Female Perversions

Nashville Scene

DIRECTED BY: Susan Streitfeld

REVIEWED: 07-08-97

Ambition usually gets you somewhere with an art-house crowd. They'll sit respectfully through any kind of dreary, pretentious, experimental movie, trying not to fidget while they develop an intellectual appreciation for what the artist is trying to accomplish. For the first half-hour, Female Perversions shows signs of being ambitious, and I was prepared to devote all my energy toward not being bored. But something wonderful happened. Female Perversions, for the most part, gave up trying to be art and became entertaining, funny, and stimulating. Instead of watching the paint dry on an artist's vision for two hours, I got to watch a movie.

The title (and ostensibly the basis) of the film comes from a 1991 book by psychoanalyst Louise J. Kaplan that defines the accepted (i.e. male-defined) social ideal of womanhood as a perversion. Tilda Swinton plays Eve Stevens, a fashionable lawyer on the verge of appointment to a judge's bench. Eve sweats every detail of her upcoming interview with the governor while trying to cope with the threat posed by her replacement in the law office, played by model Paulina Porizkova. At the same time, she constructs impromptu sex fantasies with her architect lover (Clancy Brown) and pursues an affair with a female doctor (Karen Sillas) in her office building. When her sister, Madelyn, played by Amy Madigan, gets arrested, Eve is forced to confront her family, her past--and some truths about herself--on Madelyn's desert homestead.

It's the last bit--the clichd self-realization--that leaves a bad taste in the mouth, both as it unfolds in the final scenes and as it is prefigured in the opening's show-offy artistry. Director and cowriter Susan Streitfeld scrawls epigraphs from her sourcebook in the background, often plastering them somewhere inside the set decoration. How very Godard. The quotations point toward an ideal sort of femininity, one that needs no validation from either sex or from the sexual act, and I suppose Eve achieves something like this uninteresting state in the film's conclusion. Naturally, it involves a secret about her relationship with her father.

Forget about such feminist posturing, and enjoy Swinton's perfect satirical character study. Her Eve puts on all the harsh, unflattering faces of female power and hones them to a sharp comic edge. She takes superiority where she can find it, even if it comes from having the latest lipstick shade before her rivals. Sex is a means to an end: When the female doctor mentions that she wants more out of a relationship than physical love, Eve responds like someone pretending to understand a foreign language. Swinton elicits laughter with the slight stiffening of her face or the furrowing of her brow as Eve's scheming brain processes a perceived threat. She creates an entirely original character, one who works so hard on her image that womanhood itself becomes just another role. It's one of the finest performances of the year.

One real actor is worth a thousand captions, and Swinton, even when silent, reveals much more about a woman's self-image than words ever could. The set design creates a sterile, empty space around her, consistent with her minimalist taste but also evocative of her shallow loneliness. Long scenes in these stark environments induce the kind of excited vertigo last felt in Todd Haynes' Safe, but without that film's glacial pacing. It's too bad that Female Perversions wants to wrap up its story with a final epiphany, telegraphed with misplaced surreal touches and arty dream sequences to boot. But these obvious signs of ambition can't obscure the old-fashioned satire at the movie's heart.

--Donna Bowman

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Female Perversions
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