Female Perversions (1996): Feminist Meditation Starring Tilda Swinton

Sundance Film Festival, Jan. 22, 1996–The women in “Female Perversions,” a hardcore feminist meditation about gender and sexuality in modern life, are so stunningly beautiful and intriguingly complex that they almost overcome the trappings of a non-linear, fractured narrative that is often academic and a bit pretentious.

Nonetheless, always challenging, this highly original film should provoke the art-house crowd and provide extra gratification for feminist and lesbian viewers due to its ideology and steamy sex, both hetero and homo.

Inspired by Louise J. Kaplan’s Freudian text, “Female Perversions: The Temptations of Emma Bovary,” co-writers Streitfeld and 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 narrative that’s deliberately fragmented still manages to offer quite a coherent and often an 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, in 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 an more on her captivating look and a line of props that help to promote that look, like expensive lingerie, striking make-up, 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 identity crisis, Eve can’t seem to control her wild sexual desire, be it real, with her distant lover John, or imagined. Bi-sexual, 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 recorded their mother’s
humiliating abuse by their patriarchal father.

Freudian psychiatrists will have a field day observing the sister’s 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.

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 as “normal femininity.” For example, when the Governor finally interviews Eve for the position, all he talks about is family values, specifically how come 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 an hysterical tantrum in her car.

It’s hard to imagine any other actress in the demanding lead but Swinton, who affects 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 audio-visual treat. Strong behind the camera 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 an erotically-charged, hetero and lesbian, imagery, and for variegating the film’s visuals, using a colder, dream-like look for Eve’s city life and a warmer, brighter palette for the episodes in the countryside.