Single White Female" is a curiously schizophrenic film about two only children. Fresh off his sterling work on "Reversal of Fortune," director Barbet Schroeder has made a calculated attempt to cross an acutely observed character study with a slasher pic. But despite excellent lead performances and numerous memorable scenes, this still feels like two different movies in one. Commercial prospects look good, as the "roommate from hell" premise puts this one in the same camp as "Fatal Attraction" and "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle," a concept that hasn't failed yet but inevitably will.
Single White Female” is a curiously schizophrenic film about two only children. Fresh off his sterling work on “Reversal of Fortune,” director Barbet Schroeder has made a calculated attempt to cross an acutely observed character study with a slasher pic. But despite excellent lead performances and numerous memorable scenes, this still feels like two different movies in one. Commercial prospects look good, as the “roommate from hell” premise puts this one in the same camp as “Fatal Attraction” and “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle,” a concept that hasn’t failed yet but inevitably will.
Pleasingly suggesting the director’s European roots, opening reels conjure up the weird, unsettling mood of Roman Polanski’s apartment films, “Rosemary’s Baby” and “The Tenant,” while promising a story of psychological blurring along the lines of Ingmar Bergman’s “Persona.”
Giving her unfaithful b.f. the heave, smart, upwardly mobile designer and software expert Bridget Fonda takes waify Jennifer Jason Leigh in to share her attractive Upper West Side flat. The two become instant best friends, and the needy Leigh seems reassured by Fonda’s promise that she’ll never take her cheating man back.
Light and airy and underlined with only the slightest hint of menace, these early scenes chartingthe young women’s burgeoning friendship are characterized by a becoming naturalness and many lovely details. Even after Fonda returns to her errant lover, Steven Weber, and becomes engaged, the ways in which Leigh tries to nicely insinuate herself into the “family”
remain beautifully observed and psychologically true. Nearly as good are brief passages that deftly evoke the realities of an attractive young woman’s life in contemporary New York.
But, little by little, the film begins tilting in the direction of a production line thriller, until finally assuming the full personality of a Hollywood killing machine. Turning point arrives when Leigh, after assuming many of Fonda’s characteristics and buying similar clothes, gets her hair cut and dyed to precisely resemble Fonda’s pert carrot-top.
From here on, it’s a race between Fonda’s efforts to get Leigh out of her life and Leigh’s brutal butchering of everyone in the cast. Inevitably, it all ends in a violent struggle between the two women that is agonizingly protracted in the standard Hollywood manner.
Most of the film’s virtues are subtle, while the flaws are blatant. Under Schroeder’s careful guidance, both Fonda and Leigh play with an ease and unself-consciousness that is bracingly refreshing, and some of their scenes together feature a casual intimacy rare in American films.
At the same time, Schroeder and scripter Don Roos have come up with some sequences, mostly having to do with sex, that are unlike anything in recent memory. A haunting moment shows Fonda, having taken her boyfriend back, listening to Leigh masturbating in her bedroom. Later on, more startlingly and disturbingly, Leigh sneaks in on Weber while he sleeps and begins molesting him sexually. How he reacts upon finally awakening and realizing that the woman on top of him is not his fiancee could certainly provide interesting fodder for post-film date talk.
Thriller aspects of the story, and suspense leading up to the climactic showdown, are handled expertly enough to get audiences lathered up. Still, it’s only a question of time until the conventions of this predator-from-hell sub-genre–the unknowability of an outsider’s past, the threat to the nuclear family, the villain’s hard-to-kill quotient–are rejected by the mass audience that has so avidly embraced them. Formula basically works here, although it’s beginning to wear a bit thin.
Pic looks terrific, with major credit going to the initial decision to place Fonda’s apartment in the fading grande dame of New York dwellings, the Ansonia. Just a short distance away from the Dakota, site of “Rosemary’s Baby,” the nearly century-old Ansonia, with its endless hallways, wild design and eavesdropping-friendly heating ducts, bestows the film with a unique, creepy grandeur, one that is superbly augmented by production designer Milena Canonero.
Color schemes, fabrics and details of decor all play telling roles here, indicating a promising new career direction for Canonero, who heretofore has been a top costume designer (although she also handled costuming and hair chores here, her contract restricted her to production design credit only). Working in perfect tandem is lenser Luciano Tovoli, who gives the mostly studio-shot interiors the glowing feel of natural light. Other tech contributions are of an equally high level.