Dirty Movies 5.01

You’d think that a film with the title Female Perversions would be a hot and heavy sex romp, a kinky enterprise of womanly desire bucking up against outré male demands, a parade of leggy, feline show-stoppers acting out every fantasy every woman has ever had – in short, an animant copy of a Nancy Friday book.

Well, given that it’s the first feature by a woman director based on an academic text by a practicing Manhattan psychoanalyst, it proves to be none of the above. But that doesn’t make it bad. Nor does it mean that it lacks some good, healthy sex scenes.

All of the local reviewers hated it. They found it pretentious, inconsistent, boring, blahblahblah. But on closer viewing Female Perversions (October Films) happens to be an interesting exploration of female psychology, with a few hot sex scenes thrown in to keep the male constituency interested.

The film is based on Female Perversions: The Temptations of Emma Bovary , a book by Louise J Kaplan. It’s not a novel. Kaplan’s book was published in 1991 (Doubleday, $24.95, ISBN 0.385.26233.7) and is a ground breaking exercise in psychoanalytic lit and cultural criticism. In essence Kaplan says that women have perversions, too, but that they are much different from those men have, and are not necessarily linked to a sexual act. The female contrast to male fetishists, Kaplan writes, is kleptomania, which is not a manifestation of penis envy in a crude Freudian equation, but really “commodity fetishism.” While men can be transvestites, woman are homovestites, that is, ultra femmy femmes obsessed with being real women. Male sadism is matched to ritual cutting, and voyeurism to anorexia, among other antithetical pairings. It's an intriguing concept.

It’s hard to imagine how Streitfeld made a movie out of this nuanced, often dry, idea-ridden intellectual investigation. But she did. Her strategy was to focus the film on one pseudonymous case study in the book, a woman dubbed “Janet,” who appears mostly in chapter eight, and about whom Kaplan seems to know an awful lot. Around her, Streitfeld added several other characters to illustrate, perhaps too schematically, the array of female perversions Kaplan lists.

The Janet equivalent in the film is Eve Stephens (Tilda Swinton), an L.A. lawyer on the verge of a judgeship. Cool and slightly brittle on her elegant surface, she is hyper feminine and hyper masculine at the same time, fueled by an ambition to be better than everyone else in her orbit. She is a seemingly saintly helper, rushing to the aid of her sister (Amy Madigan), a klepto picked up in a small town, and like Janet, she is a tireless sexualist, wearing out her boyfriend (Clancy Brown) with erotic visits to his office, while also picking up a neurotic therapist (Karen Sillas) in her office building. She is obsessed with make-up and sexy underwear (and Swinton looks great in this movie), and is plagued by vague dreams and sex fantasies involving ropes.

This is a smart, clever movie, with a superb realization of what the French call mise en scene , which means, basically, all that you see within the frame is a blend of set decoration, lighting and camera movement. It’s a clean looking movie, with a rather unpredictable narrative and a range of acting styles that pantomime the range of sexual “perversions” that Kaplan writes about.

Streitfeld does not condemn her women for their psychological make-up. She presents them as real people, with real problems, and though the “perversions” are viewed as blinkered options that prevent full sexual expression or happiness, she is not, paradoxically, necessarily against them. Most important, Female Perversions, the movie, is pro-sex. And in the current cultural climate, such films are somewhat hard to find these days.

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