Saturday 17 September 2011

Movie Review: Single White Female (1992)

A psychological thriller that brushes against Hitchcockian levels of ever increasing menacing tension, Single White Female is a compelling descent into the turmoil caused by a deeply disturbed mind.

Allie Jones (Bridget Fonda) is a struggling New York software designer, deeply in love with live-in boyfriend Sam (Steven Weber), and friends with upstairs neighbour Graham (Peter Friedman). Allie's love life collapses when she discovers that Sam cheated on her with his ex-wife. She kicks him out, advertises for a room-mate, and soon Hedy Carlson (Jennifer Jason Leigh) moves in. Although a bit frumpy, Hedy at first appears sensitive and caring, but she gradually reveals obsessive tendencies towards Allie. Hedy adopts Allie's style in fashion and hair, and starts to take liberties with Allie's mail, voice messages and personal belongings.

Things go from uncomfortable to creepy when Allie and Sam reconcile, and Hedy feels like an unwelcome guest in her own apartment. She starts to actively sabotage the relationship between Allie and Sam, and finally turns outright hostile against all the foundations of Allie's life.

Neither Bridget Fonda nor Jennifer Jason Leigh ever made it to Grade A stardom levels; but both actresses are at their best, and possibly their career peaks, in Single White Female. Fonda oozes confident trendiness mixed with the vulnerability that comes from the ground shifting and the walls closing in, the quintessential wannabe career woman unable to break a sequence of body-blow betrayals: her former business partner; her current boyfriend; and now her room-mate.

Leigh's role is darker, more transformational, and ultimately chilling. Initially appearing normal but marching mercilessly into a dance on the edge of madness, Leigh embraces the role of catalyst, aggressor and severely damaged victim.

Barbet Schroeder gets the best out of his two lead actresses, and he imaginatively introduces the New York building that houses Allie's apartment as a menacing co-star. The sturdy, imposing art nouveau structure can't help but seep impending evil, and Schroeder finds all the internal and external perspectives to maximize the sense of doom.

At its climax, Single White Female probably turns the screw twice more than necessary, dropping into cliched and well-stripped "not dead yet" territory. The drama and engagement reside in the journey more than the resolution, and Single White Female has a patient and delectably ominous slide towards its final acts of madness.

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