Thriller Capsizes in Cliches

Film `Single White Female' sets up but fails to probe crucial issues of identity and privacy

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

THE right to privacy has figured in debates on many social issues, from abortion to civil liberty.

Issues like those don't come directly into "Single White Female," the new thriller by Barbet Schroeder, who has a longstanding interest in topical subjects. But the movie's title - referring to race, gender, and marital status in one economical phrase - points to its concern with urban society as a place where private and public matters have become difficult to keep in separate domains.

Allie, the heroine, thinks life would be reasonably secure if her unfaithful boyfriend would only start behaving himself. The first scenes of the picture make it plain, however, that her environment is packed with pitfalls just waiting to trip her up.

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Not only one's personal circumstances, the film suggests, but the basic configurations of city life are primed to give us troubles and tribulations. Neighbors snoop on our intimate activities; answering machines pick up our secret conversations; open windows are invitations for pets to leap into oblivion. And so on, at every turn.

The plot of "Single White Female" shifts into high gear when Allie ditches her boyfriend and decides to take a roommate. This crystallizes the movie's interest in urban angst, since it brings the realm of the private (Allie's apartment) crashing against the realm of the public (ad in the paper, interviews with strangers, sharing her home with an outsider).

The fascination of this theme for current moviegoers is reflected in the frequency of its appearances lately. "Unlawful Entry," about a young couple and a psychotic cop, and "Pacific Heights," about a young couple and a psychotic boarder, are two of the recent films that focus on the challenge of maintaining privacy (and safety) when society, supported by law, insists on barging in with unwelcome priorities.

"Single White Female" combines anxiety over privacy with anxiety over personal identity. Allie's new roomate, Hedy, turns out to have an unusual mental aberration: She's so eager to revive the existence of a deceased twin sister that she starts dressing and behaving like Allie and turning violent when Allie doesn't think this is a good idea. Eventually, scenes between Allie and Hedy have more than two characters in them - since Hedy is also Ellen, the real identity she was born with, and Allie is also He dy's long-dead sister, at least in Hedy's imagination.

ALL these complications might have provided fertile ground for a bold exploration of privacy, identity, and related issues, if director Schroeder and screenwriter Don Roos had any intention of probing them with seriousness and intelligence.

Unfortunately, they set up the conditions for such an analysis and then do a terrible job of it, plunging instead into the most hackneyed and sensationalistic kind of thriller. This is the sort of movie where a closeup of a screwdriver in the first 15 minutes means there's sure to be a screwdriver murder (actual or attempted) in the last 15 minutes; and don't get attached to that cute puppy, since it wouldn't be in the film if it weren't a goner from the start.

"Single White Female" also fails as a contribution to the ever-growing genre of twin movies - a flexible genre that ranges from the foolish comedy of "Twins" to the insinuating morbidity of "Dead Ringers" and the energetically mixed emotions of "Equinox," a Matthew Modine picture not yet released.

I take a special interest in twin movies for two reasons. First, twins make interesting metaphors for ambiguities and ambivalences in the human condition. Second, my own children happen to be identical twins. Since they are happy and well-adjusted young men, and since none of us have ever been confused about their identities, I naturally reject the notion that twins are prone to the pathologies shown so cleverly in "Dead Ringers" and so ploddingly in "Single White Female."

So here's a memo to Hollywood: It's time for some fresher symbols, please!

In technical respects, "Single White Female" is competently made. Luciano Tovoli's cinematography handsomely catches some aspects of Manhattan's ambience, and Lee Percy's editing is often crisp, if rather heavy-handed at moments. (Did we really need a closeup of that screwdriver?) Bridget Fonda and Jennifer Jason Leigh are excellent choices for the leading roles, especially when their makeup and hair styling (by Lizbeth Williamson and Candace Neal, respectively) give them an effectively identical look.

Still, the movie is a disappointment coming from Mr. Schroeder, an adventurous filmmaker whose varied career reached a high point recently in "Reversal of Fortune," which found valuable and original things to say about contemporary American life. "Single White Female" capsizes in the sort of cliches and exploitation that "Reversal of Fortune" adroitly sidestepped. It's a regrettable move in a very wrong direction. Rated R for sex, violence, and language.

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