Film Reviews

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The production notes for Female Perversions could make one think that the film's title was meant to attract the psychology-grad-student audience. This story of a high-powered lawyer struggling with her sexual confusions is a dramatization of a nonfiction psych study, Dr. Louise Kaplan's Female Perversions: The Temptations of Emma Bovary. The press material blathers on that director Susan Streitfeld optioned the book because she wanted to meet Louise Kaplan and honor her work. Probably more frankly, she adds, "The title alone would make an interesting and compelling film."

Streitfeld saw the main character as superficially perfect: "stunningly beautiful, brilliant, wildly erotic with a powerful job and great lovers." Gee, there's a daring, risky approach. Most of those exploitation filmmakers would surely have preferred somebody frumpy and ordinary.

Shall we cut the crap? thought I. When you give a movie a title like this, you're promising a turn-on. I was sure that, blather aside, Female Perversions would turn out to be high-grade soft-core erotica, and there were signs that, as such, it might be halfway decent. It was made, mostly, by women and aimed at women, which is promising for both men and women in the audience; erotica aimed at men tends to be dreary. Better still, the cast features an unusually hip gallery of postmodern sex goddesses--Tilda Swinton, Karen Sillas, Frances Fisher, Amy Madigan, Paulina Porizkova. Even at the level of financing, this smells like genteel raunch: Among the executive producers is Zalman King, once a promising young actor, now the highly successful producer of HBO's The Red Shoe Diaries.

Whatever the merits of Kaplan's text, I fully expected the film's pieties about sexual psychology to be rather like the hokey voice-over narration about the sad perils of nymphomania that used to sometimes accompany old-school porno movies, as a nod to "socially redeeming value."

Then I saw the movie, and guess what? Streitfeld wasn't kidding. She seems really to have thought she was making a serious, intense drama about "perversions"--meant, here, to refer to the social distortions and contortions through which women must put themselves to get by in a male-dominated society.

Swinton, the fascinating, birdlike Scottish beauty who played the gender-hopping title role in Orlando, here plays Eve, an L.A. prosecutor with a vigorous, adventurous sex life and an intense obsession with her appearance. She also has a lipstick fixation that borders on the fetishistic. She's one interview with the governor away from being appointed judge when she must come to the legal aid of her sister Maddy (Madigan), a doctoral candidate and a kleptomaniac who can attain orgasm only when she's boosting a scarf or a hammer or something from a store.

The kinks of Maddy and Eve are intertwined with those of other women of their acquaintance: Renee (Sillas), a shrink with whom Eve has a sapphic fling; Emma (Laila Robins), a classic boyfriend-chaser; Annunciata (Fisher), a cynical stripper; and Edwina (Dale Shuger), Emma's unformed daughter, who's being bombarded from all sides by female neurosis. The only men of any importance are Clancy Brown as Eve's rather indifferent boyfriend, and, of course, Maddy and Eve's flashback-bound Daddy (Don Gettinger).

Again, to quote the production notes: Streitfeld allows that for this, her directorial debut, she was "drawn to the title" out of an interest in "kinky sex, deviant behavior, illicit thrills." Yet these are just what she declines to give her audience, in favor of sledgehammer-subtle depictions of Women Who Do Too Much.

So, is the film any fun at all? Maybe a little, strictly as camp--in 10 years, it might be regarded as a hilarious classic by the Psychotronic crowd. Streitfeld manages a number of strikingly composed tableaux--feverish dream sequences full of bondage and swimming pools shaped like crosses and full-size chess kings and the like. Swinton is insanely miscast--she's a good 20 years too young for the role, for starters--but as in her other films, her insouciant erotic charm and astounding elegance make it hard to regret her presence. Madigan gets across a more urgent sense that she's truly troubled, and Sillas is the one cast member who manages to be both believable and sexy.

Finally, almost halfway through the film, we're treated to a fairly graphic, fairly hot grapple in a hammock. After that, though, Female Perversions goes right back to meandering through more pop-psych observations about the pressure to conform to traditional ideas of femininity. The points are valid enough, but the presentation is too ham-fisted to be anything but funny.

After a while, you may find yourself trying to count the thudding double-entendres that stud the risible dialogue. Swinton, making an excuse: "Tell him I'm cramming for my interview." Porizkova to Swinton, by an elevator: "Going down?" Gas jockey, to Swinton: "I'll pump it for ya." My favorite: Swinton asks her secretary (Lisa Jane Persky) to arrange for the delivery of some "big luscious peonies." I'm not sure if we're meant to giggle at this stuff or not, but I did.

To this sterling wit, add the shot that Streitfeld, who seems quite the Freudian, takes at the Jungians. Annunciata, demonstrating a lesson in striptease to Emma, instructs, "You've gotta make yourself sort of generic."

"Archetypal?" corrects her pupil.
So, as it turns out, the joke is on us leering prurients in the audience--Streitfeld did make Female Perversions for the psych grad students, after all. But this film might even crack up a bunch of humorless Freudians.

Female Perversions
Directed by Susan Streitfeld; with Tilda Swinton, Amy Madigan, Karen Sillas, Frances Fisher and Paulina Porizkova.