Single White Female (dir. Barbet Schroeder, 1992)
“Nothing more important… than to know… someone’s listening” – Wilco
“Probably the best metaphor for the State was sexual obsession. An absorbing parallel world, a clandestine organizing principle. Men moved mountains for the sake of a few muscle contractions in the dark.” – Jonathan Franzen
We’ve all had problems with our roommates. Some roommates clean all their dishes except the glasses (me). Some roommates have loud intercourse in the next room while you’re trying to watch Planet Earth. Some roommates think 1am is a good time to start cooking beef chili in the kitchen. Anytime people with different upbringings live together there’s bound to be some friction, some adjustment. But that’s part of life right? The 1992 film Single White Female takes the tension of living with someone who isn’t family to its most extreme. Single White Female is what the late Roger Ebert expertly categorized as a “BLANK from hell” film. In this case, it’s the “Roommate from Hell”.
Allie (Bridget Fonda) is you typical 90s twenty something. She’s tech savvy (“tech savvy” in 1992 apparently just meant you could load a page on your browser. Based on everyone’s stunned reactions, you’d think she found the cicada.), and dating a bland white dude complete with an era appropriate, shoulder length “Butt Cut”. One day Allie discovers that her live-in boyfriend has been cheating with an ex. Naturally, she’s devastated and tosses him to the curb. But that leaves her in desperate need of a new roommate. Enter Heddy (Jennifer Jason Leigh). They immediately bond. How do we know they bond? Through montage of course!!! Cue shots of Allie and Heddy holding sweaters up to one another in the mirror, fixing a broken faucet, lying back on the couch taking a pre-cursor to the selfie (Polaroid instead of an Iphone), and the ultimate token of cinematic friendship: a sidewalk, “walk and talk” while eating vanilla ice cream cones. (Why is it always vanilla in movies? Does chocolate read as unfriendly? Or do certain flavors need to be licensed in order to appear on film? If somebody licks Chubby Hubby in a movie do Ben and Jerry get a cut?).
Allie and Heddy’s friendship can’t last though. We didn’t pay to see people get along. So things slowly take a turn for strange. Heddy begins to overstep the unspoken roommate boundaries. Heddy adopts a puppy for the two of them despite it being outlawed by the building. She waits up for Allie to get home every night. She masturbates with her room door slightly ajar. AND, gasp!, she makes Allie and her boyfriend breakfast one morning without asking!!
Their situation continues to escalate until we reach full on stalker/horror mode, including a truly bizarre scene near the end film. At this point Heddy has copied Allie’s haircut and way of dressing. She’s a pretty spot on doppelganger. Anyway, while Allie’s boyfriend Andrew (BUTT CUT!) is asleep, Heddy sneaks in and starts blowing him. Andrew wakes up, sees the bright orange hair and thinks it must be Allie. When he realizes it isn’t, well, Heddy kills Andrew by stabbing him in the head with a stiletto. Yeah, it’s that kind of movie.
Although to be fair, even if Heddy weren’t emotionally disturbed and harboring a pathological psycho-sexual infatuation with Allie, I’d understand Heddy’s unwillingness to leave their shared apartment….just because it’s such a great fucking deal. They live in a rent controlled, door man building on the upper west side. Great square footage, full kitchen, incredible lighting. Not to mention Heddy can afford to live there on a retail wage…
Eventually the film climaxes with an extended fight scene between Heddy and Allie. You know the kind, Heddy ties up Allie. Allie escapes. One minute Allie’s head is being smashed into a wall, the next minute, Allie is swinging down from the overhead pipes, Cirque-de-Solei-style, and planting a screwdriver in Heddy’s back. In this same sequence, when Heddy has the upper hand, a character who we thought was dead, magically awakens just in time to bean Heddy with a frying pan (Any last minute character return is referred to as the “Newman With A Pizza”, based on the incredibly absurd final fight seen from Kenneth Brannaugh’s Dead Again)
Single White Female is competently directed by French director and producer, Barbet Schroeder. Schroeder is one of those journeymen who started in European art house cinema, achieved some notoriety, and then moved to Hollywood to direct more commercial films. Schroeder and Eric Rohmer founded “Les film de Losange”, a key player in the French New Wave. His producing credits include Six in Paris (a series of vignettes from Godard, Charbol, etc) and Rohmer’s My Night at Maude’s. Whenever I rummage through the career of these second tier Hollywood directors I can’t believe how high minded they start and how pedestrian they become. Of course it’s not just that their ambitions lessen, the whole culture of film has changed. For some reason Schroeder reminds me a little of Coppola. They both came of age at similar times. Both achieved artistic success early. Both had some major stumbles in the 90s (Jack in Airwalks anyone?), yet they’ve continued to use their money to occasionally make bizarre, deliberately artisitc films. Schroeder with things like Our Lady of The Assassins, Coppola with Twixt.
