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Female Perversions
Hunting for Symbols: Tilda Swinton gets lost in the didactic thickets of Susan Streitfeld's "Female Perversions."

Doctrinaire feminist drama fingers garter belts as symbols of oppression

By Richard von Busack

THE INTERESTING BUT DISAPPOINTING Female Perversions is--as are most feminist student films--all polemic and no drama. The characters don't exist except as the outlines created by their oppression. Each highly stylized character in Susan Streitfeld's film represents troubled womanhood in different forms. The obviousness of the conception is stressed by the stiffness of the performances--here is the woodenness of inept political theater. The obviousness of the symbolism is compounded by the old-fashioned, literal dream sequences. The film deserves its musty title; it has a dour, puritanical tone and the tediousness of someone who has just now had her consciousness raised. There are more than a few women allergic (morally, as well as physically) to lingerie, but is underwear really a serious problem? Oh, I know the answer; it's what the garter belts represent that's the real problem.

Tilde Swinton plays Evelyn Stevens--Eve for short--a woman engulfed in the male power structure. A district attorney on the short list for a state judgeship, Eve is a few days away from her job interview with the governor. Because of the stress, she's fighting off the demons of a driven woman. These demons are literal: imaginary figures who grapple her, telling her she's stupid, ugly, fat, smelly and so forth. Sometimes, the voices just laugh at her (just as the mysterious voice laughed at the judge in Camus' The Fall). Eve drives the stresses away with quick trysts with her boyfriend and with a cute female psychiatrist who has just moved into the building; a less enlightened time would call Eve's flings nymphomania.

Eve's crisis is mirrored in the troubles of her estranged sister, Madelyn (Amy Madigan), who is a few days away from her own big interview as a Ph.D. candidate; her thesis focuses on a matriarchal culture in Mexico (presumably the Tehuanas). Madelyn, Maddy for short, has been arrested in a small town for thrill-shoplifting, and Eve is summoned to bail her out. The two sisters clash. Eve is citified, covered with perfumes, powders and silks; Maddy is cranky and un-made-up and lives in the desert, hating her sister as a goody-goody.

An unusual plot, but it ends where feminist dramas always end, with bonding and hugging--Eve and Lilith, or rather Maddy (the Mad[dy] Woman escaped from the attic), reconciled in the bathtub. Female Perversions is doctrinaire in its fortune-cookie-like blunt statements in the background; embroidered on Eve's pillow are the words "Perversions are never what they seem to be" (oh, is that a fact?). The film does pick up some interesting issues--such as the prevalence of "cutting," or self-mutilation, among women--but Eve's mystery is explained with the old Freudian tease. Inevitably, her compulsive sex life is due to her having seen something nasty in the woodshed. (Maybe Nabokov was right when he suggested that psychiatrists and architects conspire in leaving the locks off the bedroom doors of American houses--the latter whipping up some business for the former by making it easy for children to view the primal scene.)

The notion bandied about of women being traitors to their sex seems unfair. The lessons of feminism would suggest that (for example) a Margaret Thatcher ought to be attacked as a politician rather than as a woman who ought to know better than men. Female exceptionalism is just as revolting as male privilege. Female Perversion is old news to people who are beginning to merge fantasies of bondage and compulsion into their own feminist point of view--women who when they hear inner voices murmuring "Vulgar! Lascivious!" (as Eve does here) know they aren't being mocked, they're being cheered on.

Female Perversions (R; 116 min.), directed by Susan Steitfeld, written by Julie Herbert Steitfeld, based on the book by Louise J. Kaplan, photographed by Teresa Medina and starring Tilde Swinton and Amy Madigan.

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From the May 15-21, 1997 issue of Metro

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