Weird And Relentlessly Abtruse, 'Female Perversions' Flounders.
By Stacey Richter
ONE OF THE notes I wrote to myself while watching Female Perversions says, simply: "She has sex with a chess piece." That, for me, sums up the movie in a nutshell. Female Perversions is a weird, dreamy, provocative and not entirely coherent dramatization of an academic text that flounders in the gray zone between interesting and self-indulgent. Director Susan Streitfeld got the inspiration for her screenplay from a study called Female Perversions: The Temptations of Emma Bovary, by psychoanalyst Louise J. Kaplan, which she's used as a jumping-off point for a story about a klatch of women saddled with some deeply troubled notions about sex, gender and the acquisition of power. The resulting film has the earnest flavor of a really good student film by a person who almost gets it, but then doesn't really quite.
The central character of Female Perversions is Eve Stephens (Tilda Swinton), a beautiful, successful public prosecutor who is close to realizing her life-long dream of being appointed a judge. Though everything in her life appears to be supremely under control--career, romance and money (she may be one of the few public prosecutors binge-shopping on Rodeo Drive), Eve Stephens is one deeply troubled girl. For one thing, there's that recurrent sexual fantasy involving rope, a crucifix-shaped swimming pool and a giant, white chess piece. For another, she's enslaved by the conventional trappings of femininity: high heels, lipstick (oh, lots of lipstick) and lingerie. What's more, she's plagued by insecurity. Okay, more than plagued: She's psychotically unsure if she's pretty or smart enough to be a judge, and at night, succubi tell her how worthless she is while pawing her crotch.
Meanwhile, out in the desert, Eve's sister Madelyn is furiously working on her Ph.D. between quick jaunts to the city to do a little compulsive shoplifting. She lives in a faded roadhouse in the center of nowhere with a strange, Barbie-like seamstress and her disturbed daughter, a traumatized adolescent named Ed who keeps cutting at her arms with a razor blade and hacking off pieces of her hair.
All of these women, according to Streitfeld, are based on case-studies described by Kaplan in her book, and as characters they certainly seem forged from pathology. Though mental illness is interesting, and though Streitfeld presents the divided misery of these women with style and flair, there's something claustrophobic and a little ridiculous about a movie peopled only with the insane. I get the sense that Streitfeld wants to make a statement about the psychological difficulties all women have in claiming power, but by presenting us with such overwhelmingly neurotic characters, she overshoots her mark and leaves us with the impression that on the whole, what these girls really need is professional help, not a more egalitarian society.
This weakness, though, also turns out to be one of Female Perversion's strengths. Swinton gives a mesmerizing and strange performance as attorney Eve Stephens. Her unsettled, mannered performance is captivating. She portrays Eve as a profoundly off-balance woman--even the way she moves, lurching around on her high heels with a palm pressed to her stomach--suggests a lack of center. Swinton's acting owes little to naturalism, and Eve doesn't seem to resemble a real person in any way, but the creature she creates is fascinating nonetheless. When a rival female lawyer makes a catty comment about her shade of lipstick, she totally flips out. But when her lover tells her it's over, she seems genuinely unperturbed. She's an odd one.
On the whole though, this level of oddity works against the intellectual ambitions of the film. First, by focusing on crazy characters, Streitfeld seems to be saying that for women, the primary obstacles to obtaining power are internal and psychological, which is just stupid. Secondly, by not including any "normal" characters, the film closes off the hope for redemption or improvement for Eve and her friends. In this world, all women are victims of their gender. "You gotta erase yourself," one woman intones, "you gotta be everything to everybody." Shouldn't there ought to be a wise-cracking babe nearby to tell her to get over it? Instead, all the ladies stare at her in horrified recognition.
Adding to the strangeness, there are almost no men in this film, suggesting the quaint notion that gender and power are really only problematic for women. Female Perversions tries its best to be smart and examine difficult issues, but it really only succeeds in being a weird and relentlessly abstruse experience.
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