The women in “Female Perversions,” a hard-core feminist meditation about gender and sexuality in modern life, are so stunningly beautiful and intriguingly complex that they almost overcome the trappings of a nonlinear, fractured narrative which is often academic and a bit pretentious. Nonetheless, always challenging, this highly original film should provoke the arthouse crowd and provide extra gratification for feminist and lesbian viewers due to its ideology and steamy sex, hetero and homo.
Inspired by Louise J. Kaplan’s Freudian text “Female Perversions: The Temptations of Emma Bovary,” co-writers Susan Streitfeld and Julie Hebert have done a remarkable job of adapting to the bigscreen a treatise that is basically a series of case studies. It’s a testament to their writing that a deliberately fragmented narrative still manages to offer quite a coherent and often engaging portrait of an ultra-neurotic modern woman. Fresh from her triumphant turn in “Orlando,” Tilda Swinton is perfectly cast as Eve, a bright lawyer who has just won a major case against a disreputable millionaire. However, anticipating a meeting with the governor regarding her aspirations to become a judge brings to the surface hidden and not-so-hidden insecurities and anxieties. Indeed, despite unquestionable talent and professional stature, self-confidence is not one of Eve’s strengths. She finds herself relying more and more on her captivating look and the props that help to promote that look, like expensive lingerie, striking makeup, elegant suits and a new lipstick called “Red Pussycat.”
Like other beautiful and accomplished women, Eve is unable to reconcile what’s expected of her with how others regard her; one of her recurrent nightmares is being called a fraud. On the brink of an identity crisis, Eve can’t seem to control her wild sexual desires, be they real, with her distant lover John, or imagined. Bisexual, she recklessly enters into a relationship with Renee (Karen Sillas), a sensitive psychiatrist who has just moved into her building, though this bond, too, turns out to be problematic.
Just as Eve is facing the highest point in her life, Madelyn (Amy Madigan), her unstable sister, is experiencing her lowest when she’s arrested for shoplifting. A number of tense scenes between the two underline sibling rivalry and emotional ambiguity, as Eve goes to the backwater town of Fillmore to rescue Madelyn. Staying in her sister’s room in a rundown boarding house, Eve reads her doctoral thesis about a matriarchal society in Mexico. She also finds a Super 8 film of her childhood that records their mother’s humiliating abuse by their father.
Freudian psychiatrists will have a field day observing the sisters’ struggle to gain control and power in their lives as a result of their traumatic family experience. For those interested, pic also offers vivid illustration of such clinical concepts as penis envy. Indeed, in more than a few scenes, the treatment is heavy-handedly academic, making the narrative an overtly agenda film. Some, but not enough, sophisticated humor prevails in the presentation of Eve’s sexual fantasies that try to approximate, though not always successfully, a dark, surrealistic sensibility.
Still, despite an overly episodic structure, the film’s dominant theme is clear, dealing with the strategies used by women to fit into the world, subconsciously (and consciously) adjusting themselves to the prevalent stereotypes of what society considers “normal femininity.” For example, when the governor finally interviews Eve for the position, all he talks about is family values, specifically why an alluring woman like Eve has never been married and doesn’t miss having a family of her own. Indeed, after this encounter, Eve loses control and throws a hysterical tantrum in her car.
It’s hard to imagine any other actress in the demanding lead but Swinton, who employs a credible American accent and has the kind of chameleon quality that allows her to transform completely from scene to scene. The supporting cast, particularly Madigan as the problematic sister and Sillas as the psychiatrist, render equally distinguished performances. In the bit role of a cynical woman utterly disenchanted with men, Frances Fisher has never looked so sexy and appealing.
Excepting the overly stylized fantasy sequences, which are not always well-integrated into the main story, pic is an audiovisual treat. Strong contributions are by designer Missy Stewart, who here matches her work on Gus Van Sant’s films (“To Die For”) with a bravura production that constantly stimulates the eyes. Spanish-born lenser Teresa Medina is responsible for erotically charged, hetero and lesbian, imagery, and for variegating the film’s visuals, using a colder, dreamlike look for Eve’s city life and a warmer, brighter palette for the episodes in the countryside.