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‘Single White Female’ (R)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
August 14, 1992

In "Single White Female," the psychological atmosphere that director Barbet Schroeder creates is so densely threatening that the air feels thick around you. Though Schroeder consciously evokes Hitchcock's "Vertigo" and Polanski's "Rosemary's Baby," the movie conjures up less noble precursors as well, in particular "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle," "Basic Instinct" and other recent psycho femme thrillers. What's remarkable, though, is how engrossing the marriage of these high- and low-brow elements turns out to be. The tension between its content and its trashy form is precisely the key to its vitality. If it were any less cheap, it wouldn't have the same edgy, gut-twisting jolt.

Schroeder's true subject here is dependency, and to explore it he puts his microscope to the relationship between two vastly different young New York women, Allison (Bridget Fonda) and Hedy (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who become roommates in Allison's rent-controlled Upper West Side apartment. (There's one catch: because of the rent control, Hedy has to remain officially anonymous.)

Allison is a drop-dead set of curves topped with a helmet of flame-red Louise Brooks hair whose fiance is history for sleeping with his ex-wife. Immediately, the contrasts between the roommates is blinding. Hedy is as painfully self-conscious as Allison is outgoing; as plain as Allison is ravishing; and as sullen as Allison is bright. But where Allison is romantic and naive, Hedy is a realist with a keen sense of horse hockey. Allison, who has never lived alone, isn't even aware how shaky her sense of self is, or how much she needs others to reinforce it.

Hedy, who is the guilty surviving member of a pair of identical twins, is more than happy to act as Allison's reflecting pool. All her life -- or at least since the age of 9, when her twin was killed in an accident -- Hedy has been searching for her missing "other half," and before long, the women begin to function as two smoothly meshed parts of a single machine, protecting each other, confessing and dreaming out loud to each other and sharing each other's clothes, perfume and tastes in movies.

Schroeder shoots these sisterly bonding scenes as if the two strangers were falling blissfully, magically in love, transforming them instantly into the most appealing and effortlessly compatible romantic movie couple of the year. But the information that we have about Hedy and that Allison doesn't have gives this lyrical (and unconsummated) courtship a ripping edge, because we can see Hedy slowly but steadily transforming herself into Allison's double.

Allison's relationship with Hedy is precious for obvious reasons: By becoming her mirror, Hedy has answered Allison's most fervent, most terrifying secret prayer. Naturally, when Hedy's intentions become obvious -- at the precise moment when Hedy marches down the stairs at the beauty parlor with her hair styled and colored identically to her roommate's -- Allison is enraged though for reasons she can't quite articulate. And by the time she figures out that something unhealthy is going on, it's too late.

Fonda and Leigh are brilliantly subtle in the way they modulate the flowing emotional currents between their characters. As the frumpy, mush-mouthed Hedy, Leigh is most dazzling when she looks longingly and scrupulously over Allison's features, studying every pore, the fragile angle of her neck, her insouciant, hip-locked way of standing, like an actress working her way into character. She's the movies' first Method roommate.

Yet, while Leigh has the part with the flashier effects, Fonda shows how Allie blossoms under Hedy's tireless attentions. If you look at the film as a kind of psychological vampire movie, with Allie as the parasite's victim, you can see how enthralled the victim is by its enemy, how ready to be taken.

You can ponder "Single White Female" from a great many angles -- as a lesbian power struggle, or a symbolic depiction of the soul-stealing that goes on in every relationship -- but of all the possible alternatives, Schroeder and screenwriter Don Roos have chosen the simplest and the least alluring. In the end, the movie deteriorates into a predictable exercise in melodramatic slasher tactics.

Schroeder's refusal to choose moral sides gives the psychological confrontation between the women the kind of weird, mutually accepted form of diseased codependency that Claus and Sunny von Bulow shared in his previous film, "Reversal of Fortune." In "Single White Female," Schroeder leaves the subtext unresolved, but manages to strike a very raw nerve.

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