Thursday, March 8, 2018

SINGLE WHITE FEMALE 1992

The great granddaddy (grandmother?) of “roommate from hell” movies is director Barbet Schroeder’s (Reversal of Fortune) masterfully creepy Single White Female. Sheer perfection in its straightforward simplicity, Single White Female is a splendidly taut and entertaining thriller of escalating dread and suspense built upon two basic, highly-relatable human anxieties: sharing a living space with a total stranger, and wondering whether it’s possible to really know another person…even those to whom we are closest.
Fashioned as an intertangled character drama masking a mordant feminist critiqueit can be argued that the entirety of the lead character's troubles arise out of the way society conditions women from an early age to harbor a fear of and resistance to being "single"; Barbet Schroeder’s Single White Female pairs the Roman Polanski urban paranoia thriller (Rosemary's Baby, The Tenant) with the Robert Altman personality-theft psychological melodrama (3 Women, Images) to chilling effect.
Bridget Fonda as Allison Jones
Jennifer Jason Leigh as Hedra Carlson
Steven Weber as Sam Rawson
Peter Friedman as Graham Knox
When an 11th-hour betrayal results in software designer Allison Jones kicking live-in fiancé Sam Rawson out of her rent-controlled apartment, our despondent, titular SWF hastily places a classified ad (against the better judgment warnings of friend and neighbor Graham Knox) for a roommate.
Enter Rizzoli Bookstore clerk Hedra Carlson; timid, sweet-natured, and studiously amorphous; she’s a substance incapable of reflecting light, only absorbing it. Girlish and diffident in the face of Allison’s easygoing poise, resourceful where Allison is self-doubting and insecure, indistinct and shapeless to Allison’s urban sleek, the women are less an odd couple than strangely analogous opposites. Indeed, Hedra sees in Allison an image of a life she’d very much like to have. Literally.
Allison and Hedra
From the Greek, Hedra is a word used in geometry signifying many faces

In short order, roommates blossom into girlfriends (Hedy! Allie!), girlfriends bond as sisters, and sisterhood evolves into a kind of free-form female family unit into which the only male allowed is Buddy the dog. Sure, Hedra’s a little clingy, a tad furtive, maybe even a little too watchful (“(It's) like she's studyin’ ya. Like you was a play, or a book, or a set of blueprints!”All About Eve); but for a time, each woman finds in the other what they are individually seeking. Allie gets a companion to help stave off her fear of being alone, Hedy finds someone who fills a deep, unarticulated emotional void.

The disruptive reappearance of Allison’s ousted fiancé evokes D.H. Lawrence’s The Fox (an impression reinforced by the lupine features of Steve Weber) in that the intrusion of the male has an abruptly pernicious effect on the friendship the two women have thus far forged. Feeling edged out (even the dog prefers Allie's company), Hedy makes a desperate, fumblingly inappropriate attempt to insinuate herself into the relationship of the reconciled twosome, one which only serves to further drive a wedge. As she watches her prominence in Allie's life diminish, Hedy's already troublingly possessive behavior and obsessive interest in Allie begins to manifest itself in increasingly psychotic ways.
Family Portrait
Playing on the TV set behind them is the 1957 Rita Hayworth film
Fire Down Below, about a friendship torn apart by romantic jealousy

Although Single White Female features an abundance of intriguing subthemes: urban fear, feminine identity, lesbianism, sexual harassment, duality, women's tendency to invalidate female friendships in deference to menSchroeder's uncluttered approach to the material and film's familiar, easy-to-identify-with premise serves it extraordinarily well. The smart screenplay (adapted by Don Roos from John Lutz's 1990 novel SWF Seeks Same) simply lets the worst-case-rental-nightmare scenario play out in accordance to the well-worn tropes of the classic stalker/suspense thriller, leaving plenty of room for the actors to fully and dimensionally inhabit their characters. The result is that instead of having the characters moved along by the demands of the plot, the characters as realized by the fine performances of Bridget Fonda and Jennifer Jason Leigh, dominate Single White Female.

