Single White Female

(Barbet Schroeder, USA, 1992)


I happened to see Barbet Schroeder’s excellent thriller Single White Female – which was largely dismissed by reviewers as just another, tired variation on the Fatal Attraction (1987) formula – in the same week that I caught Gillian Armstrong’s quiet, domestic melodrama The Last Days of Chez Nous (1992). Although existing in starkly different genres, the two films surprisingly share certain elements.

Both are about female friendship; both deal with the tangled webs of emotional dependence and independence in modern relationships; and both centre on a sexual intrigue involving one man shared by two women. (Schroeder has commented that what drew him to the project – originally offered to Brian De Palma, who found it too ‘predictable’ – was the real-life ‘horror’ that women feel when someone they know exactly copies their ‘look’ or style.)

Yet, where Armstrong’s film is open to life’s difficulties and complexities, Schroeder’s vision is more strictly paranoid. His film is a cautionary tale, an intimacy thriller about the hell of modern city living and its manners. Interpersonal communication occurs coldly, via telephone, fax and computer. Sexual harassment is the norm in the workplace. No one can be trusted – especially those friends and lovers who share your apartment.

Severing contact with her sneaky boyfriend, Allie (Bridget Fonda) faces the challenge of being a single white female. She takes in flatmate Hedy (Jennifer Jason Leigh) in the hope that a supportive, female friendship will cure her neurotic, romantic longings. But something even worse occurs: strange, destructive patterns of behaviour are triggered in both women as a result of their twin-like intimacy.

As becomes painfully clear, Hedy – mirroring Allie’s every look and move – is the more obviously disturbed. Jennifer Jason Leigh, whose screen specialty seems to be portraying nuts, gives a chilling performance. Hedy descends into utter madness and violence in order to keep her ‘mate’. Like so many heroines of modern cinema, Allie is forced to discover, in a hurry, a few primal, survival skills.

Like every contemporary film with thrills and murder in it, Single White Female is doomed to be labelled Hitchcockian. But its deeper debt is to Roman Polanski. As in Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) or Rosemary’s Baby  (1968), Schroeder keeps the elements of his film deliberately minimal. Everything is bare walls, pools of light, inscrutable faces in close-up. Then, suddenly, violence explodes – a sign of the human animal bursting out of polite, social constraints. Whatever their gender, social status or apparent personality, everyone – under the social mask – is out to dominate the person next to them.

In Schroeder’s eyes, all human behaviour is quietly or loudly mad, and all social systems are makeshift, decaying structures. The women in Single White Female are on exactly the same plane as the anti-heroes of his previous features and documentaries – Idi Amin, Koko the talking gorilla, the drunks of Barfly (1987), and Claus von Bulow in Reversal of Fortune (1990).

Schroeder’s black humour is a tough but highly stimulating tonic.

MORE Schroeder: Before and After, Desperate Measures, Maîtresse, Kiss of Death

© Adrian Martin October 1992

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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