BY Richard Flood in Reviews | 05 NOV 92
Featured in
Issue 7

Single White Female

BY Richard Flood in Reviews | 05 NOV 92

Here's the situation. You're fabulously wealthy and have just impulsively married a man about whom you know very little. However, what you do know forms a consistent, albeit eccentric, profile. He publishes an architectural magazine which pro-mulgates the thesis that 'the way a place is built determines what happens in it' He describes this kind of architecture as 'felicitous'. At his family's estate in Lavender Falls ('a little better than an hour’s drive from New York'), he has added a wing which contains his collection of felicitous rooms. These rooms are not reproductions but reassem-blages of the originals.

Now, at your wedding reception, he is urged to give a tour of his collection. Not having seen the rooms, you offer encouragement He gracefully acquiesces and the tour commences. What you and the guests encounter is a succession of rooms in which something hideous - murder - has taken place. Unnerved, the guests awkwardly disperse and you are left alone with your suddenly alien husband. 'Didn't you tell me,' you ask 'that you col-lected happy rooms?' He somewhat patronisingly replies: 'Happy? No. Felicitous, is that what you mean? Felicitous doesn't mean happy darling, look it up in the dictionary. lt means happy in effect, fit-ting, apt' What do you do? Well, if you are Joan Bennett trying to work it out with Michael Redgrave, you wait for Fritz Lang to say 'Cut!'.

Lang's Secret Beyond the Door (1948) is the perfect realty-as-character film. The genre inevitably leans toward horror but Lang leavens the horror with Freud. By romanticising and analysing the neurosis which leads to the compulsive release of murderous impulses, Lang is able to make Redgrave's erotic obsession with his rooms as pal-pable as that with his wife. lndeed, the balance of suspense comes from whether woman or architec-ture will win. Because Secret Beyond the Door gives as much attention to the realty as the charac-ters which inhabit it, it is a model for the genre. Further, the liberating application of such a cucumber-sandwich-of-a-word as felicitous to a concept of aesthetic inevitability both enhances and defines the genre, by simply offering a simple criterion for judgement (i.e., is the realty a felicitous container for the events which occur within it?).

If the realty genre is going to work, it needs one thing above all else - realty to die for. The clas-sic example is, of course, Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca (1940). What realtyphile can ever forget Judith Anderson leading a trembling Joan Fontaine through Rebecca's extravagant bedroom? As yards of silk drapery billow lazily in the wind, Anderson introduces Fontaine to her real rival - a dead wom-an's boudoir. The scene is Hitchcock at his voyeuristic best with Anderson seductively intoning: 'You've always wanted to see this room, haven't you, madam? Why did you never ask me to show it to you? I was ready to show it to you every day. It's a lovely room, isn't it? Loveliest room you've ever seen.' In light of what follows, she might have more accurately said, 'Most felicitous room you've ever seen.'

Secret Beyond the Door and Rebecca are but two realty films where the principle of felicitous-ness puts the plot squarely on a lot that could nev-er be occupied by anything as simple as a haunted house. Other landmarks include Edgar Ulmers The Black Cat (1934) in which a glistening Bauhaus sepulcher - 'masterpiece of construction built on a masterpiece of destruction' - becomes a crystalline python in exorably sucking the life from everyone it ingests. Or there is Lewis Allen's The Uninvited (1944) in which a dreamy Georgian mansion has to be wooed and liberated from its life-threatening schizophrenia. Or there is Luchino Visconti's brilliant, under-rated Conversation Piece (1975) in which Burt Lancaster battles for his immortal soul (materialised as a glorious apartment in Rome) against the forces of fascism (Sylvana Mangano) and anarchy (Helmut Berger). Most recently, there is Barbet Schroeder's Single White Female and, through it, the realty genre enters the 90s.

Barbet Schroeder has had a weird directorial career. His first movie More (1969), was one of the most Calvinistic meditations on hedonism ever made. In it,he used Mimsy Farmer (the 60s answer to Louise Brooks) as the existential inheritor of such careless icons of causality as Zola's Nana and Wedikind's Lulu. The result was an ideal end-of--an-era film, summing up and plunging ahead all at once. After More, Schroeder divided his time between oddly colonialist documentaries (Genera/ ldi Amin Dada (1974); Koko A Talking Gorilla (1978)) and pseudo-verité narratives (The Valley (1972); Maitresse (1976)). Then came Barfly (1987). The story, the subject, and the spirit all fused into a three-headed monster named Charles

Bukowski, the pulp and pus meister of American prose. With Barfly Schroeder hit on a mix of Grand Guignol and madcap comedy that - retrospectively - was as true to the blasted 8Os as More was to the 60s. After Barfly, he took a big step backwards as a director and a big step forward as a bankable entrepreneur with a perfectly ordinary docudrama on upper-class beastliness. Now, with Single White Female, he has discovered the realty genre and plunged confusingly ahead.

Bridget Fonda and Jennifer Jason Leigh get top-billing, but the real star of Single White Female is Fonda's dream of an apartment in the Ansonia, one of Manhattan's upper-west-side land marks. It's huge, it's rent-controlled, and as crumblingly swank as the apartment in Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris (1972). In it's light-resilient recesses, Schroeder's camera swirls and creeps and glides in an ecstasy of discovery. The decor is sparse, but sparse as in an Arte Povera installation. The mistress of this fantasy, Fonda, is a yacht-sleek software programmer who, when her boyfriend moves out, is left looking for someone to share the rent. Enter Jason Leigh, a psycho pudding of a girl who quickly starts cosmetically grafting her glam-ourous roomie's virtues onto her own lumpen vices. But mostly there is the realty itself. It has grilled air ducts which enable an upstairs neigh-bour to eavesdrop on Fonda's love making. lt has wrought iron balconies which are decoratively dis-integrating in a manner which becomes suicidally seductive to house pets. It has an enormous tile bathroom which sluices blood like a riptide in the Bay of Fundy. It has glassy mahogany floors which creek only when someone on tippy-toes has espied something which could get them killed. It is realty which, as the plot evolves, is worth: butchering a puppy, giving a lethal blowjob, bludgeoning a neighbour, shooting a snoopy employer. It is, to regress, realty to die for.

The psychological permutations which drive the plot forward am, for the most part, a succession of red herrings. The real issue is that Jason Leigh wants to hold the lease that Fonda wants her to relinquish. Clearly, for Jason Leigh, success is an apartment in New York and there is nothing that she will not stoop to in her efforts to to attain one - the right one. Eventually, it all goes shooting way over the top and Fonda (as Sigourney Weaver) is reduced to fending off Jason Leigh (as the Alien) in the labyrinthian basement of the apartment house. What is wrong is that Schroeder didn't screen Secret Beyond the Door. He simply doesn't under-stand the concept of felicitousness which would have led to a showdown in the apartment which birthed the conflict. If he had trusted his original instinct - the apartment as the object of desire - Single White Female could have been considerably more that it is. Instead of taking the realty genre into a very specific world of market values in a par-ticular city in a particular recession, Schroeder simply settled for the horror thing. That's okay, but it's less than a legend. Without a felicitous context, legends just don't happen.