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Female Trouble (1974)
Directed by: John Waters
Starring: Divine, David Lochary, Mary Vivian Pearce, Mink Stole, Edith Massey
Running Time: 1 h 29 m
TMM Score: 3.5 stars out of 5
STRENGTHS: Writing, Directing, Eccentricity
WEAKNESSES: Content, Acting(?), Cinematography
A spoiled high school girl runs away from home and has to turn to a life of crime to support herself.
Well, my curiosity got the better of me; I caved and watched another Waters film, and this time, not alone. I watched this movie with Karl (the roommate) and Chad (the cinephile we mention on the podcast constantly), and I dare say all of us enjoyed this (as much as one ‘enjoys’ a Waters movie- the first time through it’s more an experience than anything else). I would actually go so far as to say that this film was a bit tamer than Desperate Living, even though Female Troubles is rated NC-17 (it would be an easy ‘R’ by today’s standards). This was also the first movie I watched with Waters’ muse, Divine, the large and loud transvestite that starred in seven of Waters’ features. While I wouldn’t say that any of the movies I’ve seen from Waters are cinematic masterpieces, they are undoubtedly works of John Waters, and they couldn’t be confused with films from any other director. Say what you want about the way Waters’ films might look cheap and unpolished, they still have more of a voice than ninety percent of the comedy films that come out today. I can guarantee that I’ll remember small details from this film for far longer than I remember anything at all about this year’s Tag. His films might not look amazing, but they shout truths and opinions at you until you throw your hands up and relent.
“I don’t want to seem overly bitter, but I’d appreciate it if you would destroy all of his belongings.”
As with my review for Desperate Living, I want to start by saying that by me reviewing this movie, this is not a recommendation. Again, there is content in this film that makes it tough for me to recommend to anyone: the characters are all loudmouthed, spoiled, and prone to criminal acts; the situations they get into are bizarre and sometimes inappropriate; and the dialogue is riddled with language and gross out humor. This is just a review for a film that I’ve seen recently. As we continue this blog, I’m sure there will be other films that I review that I, personally, enjoy, but I can’t recommend due to content. I’m simply telling you about this film; you can decide if you want to see it.
This story revolves around Dawn Davenport (Divine, Multiple Maniacs), and the trials and tribulations of her life. We join her when she is in high school; she’s a spoiled student that curses at her teachers, smokes in the bathroom and is horrid to her parents on Christmas morning because they wont buy her ‘Cha Cha Heels.’ She’s a tough character to like; in fact, Waters seems to want us to be more shocked by her than feel a connection to her. Christmas morning, after Dawn unwraps her presents, and then throws them all on the ground and stomps on them like a toddler, she runs away, is picked up by a passing car and she ends up getting raped by the driver in an extended scene that- I hate to say it- John Waters tried to make funny (one of the primary reasons why I can’t recommend this movie). From there, we flash forward a few years. Taffy Davenport (Mink Stole, Serial Mom) is now a young girl, and Dawn seems totally incapable of taking care of her; she doesn’t go to school, there’s rarely anything to eat, and Dawn seems more focused on herself and her rivalry with Aunt Ida (Edith Massey, Desperate Living) than supporting a family. Dawn turns to a life of prostitution and crime in order to make ends meet, but eventually, she runs into a pair of photographers at a salon, and they tell her they like to photograph women committing crimes. Desperate to prove her worth to the world, Dawn engages in criminal activities in front of the camera, hoping to gain some kind of fame.
I found some of the themes Waters was touching on felt very reminiscent of one of his later entries, Serial Mom (that film I can recommend- it’s not as John-Watersy as this one, but it still has some of his bite). In both Serial Mom and Female Troubles, Waters seems interested in examining the fame that comes with a vagrant criminal life style. He seems to poke fun at the fact that our culture likes to idolize (or at least put a spotlight on) people who have done horrible things. Dawn, in this film, does a number of horrible and shocking things, and most of them are just played off for laughs- but at the same time, it seems a bit of a commentary on how the media puts on a pedestal those who have committed some of the worst wrongs.
Waters himself is the best part of any John Waters movie. His influence from behind the camera is the only reason I keep coming back to his stuff. He writes dialogue that sounds so strange, so out there, that I feel like I’ve missed half of his jokes the first time I went through this film. His directing style is also very unique. Most of the actors in this film (if not all of them) are not professionally trained actors- they’re just people Waters knew and he turned them into stars. Many of the people he used in this film, he used in his other films too (Divine, Mink Stole, and Edith Massey all return for many other films). The acting they do isn’t great- it’s overblown and ridiculous- many times they just scream their lines at each other. I can absolutely understand if someone would look at this film and see only garbage- but it’s not. Though the acting, by other standards, would be considered poor, in a Waters film, speaking his dialogue, it works really well. His films have a surreal quality to them, and the acting in his movies furthers that surreal quality.
Production design is something I actually really like in Waters’ films. In this film in particular, a lot of the sets had weird patters on the wallpaper, other sets were (of course) riddled with garbage and wreckage, and others were filled with things you wouldn’t see anywhere else (Where else would you see a hook-handed sixty-year-old lady sitting in a giant birdcage?). His designs are just as unique as his dialogue, and they’re often filled with memorable, and sometimes disturbing, imagery. Perhaps the worst thing about this film is the cinematography; there are many times in the film when characters bounce in and out of frame- sometimes their faces are completely cut off while they’re talking- the camera is seldom level. Honestly, though, if you came to a John Waters movie expecting a polished film, you came to the wrong place.
Again, I can’t exactly recommend this film wholeheartedly, but I can say that this was an easier watch than Desperate Living. Waters is a strange filmmaker, but he has films unlike anything else I’ve seen. This certainly is not everybody’s cup of tea; it’s perhaps one of the most unusual films I’ve seen- but if you’re looking for something so shockingly different than what you might find in today’s cinema, Waters might be for you.
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