Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Picked Flick #61: Female Perversions

Were any of you alive for the days when I was still Picking Flicks? Or, like the New Deal or the Loch Ness Monster, is it something you've just heard about? Somehow, I've let this ball drop since all the way back in January, when we left off with Best in Show at #62. Shortest possible explanation: my bad. If you're new to this blog and don't even know what I'm talking about, find out here. Otherwise, without further ado...

In a just world, not to mention an extremely entertaining one, Susan Streitfeld's Female Perversions would hold the utopian potential to unite two truly disparate audiences: first, the academic eggheads who know that the movie, virtually alone in the modern cinema, is a fictionalized adaptation of a monograph of psychoanalytic literary theory, and second, the swells of tabloid-chasers and thrill-seekers ushered toward the movie by the title alone. It would be easy, and probably right, to say that Female Perversions is unlikely to match the expectations of either audience, but I think it's more interesting to consider how the movie actually rewards them both, at least partially. Scholastic theory on gender and sexuality can sometimes be so desiccated of the juices and shivers and intimate, saucy introspection through which sex is actually lived and breathed; on the other hand, standard-issue erotic thrillers and sexploitation films are often bizarrely disarmed of any guiding concept of what actually is sexy, or of what actually inhibits sex, or rhymes with it, or assumes its value when sex itself isn't available or, for whatever reason, desired on its own terms. Female Perversions, not just because it melds Freudian archetypes and fleshy, femmey spectacle, possesses a genuinely erotic flavor. It has the sexiest thing a movie can have: a distinct point of view, persuasively showing us what this director, or at least this film, considers titillating, pedestrian, shameful, furtive, funny.

Tilda Swinton stars as a hotshot lawyer named Eve. Right off the bat, you can tell that subtlety isn't the movie's elected forte, and yet, why and how Swinton's character is an "Eve" is hard to pin down. A rising star on the legal circuit with a prestigious judgeship all but guaranteed to come her way, she embodies a mix of professional competence and self-alienation that isn't exactly unfamiliar—don't all professional women in American movies eventually realize that they don't know who they are?—and yet, because she's played by Swinton, Eve's unraveling doesn't feel conventional. Instead, it's a strangely out-of-body experience, navigated by the only Brechtian actress working in modern film, whose masklike and yet disarmingly lucid face always works in ironic tandem with her stiffly elegant body. Surrounding Swinton are a clutch of other women who were case studies and paragons in Dr. Louise J. Kaplan's original book (full title: Female Perversions: The Temptations of Emma Bovary), and whom the screenplay by director Streitfeld and co-writer Julie Hébert determinedly maroon somewhere between being characters and ciphers. Amy Madigan, a coiled and arrestingly spiteful actress, has her finest hour here as Madeleine, the black-sheep sister of Swinton's powerful up-and-comer. Madigan shoplifts a silk scarf with a memorable glower, she all but deliberately sabotages her sister's professional coronation, and she manages the neat trick of constantly messing everything up for everyone in the movie (including for herself) without sacrificing the audience's interest. Frances Fisher blowzes around as a good-time girl, Laila Robins is tearful as a dressmaker in a trailer, Paulina Porizkova strides through her scenes as an immaculately tailored rival of Swinton's, and Karen Sillas—an underrated and little-remembered presence from Tom Noonan's What Happened Was... and some Hal Hartley films—stands toe-to-toe with Swinton as one of two lovers whom the bisexual Eve keeps stringing along. Marcia Cross puts in a mysterious cameo, basically the same shot repeated several times, as Swinton and Madigan's abused mother, and an unknown, almost androgynous waif named Dale Shuger slides even more slivers of unease beneath your skin as Edwina, a teenaged girl who flees from all the parodic female visions around her, retreating into an intensely private life of scarring her flesh and burying the pads and tissues stained with her ovulated blood.

The plot uniting all of this is never Female Perversions' strongest hook, and neither the final act of the picture nor the embedded flashbacks and dream-visions have the strange, arresting depth of the scenes where the characters just orbit and strut around each other, like Caryl Churchill characters transported to the American Southwest: indolent, almost, yet full of curiosity-sparking contradictions. The production design, particularly in Eve's coldly modernist office and in the most Kubrickian lingerie boutique you'll ever see, amplifies our confusion about where the movie is really happening: is this story all on the surface, nothing more than the sum of its aggressively allegorical symbols, or does some threshold of revelation await us beneath all the layers of intentional affectation? Female Perversions plays like some mathematical proof you keep wracking your brain against, trying to derive the absolute value of Woman, or maybe even of Gender. (The movie's tagline read, "It's all about power," and fans of Butler or Foucault will eat it up like double-chocolate mousse.) Happily, the cul-de-sacs and errant stabs at solution are actually more rewarding than the half-hearted "explanations" behind all of this theatre. Meanwhile, any drama that can boast three or four truly interesting women, and cast such peculiar and palpably brainy actresses in the roles, is not a gift to question. In fact, the film radiates an almost totemic mystique, no less so because it has become rather hard to find, and tends to pop up in unexpected places: like, say, the "Special Interest" Shelf at BestBuy, better known for stocking the onanistic oeuvres of Traci Lords. Porizkova, a presence for only two short scenes, lounges around in bedsheets on the box art, from which Swinton is entirely erased, and you don't have to look hard to find Zalman King's name among the co-producers. But as they say, good things come in smutty packages. (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)

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