1996, R, 119 min. Directed by Susan Streitfield. Starring Tilda Swinton, Amy Madigan, Karen Sillas, Frances Fisher, Laila Robins, Paulina Porizkova, Clancy Brown, Dale Shuger.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., May 23, 1997
Strange bedfellows, indeed. Female Perversions is a movie which, by all conventional wisdom, should not work. Yet it not only works, it accomplishes something thoroughly original. Female Perversions is the most intelligent, entertaining, provocative, absorbing, and, yes, feminist movie to grace our theatres in quite some time. Hardly the salacious kinkathon that the title suggests, the movie definitely has its erotic aspects but they're all there to service the movie's line of inquiry into how social conditioning shapes the female psyche. The movie's title is the same as that of the non-fiction book which inspired the first-time director Susan Streitfield. The book is a theoretical study by psychoanalyst Louise J. Kaplan that examines the ways in which the very act of being female in society is in itself a perversion. Since women are conditioned by stereotyping and gender expectations against deviating from the “norms,” Kaplan argues that a woman's life is a constant strategic negotiation. It's this that she regards as the perversion. All women engage in perverse behaviors or strategies; the only differences are where they fall on the scale of perversion. The movie, however, is a fictional narrative, not a documentary or essay. Anchored as it is in such weighty premises and provocations, it is no small accomplishment that the film succeeds in creating such an engaging narrative and compelling characters, and does it with considerable visual flourish to boot. The amazing Scottish actress Tilda Swinton (Orlando, Edward II) makes her American debut here. Swinton and Amy Madigan play sisters and it's wonderful to see two such thoughtful actresses applying their talents to such difficult material. Swinton's Eve Stephens is a woman who appears to have it all: looks, a high-powered job as an attorney, a handsome and thrilling male lover (Brown), and a beautiful and desirous female lover (Sillas). Her entire demeanor exudes competence and loveliness. Yet in her mind she hears offscreen voices whispering about her fat hips, and we witness her moments of panic as she discreetly obsesses about a loose thread on her hem during an important interview with the governor or stresses over her shade of lipstick. Then, on the eve of her appointment to a court judgeship, the balance of her life begins to crumble. She's called to rescue her sister Maddy, a kleptomaniac and Ph.D. candidate who's defending her dissertation about a matriarchal society in Mexico where all the women grow fat. This introduces Eve into the household where Maddy resides with a broken-hearted woman who runs a bridal shop, the woman's adolescent daughter who has taken to self-injury and cutting herself with razor blades, and the girl's Aunt Annunciata, a stripper. The array of subordinate characters is fascinating, and offers a range of representations of the scale of perversity. But they're also a bit of the problem as well. There's either too much of them or not enough, and the subordinate dramas sometimes take away from the time we want to spend with the central story. The same could be said for Eve's recurrent flashbacks to a childhood incident at her family's swimming pool and her vague yet provocative erotic fantasies. A close-to-all-woman crew crafted this movie at every step of production. (Serving as line producer was Rana Joy Glickman, who was recently in town for the SXSW Film Festival screenings of Real Stories of the Donut Men and Full Tilt Boogie, both of which she produced). Yet, interestingly, Zalman King, who produced and scripted 9 1/2 Weeks and directed Wild Orchid, is credited as Female Perversions' executive producer. Strange bedfellows, I repeat. But, in the case of Female Perversions, strange has proven to be the very best kind. The making of an original piece of theoretical feminist drama such as this surpasses the restrictions of common sense.