Female Perversions (1997)

October 21, 1997

Female Perversions opens with a fullisade of images; a trio of bodies entangle in a fleshy tableau; a woman walks a tightrope, her balance uncertain; a rope is pulled by a clay-masked king; the tightrope walker quivers, then falls - and throughout, the sounds of a woman’s breath and gasps are heard on the soundtrack. This montage is completed with a shot of the woman responsible for the breathy accompaniment, who cries out and lifts her head off of a pillow, where the words, “Perversions are never what they seem to be” are stitched. Heady stuff, to be sure.

The woman is Eve, played by acclaimed British actress Tilda Swinton. Swinton is best known to North American audiences for her gender bending role in Sally Potter’s vacantly artful Orlando, but is well known in her homeland for her work with the late Derek Jarman. Here, she portrays a high soaring attorney offered a judgeship, but who soon loses sight of herself and her identity. Eve is a confident, beautiful woman who luxuriates herself in the Eden of her existence, only to be cast out by self doubt, fear, and finally, self awareness; she inadvertedly bites the apple, and in turn finds the seeds of enlightenment.

Eve’s kleptomaniac sister Madelyn (Amy Madigan) is arrested for shoplifting in the small town of Fillmore. When Eve drives down to try and bail her out, she finds that she’s cut off from her powerful connections in the city and soon begins to doubt her professional abilities. This unease spreads throughout Eve’s life, infecting her liaisons with icy lover John (Clancy Brown) and Renee (Karen Sillas), cumulating in a long overdue cathartic release.

Female Perversions was inspired by Louise J. Kaplan’s essay Female Perversions: The Temptations of Emma Bovary, which was described as, “a feminist, Freudian psychological study of women’s behavior and sexuality.” It’s not the first place most filmmakers would look to find a good story, for sure, but first-time director Susan Streitfeld manages to subvert the academic nature of Kaplan’s writing into something almost worth watching. Streitfeld and playwright/scriptwriter Julie Hebert make some disturbing points on femininity as seen by women and society at large, but end up working their ideas too hard. There’s a lot of interesting stuff here, but the overcranked symbolism and heavy handed psychoanalytical tone overwhelms the film’s potential.

Nearly every image in Female Perversions comes loaded. Streitfeld seems intent on creating a textbook of female archetypes played out in a glossy, visually laboured world - she fires all her arrows at her lofty target, and while many land, there’s so many that her original idea becomes overwhelmed. It’s too bad, because what she has to say hasn’t been done well in the past, but by showing all of her metaphorical tricks at once she comes off more pretentious than potent. There’s just too many levels going on here to absorb, and after a while the mind closes off to the film.

John Huston once said, “Never let them see all of your tricks” - advice that Streitfeld and Female Perversions could have used. By showing all of her cards at once, Streitfeld loses a prime chance to make statements that linger.

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ISSN 1499-7894
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