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Psych Out

The heroine of Susan Streitfeld's solemn, psychiatry-stuffed first feature, Female Perversions, is a tense, humorless Los Angeles lawyer called Eve Stephens. She favors expensive tailored suits, two-inch spike heels and, if she can fit it into her busy schedule, mid-day office sex with her insufferable male lover or, failing that, after-work sex with the female shrink who's just moved into the suite next to hers. She performs these acts obsessively, with all the joy of a yuppie workaholic getting another job out of the way. There's nothing sillier than inept pornography posing as erotic exploration, and Streitfeld is nothing if not inept.

Even by her own admission, the lady Eve is a pretty doctrinaire piece of work. "I prefer the law," she tells her doctor-lover. "Black or white... guilty or not guilty." But she's got no corner on the family disorder. Eve's sister Madelyn is a troubled grad student who doubles as a kleptomaniac who can't keep her hands out of the lingerie bin down at the local boutique. Maddie's writing her Ph.D. dissertation on a matriarchal New Mexico tribe whose members rub mud on their faces, but that doesn't keep her from getting pinched for shoplifting.

Not surprisingly, we learn through a series of self-consciously arty flashbacks, nightmares and fantasies that the Stephens sisters have all the usual excuses for being out of whack. Dad was a brute. Mom was a helpless pushover. Society enslaves women. And hey, little Eve once went doo-doo in the tub when the girls were taking a bath together.

Cartoonish pop psych like this fairly cries out for the kind of liberating, wise-ass farce Woody Allen once laid to Dr. David Reuben's Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask). Instead, Streitfeld, a former theatrical agent trying her hand at directing, aspires to be Ingmar Bergman by way of Jung and de Beauvoir, force-feeding the audience old feminist orthodoxies like doses of cod-liver oil. The results are deadly. The film even resorts to embroidering psychosexual aphorisms ("Perversions are never what they seem to be") on pillowcases and scrawling them on the sides of phone booths.

The movie's language is equally artificial. In Streitfeld's world, saleswomen describe push-up bras this way: "They create cleavage like a crevasse after an earthquake."

Plumbing the depths of the female psyche has always been a worthwhile endeavor. Dramatic, provocative films from Persona to Desert Hearts to Thelma & Louise, among many others popular and obscure, have been doing it for years. But Female Perversions (a juicy title that never delivers) is almost as stiff and straight-faced as Eve herself--as probably befits a movie carved out of a relentlessly grim, highly theoretical collection of case studies, Female Perversions: The Temptations of Emma Bovary, written by a psychoanalyst, Louise J. Kaplan, M.D.

"I was struggling to find a story in this idea to make a film exploring women, power and sexuality in contemporary society," Streitfeld says. Well, struggle on. The mechanical protagonist here (portrayed by the rather immobile Scottish actress Tilda Swinton, late of Orlando) is less a character than an abstraction (Tormented Womanhood!), with lesser abstractions revolving in her orbit. There's snarly Maddie (Amy Madigan), the steamy doc next door (Karen Sillas), an earthy stripper (Frances Fisher) who gives Eve a lecture on seduction and control, and an insecure landlady (Laila Robins) who's ironically named Emma and will do anything to serve her man. Throw in a feral thirteen-year-old (Dale Shuger) driven half-mad by puberty and you've got a complete set of pawns to shove around the game board of sexual politics.

Men? The usual pack of knaves. There's Eve's mean-spirited, self-absorbed, telephone-obsessed boyfriend (Clancy Brown). There's a Neanderthal gas-station attendant, a glowering cop built like a milk truck and a California governor so shallow and fatuous that when he interviews Eve for a judgeship, he can't get past her unmarried status.

All of us--women and men--deserve better than this pretentious, uptight diagram of a film.

--Gallo

Female Perversions.
Screenplay by Julie Hebert and Susan Streitfeld, from a book by Dr. Louise J. Kaplan. Directed by Susan Streitfeld. With Tilda Swinton, Amy Madigan, Dale Shuger and Laila Robins.

 
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