As the film is structured, we know from the outset that the roommate situation will be problematic, just as we also know, this being a Hollywood thriller, that the central conflict must resolve itself with a sufficiently over the top, crowd-pleasing payoff: usually either cathartic or ironic. Thus, it's all the more appreciated that Barbet Schroeder manages to successfully subvert the plot's predictability by giving emphasis to the relationship between Allison and Hedra, making it feel authentic, while at the same time oddly disturbing. The chemistry between these two women, vacillating between friendly, sororal, co-dependent, and adversarial...is the propulsive, compelling source of the film's suspense and considerable chills.
The Happy Couple
When an arthouse darling like Barbet Schroeder (More-1969, The Valley Obscured by Clouds- 1972) makes a genre film, watching it is a little like seeing your well-mannered nephew running with the “wrong crowd”; you worry about which will exert the greater influence over the other.
Happily, I think Barbet Schroder’s arthouse sensibilities fairly dominate the first two-thirds of Single White Female, effectively drawing the viewer into the psychological drama before the melodrama of the final third takes over. He makes the city and apartment building participating characters in the story, emphasizing the film's duality themes and appearances-can-be-deceiving angle by making New York and Allison's apartment building look simultaneously inviting and menacing.
"At least there's never a problem with privacy!"
Single White Female plays with the idea of strength and weakness, independence and helplessness. By all appearances Allison is the character who has her life together, but the film allows her to be the one to harbor some of the more deep-rooted flaws. She is the first roommate to invade the other's privacy, yet she's made uncomfortable by Hedra's comfortable informality in undressing in front of her. In the end, the women bond over the affectionate gesture of exchanged housewarming gifts. 


Barbet Schroeder displays such a sure touch with his handling of both the characters and the more rote aspects of the suspense thriller that the film’s final act, wherein Schroeder or the studio bow to the pressure to provide the ticket-buying public with the mayhem they crave, strikes the film's sole discordant note. While I have to concede that it's well executed and effectively delivers exactly what is expected of it (suspense, jeopardy, violence, jump cut shocks); and there's no denying that it's an improvement over the sprawling, drawn-out ending of the source novel; but I can't shake the feeling that it is an ending more genre-mandated than organic to the subtle, insinuating menace of the rest of the film. I enjoy the ending for what it is, but I wouldn’t be surprised were it revealed one day to be the work of another director entirely.


WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
Single White Female combines two of my favorite film genres: the psychological suspense thriller and the identity-crisis/mind-meld melodrama. Perhaps because I looked to movies in my own quest for some kind of identity parallelism during my youth (I grew up a bookish, introverted, black gay male, living in a predominantly white neighborhood and attending a private Catholic boys school, the only boy in a family of four girls, with a hardworking but emotionally reserved father), I harbor a particular fondness for movies about people grappling with their sense of self. Even the first student film I ever made (a deservedly lost Super 8mm masterpiece that served as my admission application to the San Francisco Art Institute) was a movie about a man haunted by his doppelganger.

Single White Female is a thriller first and foremost, a genre nail-biter calculated to deliver consistent chills. But in the way it seriously cranks up the fear factor by delving into the dark side of duality and the elemental search for self, it reminds me a great deal of so many of my most beloved identity-merge films: Persona (1966), Dead Ringers (1988), Les Biches (1968), Performance (1970), Mulholland Drive (2001), Vertigo (1958), and Black Swan (2010).
When Imitation Ceases To Be The Sincerest Form Of Flattery
To varying degrees, twinning is a natural by-product of intimacy, a normal part of all close relationships. You see it in long-term couples who begin to look alike and adopt similar mannerisms. You witness it in best friends who copy and adopt identical modes of dress. It's evident in noxious "bromances" in which entire groups of male friends attend the same gym, tanning salons, and share the same tube of hair gel and bottle of Axe body spray.
But no matter how extreme the mirroring, each of us relies on the existence of subconscious boundaries of individual identity to prevent us from ever completely losing ourselves to, or getting completely lost in, others. No such boundaries exist in Single White Female.
Femme Fatale


THE STUFF OF FANTASY
An innovative director with a strong visual style and a comprehension of cinema language is a boon to any film, but such gifts are especially welcome in a genre flick. While there are many directors who’ve distinguished themselves through their association with a particular film genre: Ernst Lubitsch (comedies), John Ford (westerns), Alfred Hitchcock (suspense thriller), John Carpenter (horror); most would contend that plot-driven, trope-reliant films, whose structures require a conformity to brand, don't always leave a lot of elbow room for artistic expression.
Skeletons in the Closet
Allison discovers something scarier than wire hangers
 in Hedra's closet: a wardrobe duplicate to hers
Premise and setup are the stars of the suspense thriller, the director earning accolades only to the extent to which their talents contribute to the successful realization of the narrative’s requisite “payoffs”: surprise, scares, intensity, suspense, etc. Mind you, this isn’t easy, and any director capable of pulling off an effective thriller deserves credit. But the thrillers that tend to stick with me are the ones that manage to both follow the genre dots and bear an imprint of a director’s unique world view and artistic perspective. 

