Like so many films made to espouse a particular sociopolitical agenda, Female Perversions could easily have been a dry feminist treatise, smugly preaching to the already converted. But director Susan Streitfeld, along with co-screenwriter Julie Hebert, has managed to take Dr. Louise J. Kaplan's nonfiction book -- which is less about sex than the rigid conditioning of gender roles -- and graft it onto an engrossing fictional story line.
Female Perversions exists as two intersecting narratives. The first concerns the career path of an ambitious attorney named Eve Stephens (Tilda Swinton) who, after a successful, high-profile trial, may be appointed to a judgeship. Prone to wearing sexy power suits matched with delicate-deadly stiletto heels, Eve has the combination of brains, composure, fierce determination and taste for the media spotlight that makes her a force to be reckoned with.
The second narrative springs from Eve's fertile unconscious. During her frequent and intense sexual encounters with her lovers, a seismologist (Clancy Brown) and a psychiatrist (Karen Sillas) -- Eve is an equal-opportunity seducer and director Streitfeld treats her heterosexual and homosexual relationships equally -- she enters an elaborate fantasy world full of quasi-religious imagery where oblique authority figures determine whether she is bound and restricted or made to walk a tightrope.
At other times, she becomes overwhelmed by all-too-real images of humiliation and degradation, as if a crippling internal voice cuts her down whenever she demands too much power.
Streitfeld makes her feminist arguments with razor-sharp precision. In an early scene where Eve is arguing a case in court, the camera cuts from close-ups of Swinton's body to the men in the courtroom -- from the judge on down -- who hungrily eye her. As Eve is successfully demonizing a polluting industrialist for the benefit of the environment and her career, these men are objectifying her. In a final indignity, the bailiff turns off his hearing aid so he can fully concentrate on Eve's assets.
In Female Perversions (the title refers to a Kaplan quote which equates the stereotype of "normal femininity" to a perversion of women's complex nature), Eve serves as both the everywoman from Adam's rib and as a deeply troubled and conflicted individual forced to re-evaluate her notions about what it means to be female in a male-defined environment.
At a pivotal point, Streitfeld surrounds Eve with a disparate group of women, including her estranged sister Madelyn (Amy Madigan), a reclusive kleptomaniac working on a doctoral dissertation about Mexican matriarchal society. Madelyn rents a room from Emma (Laila Robins), a bridal seamstress eager for love-approval from men; her daughter Edwina (Dale Shuger) is a 13-year-old tomboy fiercely fighting the changes in her body. They are joined by Emma's sister Annunciata (Frances Fisher), a no-nonsense stripper who recognizes that her body is currency.
While these characters are written as archetypal women, the excellent actresses who embody them create very real, testy and flawed individuals. This is especially true of Swinton, who manages the same feat here that she accomplished as the gender-altering title character in Sally Potter's fine Orlando (1993): that of turning feminist theory into flesh and blood.
Female Perversions is unapologetically a women's movie, and not just because several key sequences revolve around the application of lipstick.
"Excuse me for being powerful" reads an ad in a glossy fashion magazine which has been slyly altered by director Streitfeld.
Like Female Perversions, that text -- slashed across an image of a woman very much like Eve -- is both accessible and highly idiosyncratic, didactic and enlightening.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at email@example.com.