How Far Will an Incomplete Woman Go to Obtain Her Sense of Self?

by Imran Khan

14 March 2017

Much in the way the women of Persona and 3 Women assimilate into lives of their objects of affection, the women of Single White Female experience a similar fatal mutualism.
 
cover art

SWF Seeks Same

John Lutz

(St Martins)
US: Sep 1990

cover art

Single White Female

Director: Barbet Schroeder
Cast: Bridget Fonda, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Steven Weber

1992

Allie uses men as a social support system; Hedi uses them as social stepladders.

Because her boyfriend Sam is a cheating lout, Allie Jones (Bridget Fonda) kicks him out of her West 70s New York apartment. It feels good and liberating at the start, a step toward the independence that Allie has been seeking since recently moving to New York from the Midwest. But there’s suddenly the issue of paying rent. This has Allie daring to explore the strange world of want ads. If she can get herself a new roommate fast, she won’t have to suffer the difficult, sometimes soul-destroying, work of having to secure an apartment in New York City.

Enter Hedi (Jennifer Jason Leigh), Allie’s new roommate. From just a glance, Allie is thinking what most people probably are when they see her: a mousy, introverted nobody who wouldn’t so much as step on an ant as she would anybody’s toes in her sad attempt to blend in. Hedi, being the dowdy, somewhat waifish woman that she is, doesn’t threaten Allie. Allie feels comfortable around her and doesn’t have to submit to any jealous tendencies with her: Hedi has nothing Allie wants. Hedi, on the other hand, is looking into Allie’s life with more than just a passing interest.

Pretty soon, things around the apartment take a mysterious turn. Allie notices that Hedi’s closet contains clothes that are near duplicates of her very own. Hedi is also overly apologetic, clingy and soon begins absorbing a lot of Allie’s mannerisms. It’s subtle at first, but becomes increasingly apparent over time.

Things become even creepier when Allie discovers the wig that Hedi hides in her closet—a wig resembling Allie’s own hair. Along with the duplicate wardrobe, Hedi’s strange behaviour and the wig, things are adding up to a funny picture. When Sam comes back into Allie’s life, Allie has the perfect excuse to get rid of Hedi. It’s with relief that she watches Hedi leave as her boyfriend prepares to move back in. But her relief turns to horror when Sam is found murdered; mutilated in his hotel room. There can only be one person behind this…

John Lutz, a writer of mysteries whose popularity among readers soared during the ‘80s, fashions a narrative of labyrinthine twists from a rather facile and ordinary concept. Published in 1990, SWF Seeks Same found fame two years later when the far more popular film adaptation, Single White Female saw a release in the summer of 1992. The film was a cash-in to capitalize on the home-invasion thriller that had become rampant during the early ‘90s, with a spate of films that included The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, Poison Ivy and Unlawful Entry. These storylines dealt with an unsuspecting and naïve family or individual who unwisely invited a stranger with ulterior motives into their world of domestic bliss.

Lutz’s narrative is squarely about the pains of urban living, the puzzling flow of human bodies that seem to only exist for the purpose of surviving the constant rotary of daily struggles. SWF Seeks Same is written as a cautionary tale about what hard living in a metropolis like New York City can do to a soul. Hedi, the everywoman-deathtrap, is positioned as a soulless life-thief: the entire urban nightmare experience compacted and embodied into the single, lone woman who haunts both the apartment and Allie’s conscience.

Lutz draws out the narrative with methodical and deliberate design; his purpose is to place, rather systemically, his character in a kind of psychological obstacle course to see how a Midwestern girl’s wits will hold up against a brutally cold urban environment. Often, the slack in two-tiered character development (Allie’s and Hedi’s individual and co-dependent emotional engagements) is loosened in order to submit to an exercise in exploring a culture clash of gender ideals. Allie, a woman alone in a dog-eat-dog environment, is constantly reminded of a life absent of men. Her interactions with the male sex serve as yet another lesson about living alone in the city; one that seems to outline, rather myopically, why single women have it so hard. At one point, when Hedi’s duplicitous and murderous actions are questioned, she responds rather facetiously, “You have any idea how hard it is to get an apartment in New York?”

Women in Lutz’s novel are reduced to an aggression that’s brought on by an almost territorial inclination (usually seen as the preserve of men). Their living space, which seems to psychologically extend to their very identities, is fought over depending on the proximity it has to their sexual relationships with men. Hedi murders Sam—who once belonged to Allie—after sleeping with him numerous times and claiming him for herself. She lets Allie know this before she later dons the wig and Allie’s attire and murders him in his hotel suite, thereby incriminating Allie. At every remove, we watch how a woman navigates and manipulates both the physical and emotional space around her, depending on how she is defined (by herself or by others) accordingly to her relationships with men.


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Allie uses men as a social support system; Hedi uses them as social stepladders. In this way, Lutz takes a conventional mystery narrative and infuses its plot structure with the unpleasant, though subtle, atmosphere of a sort of inverse misogyny. Survival here is tethered to male companionship, the elemental compounds of the female psyche at once dissected and mystified by the will to fight for a separate identity in spite of the emotional attachments. Allie’s ultimate comeuppance, a drag-out fight with Hedi (ramped up to sadistic heights in the novel’s film version), is sidelined by the fact that her triumph in reclaiming her life and identity is somewhat negated by the aid and protection of a male private detective who comes to her rescue in the end.