Barbet Schroeder approaches Single White Female as though it were a character study in which one of the characters just happens to be a psychopath. The time and care spent on defining the relationship between Allie and Hedy, shading it with a comfortable intimacy and credible eccentricity (Allie accidentally catches Hedy masturbating, but instead of turning away, she lingers, watching) lends this film the stamp of quirky distinction.
Mirrors feature prominently in Single White Female, a film
exploring the dark side of identity, duality, and self-image

A similar attribute is Barbet Schroeder’s use of mise-en-scène to amplify Single White Female’s themes. For example, the internal life of Allison, a character whose anxieties are fueled by insecurity (fear of being alone) and betrayals (her former business partner, her fiancé, her client), is reflected in her external environment.
Allison’s apartment—spacious but just cramped enough to convey urban confinement—is in a building whose derelict condition signals uncertainty and danger. The rooms of the apartment all face a circular foyer, which, once the roommates’ lives and likenesses begin to merge, contributes an element of disorientation and distortion. Meanwhile, privacy (or rather, its lack) is vividly dramatized by the many angles, doorways, and alcoves people use to conceal themselves or suddenly pop into view from behind; air vents that serve as sound amplifiers to neighboring apartments; and telephone answering machines that either divulge too much or are too easily erased.
Troubled Waters
Beginning with the malfunctioning faucet that precipitates Allie getting to know her better, Hedra is associated with water throughout the film. Frequently shown bathing, showering, or in some way cleansing herself (shades of Lady Macbeth), water also figures significantly in Hedra's shadowy past.

PERFORMANCES
High-concept premise aside, the performances of Bridget Fonda and Jennifer Jason Leigh are the prime reason Single White Female endures for me, and why it continues to be such an enjoyable thrill ride after numerous rewatchings and long after its surprises have grown familiar.
When I think of actors who have a good onscreen chemistry, my mind goes immediately to their similarities and what they have in common. But when I watch Single White Female I'm reminded that the most explosive onscreen chemistry comes from different personalities that blend with a symbiotic ease.
Who Is She?
The pairing of Fonda and Leigh—two actors who don't especially look alike; whose rhythms and acting styles contrast intriguingly; who exude, respectively, self-restraint vs. barely held-in-check—seems to draw out the inverse best in both: Fonda has never registered stronger, Leigh (in a welcome departure from her usual hookers) terrifying in her vulnerability.
The film uses both so well that, as with an ensemble piece, it's difficult to assess the work of one independent of the other. Suffice it to say that both actors inhabit their characters in marvelously realized performances that are so relaxed and natural, they manage to buff out the edges of the melodrama, making the formulaic feel fresh.
Occupational Hazard
Stephen Tobolowsky as Mitchell Myerson

As the film progresses we learn that both Allison and Hedra have the same problem of repeating mistakes. Hedy is on the rebound from an earlier, assumed to be unsuccessful, attempt to reclaim a seminal relationship from her past. meanwhile Allie shows signs of being a serial bad-decision-maker. She bounces from one disloyal relationship (a business partner who claimed credit but didn't do any work) to another (a faithless fiancé) to another (hastily opening her apartment to a woman she doesn’t know) to another (a business client whose intentions she misreads). 
Provocatively, Single White Female poses the idea that Allie & Hedy's relationship has the potential to help both women, its dysfunction arguably no more damaging to the psyche than what women have to contend with in urban life on a daily basis.


THE STUFF OF DREAMS
I love scary movies (real scary movies, not those lazy, gross-out body-count things that pass themselves off as thrillers), specifically those rooted in real-life anxieties. Psychological thrillers, urban paranoia...the more the horror emanates from what people deal with in their everyday life, the better I like it. This fondness for the horror in the mundane comes out of my childhood.
The Ansonia Apartments
Barbet Schroeder's homage to Rosemary's Baby
I can remember the precise moment when horror ceased being for me the stuff of kid-friendly escapism (Creature Features on Saturday night TV, all monsters, vampires, and werewolves), and became a vision of a terrifying world of random violence. It began in 1967 when I was nine years old and Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho had its broadcast television premiere. The kindertrauma moment of Janet Leigh’s shower murder opened a veritable Box of horror in my life.

