03 November 2008
The romanticizing of the gangster figure in Bonnie and Clyde seems to be primarily shaped by the transformation of the gangster from tough-guy to sex symbol. The importance of Bonnie and Clyde as sexual figures is apparent from the first shot of Bonnie's red, pouty lips in extreme close-up, which is followed by her naked back. Though it is not directly stated, the restlessness Bonnie feels in her room seems to come from a sexual need - as if she is waiting in bed for someone. Paired with this sexual pulse is a narcissistic self-consciousness of Bonnie's own image. From that initial setting of the bedroom there is a mirror and a smaller one accompanies Bonnie everywhere else, as Bonnie touches up her lips or straightens her hair. The importance of image also applies to Clyde, whose dark blue suit and white hat betray his narcissism. The matchstick in his mouth does not light a cigarette, but is merely an accessory to add to his image.
The gangster has always been a self-conscious screen figure. The importance of nice suits, material excess (Tony "Scarface" Camonte wants to wear a new shirt every day), and a public lifestyle defined their need for and acquisition of success. This emphasis on image is directly affected by the relationship the gangster has with newspaper headlines. The self-consciousness of Bonnie and Clyde, however, goes a little further than those early screen gangsters. Unlike Tony Camonte, Tom Powers, or Cody Jarrett, Bonnie and Clyde know that they will die. Their awareness of their imminent death (confirmed especially by Bonnie's ballad) suggests that every action they make constitutes towards the establishment of their legend. From the very beginning, Clyde is aware that he is forming his story as he admits, "We rob banks" before they actually do. In the same way, Bonnie insists on taking a picture with Hamer in order to inform the world that the Barrow gang are a nice bunch - she constructs their personality through a decision rather than acting spontaneously.
Since Bonnie and Clyde are aware of their fate, as is the audience, the central dramatic conflict does not really derive from their lives as gangsters. Instead, Penn focuses on the drama of Bonnie and Clyde as lovers. As suggested before, Clyde's arrival in Bonnie's life offers Bonnie the sexual fulfillment she seeks. This sexual fulfillment is a mix of violence and lust, as suggested by a shot of Bonnie stroking Clyde pistol in the street. Clyde's impotence, then, really serves as the central conflict of the film and it is only when Bonnie and Clyde can be united sexually that the central tension is resolved. This resolution, however, is not solely dependent upon a successful night in bed for Clyde because his impotence can only be overcome by the fulfillment of his legend. By fulfilling his self-created myths, substantialized through Bonnie's ballad in the press, Clyde is able to finally sexually fulfill Bonnie and provide a resolution to the central conflict and thus closure for the film before their inevitable death. I would sugges that this mix of self-created myth, violence, and sexuality is at the core of the film, each element existing to provide for the other two.
Unlike other urban and rural screen gangster, then, Bonnie and Clyde appear to have a type of happy ending through their sexual union. It is something that cannot be taken away from them, unlike their life. Thus, to have Bonnie and Clyde die in such a violent way at the film's finale results in a mixture of contradictory feelings. On the one hand we know it is inevitable, yet we feel angry at the severity of their death at hands of the cold, faceless Hamer. At the same time, however, we know they will die and can be somewhat satisfied that they at least were able to fulfill their sexual needs and establish their myth. The manner of their death is also a contradiction between violence and beauty; as they are riddled with bullets, Bonnie and Clyde's bodies seem to even dance in balletic movement as they turn to face each other one last time, confirming their eternal love. Though they are punished for their deeds, like all other gangsters, Bonnie and Clyde are heavily romanticized through their love story and their sexuality which make them tragic victims even more than those others gangsters.