Single White Female

Fatal Attraction, the l987 movie starring Glenn Close, was not only a smash box-office hit, but also a movie that revitalized the thriller genre in the American cinema. At the moment, the psychological-sexual thriller seems to be back with a vengeance: No less than five movies opened this week, including Raising Cain, Whispers in the Dark, and Afraid of the Dark.

Barbet Schroeder's insightful, slightly perverse Single White Female is without a doubt the most resonant and the most accomplished of the current slate of films. Set in New York's famous Ansonia building, it stars Bridget Fonda as Allison, a young attractive professional, and Jennifer Jason Leigh as Hedra, her mysterious, mousy roommate, who moves in after Allison terminates her relationship with her boyfriend.

As he demonstrated in Reversal of Fortune, the darkly humorous, multi-layered account of the Claus von Bulow scandal, Schroeder is a master of the small, telling detail. In this picture, he penetrates into these women's psyches and sexualities in a much deeper manner than American movies have usually done. Some of the film's appeal is voyeuristic, its glimpse into private sexual revelations, such as a disturbing scene in which Allison observes Hedra masturbate in her bed.

The film has a great beginning, chronicling Allison's life as a single woman who hates–actually is unable–to be alone. The friendship that evolves between the two lonely women, who are both needy, is also credibly depicted. “Men are pigs,” Hedra observes in her effort to ingratiate herself with Allison, “I don't care how nice they seem.” Schroeder also succeeds in conveying the pathological and frightening jealousy that the insecure Hedra develops toward Allison. Hedra not only attempts to look like Allison–dressing, cutting and dying her hair like her–she also imitates her behavior and assumes her personality.

One eerie scene, in which the two women stand in front of a big mirror and examine themselves, may remind you of Ingmar Bergman's masterpiece, Persona (l966), a film about identity crisis and the role reversal of a nurse and her mentally-ill patient. Indeed, Schroeder describes the central issue of his film as the “universal quest of identity.” But he admits that, while identity formation is “something we all grapple with, few of us deal with it in the lurid extremes of Single White Female.” Schroeder departs from the Bergman movie by depicting an assumption of personality by one character; there is no role reversal in his movie, though in many ways the women's neuroses complement each other.

Schroeder's character study is dominated by its leading actresses. Screenwriter Don Roos has written two great parts, played to the hilt by Bridget Fonda (in her best screen performance to date) and the always skillful Jennifer Jason Leigh. The men, Steven Weber as Allison's not very reliable boyfriend, and Peter Friedman, as Allison's sympathetic gay neighbor, render adequate performances in secondary, much less compelling, roles.

The exterior low-angle shots of the grand Ansonia, during the day and night, and the interior high-angle shots of its long corridors and steep staircase, make it appear appropriately ominous and menacing. In its visual style and tone, the film bears some resemblance to The Tenant, Roman Polanski's spooky l976 mystery, in which he plays a timid clerk who rents an apartment and soon begins to embody the personality of its previous female inhabitant.

Unfortunately, the new film suffers from the same structural problems that afflicted Fatal Attraction, Cape Fear, and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle. After a most promising opening, in which attention is paid to finely-tuned characterization, realistic dialogue, and narrative logic, the movie changes gears and embraces the conventions of the horror-slasher movie.

For a thriller, the film doesn't have sufficient twists and turns to make it really scary. When the inevitable murders make their predictable appearances, you know the criminal's identity. Single White Female gets less convincing as the story progresses–some of its plot machinations are jarringly contrived. Regrettably, at the end, to appease his mass audience, Schroeder cannot resist staging a vulgar struggle between the women. Yet, it's to the director's credit that the film's most imaginative and chilling moments are integrated into the dialogue scenes between the roommates.

Like the other pictures in this genre, Single White Female functions as a cautionary tale about familiar anxieties–the potential for routine daily life to become threatening in the most unexpected manner. Fatal Attraction might have signaled a warning alarm to married men to think twice before jumping into adulterous affairs. The Hand That Rocks the Cradle might have forced some young couples to check more carefully the references of their babysitters. Single White Female, a film which may be more relevant to New Yorkers because of this City's living conditions, might compel people to think three times before placing an ad reading “Single White Female Seeks Same.”