Ken’s Domestic Terror Timeline:
1967- Rosemary’s Baby published, In Cold Blood and Wait Until Dark released in theaters, and commercials for 1965s Return From The Ashes (in which a woman is murdered in her bathtub) appear on TV. 
Ken’s Social Terror Timeline:
1968- Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy assassinated. San Francisco (where we lived) terrorized by The Zodiac Killer. I see Rosemary’s Baby at the movies and have the holy hell scared out of me.
1969 brought Helter Skelter and the Manson killings. 
It was over a course of a few years, but to my psyche it felt as though it had happened overnight. Suddenly the illusion of safety that family and home provided was shattered by the realization that not even bathrooms are safe havens, human beings are the real monsters, and violence can sometimes be cruelly random. 

Single White Female taps into all these still-fresh-to-me horrors: Apartment buildings can be genuinely creepy places, anyone alone is justified to feel vulnerable in a big city, and what is more mysterious and labyrinthine than the human personality? 
Copyright © Ken Anderson

11 comments:

  1. This was a very interesting read. I know I saw this when it was released (I flocked to every mainstream thriller, erotic or otherwise, at that time), but I don't recall if I ever revisited again. I'm inclined to say no.

    Reading your remarks about being a sort of fish out of water and searching for your identity and "self" made me curious to know what your perspective/take was on "Get Out." I'd be interested to see you do a profile on that one if it spoke to you at all. (I love your movie tributes, but I also always appreciate your personal connections to the subject matter of them.)

    I'll have to give this another look with older eyes when it comes my way. Thanks!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Poseidon!
      The '90s was such a boom era for thrillers, most of them blur in my mind along with their often sound-alike titles. This was one of my favorite of the post-FATAL ATTRACTION saturation thrillers because it played by the genre rules yet still managed to be smart and sensitively played.
      Thanks for expressing an interest in my thoughts on GET OUT. It really was one of those films that spoke to me specifically due to the circumstances of my upbringing. Unlike many, I found very little of the film to be funny even in a black comedy way. It SO spoke to so many things I've experienced and feel, it was a pure, relatable horror story through and through. A really ingenious concept. I want to write about it, but I think I have to give it some time, otherwise I'll just wind up repeating what's said in the DVD commentary.
      Good hearing from you, and as always, thanks for reading!

      Delete
  2. I just recently mentioned this movie to my supervisor at work. She was describing a ”friend” she’s had since high school who instantly brought Hedy to my mind. I was surprised she hadn’t heard of SWF, since I’ve always thought it highly integrated into the 1990s movie lexicon, and she is more aware of movies than a regular Jane.

    After that preamble I must confess that I don’t think I’ve ever seen SWF all the way through. I’ve witnessed it in increments, and the ending has seeped into my memory, while I’m unaware
    of witnessing what lead up to it. The cast is just so good – what ever happened to Bridget Fonda? Such a 90’s actress if there ever was one. The first time I came upon her was when a friend of mine told me I looked like her. It’s a pretty far fetched comparison, but I perked up to her after that, and in all honesty would’ve probably scrapped her from my memory by now had I not been compared to her. When it comes to the rest of the cast, Jennifer Jason Leigh is just such a marvel every single time. Before you mentioned it, I hadn’t even realized how often she indeed plays sex workers! Steven Weber has a really interesting face, but he’ll always be Jeffrey from the 1995 movie to me. Haven’t seen much of him either after the 90’s. Peter Friedman on the other hand keeps popping up here and there. I’ve always felt like he has a slightly sinister presence, but by playing against that presence he creates interesting and ambiguous characters even in bit parts.

    I love how you constantly surprise me with your movie choices! I wouldn’t have thought this was your cup of tea, but the variety of movies on which you muse continues to be amazing. Bravo!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hello Callie
      You're right about SWF being one of those films that has entered the collective film consciousness to the degree that almost anyone can mention it and get nods of recognition. Yet, at the same time its one of those movies that doesn't seem to have the same lingering kind of DVD afterlife and presence as some films, perhaps accounting for your supervisor's lack of familiarity with it.
      Before the genre ran itself into the ground, I was very much into the high-concept thriller that was so prevalent in the 90s, this one remaining a favorite for execution and cast.
      Fonda retired after suffering an auto accident and marrying composer Danny Elfman. A big loss, i think, but sometimes you look at the kind of roles being offered to actresses and you think at least she spared herself a late career of girlfriend and wife roles.
      Jennifer Jason Leigh is almost as close as we Americans have to an Isabelle Huppert, she takes on so many unusual roles.
      I've never seen the film JEFFREY, so I only know Weber from the awful (for me) TV show WINGS. And indeed the cast is very good. A great many times when I see a film shot in New York, I'm always made aware of the wealth of theater-trained actors allowed access to supporting roles in movies. It might just be my imagination but they just seem to look more "real" than their Hollywood counterparts (who look like soap opera mannequins) and are able to do so much with minimal screen time.
      Thanks for taking note of how my movie tastes slide all over the board here, it's a tad intentional that I highlight a spectrum of genres (to a degree, I think I'm yet to write a bout a sports film or war film), a throwback to my days of reading Pauline Kael, who could enjoy a good trash film and a quality art film with equal ease. Thanks very much for reading and commenting!