Hedi (L) and Allie (R) find much in common

Hedi (L) and Allie (R) find much in common

Brutal and elegant in equal measure, Barbet Schroeder’s film adaptation, Single White Female (its title abbreviated from the novel’s not entirely PC one) radically restructures the novel’s original plot. No longer about identity theft in urban environments, which is the premise of Lutz’s story, Schroeder opts to paint a picture of deadly symbiotic relationships and the dangers of enmeshment between vulnerable women. Starring Bridget Fonda and Jennifer Jason Leigh, the film espouses a kind of sisterhood ideology of the ‘90s, a decade defined by the rapid development in technology and the resultant alienation experienced by those marginalized by it.

Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann in Persona (1966)

Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann in Persona (1966)

Single White Female follows much of the set-up from Lutz’s novel, except that Hedi’s rage and sisterly desires come from a need, through an outside source, to be unified as a whole. The outside source here is Allie, a perfect stand-in, as Hedi sees it, for her dead twin sister. Lutz’s version of Hedi uses women and men to acquire mobility in the world (fancy apartments, money, a lavish lifestyle) whereas Schroeder’s version, articulated through Leigh, dispatches with men in order to find a woman who can keep her emotionally stunted and rooted in her childhood past. Don Roos’ script owes much to Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (about a mute actress and her caretaker), another film that explores female symbiotic relationships. Like the two women in Persona, as the men in Allie’s and Hedi’s lives fall away, they both become clearly defined by their intent as women to assert an identity—whether it’s one separate from the other’s, or one which has become the product of both women’s identities combined.

Roos wisely forgoes some of the more silly trappings of Lutz’s plot, particularly a subplot where Allie, as a result of Hedi’s nefarious scheming, goes homeless for about a day and suddenly has a newfound respect for the destitute. Instead, he narrows the story down to the claustrophobic contraptions of a chamber drama and constructs Hedi as a sort of companion shadow of Allie, in danger of vanishing if Allie herself ever should.

Sissy Spacek and Shelley Duvall in 3 Women (1977)

Sissy Spacek and Shelley Duvall in 3 Women (1977)

This identity-symbiosis is wonderfully realized in Schroeder’s conceptualized approach of framing New York City as a place with a most desirable standard of living. In addition to the aforementioned Persona, there are elements of Robert Altman’s 3 Women, yet another film about the merging of identities, present in Schroeder’s film as well. New York City, throughout Single White Female, is rendered a working woman’s playground; only the sharpest and most esteemed know how to navigate it and survive.

In 3 Women, Pinky (played by Sissy Spacek) initiates a co-dependent relationship with her co-worker, Millie (Shelly Duvall), whom she sees as a woman who knows how to survive on her own. Pinky is unable to manoeuvre through the working world with much success and her ability to do the simplest things (pay rent, organize dinner and talk with other people) depends on her bond with Millie. Similarly, Hedi’s reliance on Allie stems from her fear of being left behind; a fear instilled in her from the time her twin sister (her symbiotic other half) drowned as a child. Much in the way that the women of Persona and 3 Women assimilate into the working lives of their objects of affection, the women of Single White Female experience a similar fatal mutualism.

Sleekly designed with a kind of sophistication both urban and modern, Single White Female’s visual schema represents the lifestyle of women fighting their way to the top in a “man’s world”. Nothing quite illustrates this struggle and peremptory desire than the vicious battle between the two women in the film’s final third. Schroeder often envelopes the remarkably hideous violence in a lustrous sheen of cosmopolitan splendour. Allie and Hedi fight in ways that seem primal and desperate, unlike the coordinated and calculated battles between men in many action-thriller films.

The two women’s struggles are underscored by a far sadder truth that reveals, at least according to Schroeder’s film, how far, ironically, “incomplete” women will go to gain a wholly uncompromised self. In a chilling scene toward the finalé, Hedi holds Allie captive at gunpoint and tells her: “Did you know identical twins are never really identical? There is always one who is prettier, and the one who isn’t, does all the work. She used me and then she left me—just like you.” What follows is a horrific struggle of slash-and-burn violence. It all takes place in a perfectly manicured apartment inside the urbane building that Allie lives in. Obliquely, this set-up reveals the enviable status of a self-made cosmopolitan woman. Hedi sees herself, compared to Allie, as a failure, being the lesser half of the whole person that she and her now dead twin once were. Allie, having earlier dissolved her friendship with Hedi, later confirms her own failures in self-actualization when she tells her: “I’m not like your sister, Hedi. Not anymore. I’m like you now.”

What significantly marks Schroeder’s film from Lutz’s novel is how the women of this narrative view the struggle for a wholly independent identity—separate from the male gaze as well as from other women. Lutz seems to argue, indirectly, that a woman’s success at independence is the result of how well she navigates and assimilates into the male-dominated world of business and commerce; thus her identity is formed. Schroeder’s film argues the reverse—when all notions of patriarchal security and success are dispelled, a woman’s identity is formed in the crisis of having to defend herself with the only thing she truly has: herself.

Single White Female was razed by many critics upon its theatrical release. Heaped upon the same pile deemed as thriller-trash, many of the film’s attributes (namely the rather astute deliberations on gender-relations) were overlooked. Noted, however, were the daring and realized performances of both Fonda and Leigh, who extend of themselves a kind of elemental unrest, delivered at turns with equanimity and force. Single White Female and its themes may seem dated by today’s ideas (and, therefore, perceived standards) of female empowerment. But its narrative of fractured identities still resonates with a troubling thesis on the nature on female co-dependence: a woman’s best ally is sometimes her worst enemy.

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