, Psycho, or any number of other cultural texts with a female corpse as their centerpiece, from Wordsworth’s Lucy poems to Twin Peaks.