      Delete
  3. Wonderful analysis that made me realize how much I've missed Bridget Fonda's presence in movies.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you so much, Joe! And yes, I'm sorta missing Fonda, too. After watching this I revisited 1998's "A Simple Plan" and she is like a small-town Lady Macbeth in that one. A marvelous screen presence.

      Delete
  4. At the time this was made, Schroeder was mostly known here in France for being one of the most prominent producers of New Wave films and a director of documentaries or quasi-documentaries (I recommend his latest, The Venerable W. about fascism - how timely he always is).

    It was a big shock to French critiques that he would embrace such a low-brow genre (and for a long time too going on)! They gingerly accepted this new branch in his career, because it was so well-made. I regret you not discussing the behind-the-scenes going-ons for once, because you're always so insightful.

    Seeing a well respected figure of French cinema wallowing in such 'filth' (this didn't have the True Crime sheen of respectability that Reversal of Fortune had) sure was spectacular on this side of the Atlantic.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Hi Mangrove
    Yes, back in my film school days Schroeder was quite revered (his The Valley had just been released). Indeed, one of the reasons I was so keen on seeing this was due to the anomaly factor of his participation.
    Perhaps because he wasn't well known outside of art film circles, there was precious little I recall (or was even able to research) regarding how this production came about and what it augured for the direction his career was taking.
    I'm not overly fond of Schroeder's other thrillers, which are rather mainstream. I thought initially that he might be like Michael Haneke, creating subversive and disturbing takes on the genre film.
    Maybe some readers have some behind-the-scenes info on this film. Even your perspective is the first I've heard of how French critics responded to his unexpected career course. Sometimes when movies are not very visible in the DVD marketplace few film journalists write about them.
    I've read about his new documentary, and I'm intrigued, but right now living the daily trauma of fascism kind of undercuts my ability to want to delve into it in my leisure hours. Thanks for commenting Mangrove, and maybe you'll spark someone contributing to this section some information about the making of this, one of my favorite thrillers.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Hi Ken, I'm delighted that you enjoy this film as much as I do. It is so much fun, a hoot! It is my favorite performance for both Fonda and the versatile Jennifer Jason Leigh. I remember getting chills the first time I saw the scene where Leigh transforms herself so uncannily into Fonda when she really looks absolutely nothing like her.

    Bonuses: Steven Weber provides some nice (disrobed) eye candy, and I remember being pleased that there was a gay confidante/neighbor character in the film as well. Very hip and up to date for the time.

    Watched this again very recently and it toally holds up. Absorbing, entertaining "well-made play" with the proper shock and double twist at the end, Jagged Edge style!

    Another one in a similar vein though not NEARLY as good comes to mind, only because Mr. Timothy Hutton stars...have you seen The Tempo, with Hutton, Lara Flynn Boyle and Faye Dunaway? Would make a very overwrought double feature with SWF (and Weber is in both films!).

    Cheers, Ken, and a happy Bunny Day to you!
    -Chris

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I meant The Temp, of course, not Tempo. My typing on these devices is getting worse and worse!

      Delete
    2. Hi Chris!
      Nice to hear you enjoy this film too. It's really so enjoyable, and one of those rare films that stands up whether one sees it as a slightly camp genre thriller, or takes it seriously as melodrama. Something about its theme and the performances just carries the film along and it never drags. And indeed, it does hold up.
      I always like it when films that reflect a natural comfortableness with nudity don't show undue modesty with the male characters (as so often happens), so Weber's nude scene is welcome on several fronts.
      I HAVE seen THE TEMP, but in spite of knowing I liked it, it's one of those films I only saw once and now can't remember a single scene from it. Maybe it's time for a revisit!
      Happy belated Easter, Chris! And thanks for always stopping by and giving these posts a read. We've seen so many of the same films and so frequently respond to them similarly.

      Delete