As far as the performances go, Bidget Fonda is serviceable as Allie. Honestly, she isn’t required to do much more than struggle, and widen her eyes when something weird happens. But it’s Jennifer Jason Leigh who shines. Very few actors could make a wearing a baggy sweater as disturbing as she does. For most of the film you can’t tell if Single White Female wants to be campy, or serious, or dirty, or hilarious, or what? Some of it is so batshit that you desperately want to laugh, but then Jennifer Jason Leigh’s performance is so soft and skin crawling that you can’t.
Single White Female also got me thinking, whatever happened to the Erotic Thriller? The late 80s and early 90s are rightly seen as the pinnacle of this genre (Fatal Attraction, Basic Instinct, 9/12 Weeks, Disclosure, Body Heat… the list goes on and on…) Maybe there’s a new found sensitivity to the femme fatale? Erotic Thrillers typically depend of a powerful, manipulative woman. In the Twitter era are people uncomfortable with this trope? Then again, we have Gone Girl. Or maybe these movies aren’t as popular because of the rise in internet pornography. Perhaps viewers don’t need their mainstream movies to titillate like they once did? I suppose you can still see elements of the erotic thriller in popular TV. House of Cards, especially, has its share of menacing sex. Personally, I’m a big fan of the genre. They’re the perfect antidote to the sex-less drabbery of superhero films. That’s why I for one cheered at the super schlock of 2014’s The Boy Next Door (the perfect blend of dramatic jogging and sex puns: “It got pretty wet here”).
The film has also entered the lexicon in a big way (“And Jack is seeing the manipulative side of you. The Single White Female thing you have with me” – Jennifer Aniston on 30 Rock). You can’t plan for this kind of thing. It has to happens organically. But when a person references a dude at a party or a girl in the elevator giving off some strong Single White Female-vibes, they’re talking about stalker-esque behavior. It reminded me of an interview where M. Night Shamalan said he knew Sixth Sense had truly become a hit because during a pickup basketball game a player made a bad pass and someone yelled, “What’s wrong? You seeing dead people?”. I’m not sure what makes certain ideas or characters burrow into our mass conscience, but Single White Female struck a chord and has since become the standard by which other stalker movies are judged.
Anyway, the film is definitely worth a spin. In fact maybe next time you and your roommates are looking for ways to passive aggressively mark out your space, skip the post it notes, and just put Single White Female on the TV. Problem solved.
– If you ever have to shoot someone in an action scene, take aim one foot to the left of where you’d like to hit. Villains always hit the protagonists in the right arm. If they’d just take their circumstances into account (the fact that they’re in a movie) and move their aim over a bit they’d actually be able to kill their targets rather than just superficially wound them.
– Certain films are classics not really because of their story or performances or cinematic revolutions, but because they’re inextricably linked to a very specific period in time. These films depict the mood, fashion, stylistic tics of that moment. Coffy can only exist in the 70s. Talk Radio can only exist in the late 80s. Every element, all the mise-en-scene in Single White Female screams 1992. The ghostly blue photography of the night scenes (like a sexed up energizer bunny commercial), the floppy hats, the instantly iconic orange bob haircut, the fact that there’s a scene in a club where everyone is wearing leather…