2017 Film Essays

Obsession and Compulsion: A Deep Look at ‘Single White Female’

Following a trend set by successful films like Misery and Fatal Attraction, the 1990s featured a wealth of movies about dangerously obsessive women. Dubbed “romantic thrillers,” they all followed a few similar themes. They were each about women who became so fixated with a man that they would kill to be a part of his life. All of these films had their differences, of course, but the obsession theme was a constant. In a way, this almost serves as a nightmare/wish fulfillment fantasy for men. In these movies, the scariest thing is that women desire the protagonists so badly that they essentially lose their mind. It’s such a bizarre blend of erotic horror and sexual fantasy, because it’s portrayed, on a basic level, as simply being too much of a good thing.

It’s not an inherently bad dynamic, and it doesn’t mean that these movies are bad by any stretch of the imagination. But, the obsession theme means something different when the protagonist is male as opposed to female. There’s often an undercurrent of ego stroking, with the men being so good that the women can’t possibly control themselves around them. Take that same premise, add a female protagonist and everything changes. Single White Female, I think, proves that.

Like Fatal Attraction and Basic Instinct, Barbet Schroeder’s film is part of a long wave of 90s sexual thrillers. Unfortunately, because there are so many, Single White Female tends to get lost in the shuffle. That’s disappointing because, in some ways, it’s the best of the bunch. Taken at face value, it’s about a woman (Jennifer Jason Leigh as Hedra) who obsesses over her roommate (Bridget Fonda as Allie). Yes, Hedy want to be the only person in Allie’s life, but she also want to consume every aspect of her. While it’s done under the guise of a clingy friendship, the dynamic wears thin pretty quickly.

This is, just like Fatal Attraction or Basic Instinct, an obsessive love story. The difference is that Single White Female doesn’t distinguish between the idea of wanting to be someone and wanting to be with them — which makes it fascinating. Also fueling these differences are the strong storytelling voices of director Schroeder (a prominent French New Wave figure) and cinematographer Luciano Tovoli (a frequent collaborator of Dario Argento), both of whom bring a sense of style and sophistication to the film.

Single White Female evolves from a thriller about identity robbery to a film about transformative desire. At the beginning, Allie looks to define herself on her own terms. She’s engaged to Sam (Steven Weber) but then discovers that he recently slept with his ex-wife. So, Allie kicks him out of the apartment. She’s looking to redefine herself as a person without being simply defined by her relationship. Meanwhile, Allie looks for a roommate. Because of her break-up, she’s vulnerable when Hedra comes into her life. She wants someone to be there for her. Hedra is so completely different than Allie, and that intrigues her.

Allie, of course, has no idea what she’s getting into. The conflict begins when she gives her new roommate the rhyming nickname “Hedy,” allowing her to assimilate certain personality traits. It’s completely harmless, but she doesn’t know that Hedy is completely prepared to take this to an unimaginable degree.

The obsession in Single White Female is not always sexual in nature, but the subtext is extremely present. Hedy obsesses over Allie. She doesn’t want Allie to have anyone else in her life. She doesn’t even want Allie to have anything. She deletes Sam’s voicemails. She kills Allie’s puppy. Because Hedy knows that Allie would reject her advances, she decides to become her. Schroeder deliberately conveys this transformation as something gradual. Hedy’s not portrayed as a bomb that could simply go off at any moment. Instead, Schroeder makes sure viewers see the fuse. The clock runs out, so the audience knows what’s coming.

Allie struggles with her identity, so she lets Hedy into her life as a friend. Everything Hedy does is basically a twisted way of providing answers for her roommate. For Hedy, it’s an obsession rooted in infatuation. A haircut is, essentially, an act of masturbation. She only wants Allie —  and by becoming her, she’ll know her more intimately than anyone. But the obsession ultimately stems from the fact that Hedy has absolutely no sense of self.

These themes are most prominently on display in Hedy’s seduction of Sam. She’s not doing it because she’s attracted to him. That never factors into the equation, which is made perfectly clear by the fact that she’s so perfectly willing to kill him. This is Single White Female’s most important scene. Hedy can’t have sex with Allie — that’s an unattainable goal and she knows it. But she can have sex as Allie, and that’s the next best thing. Or, in some ways, it might be better — more personal. Sam believes that he’s with Allie and that’s exactly what Hedy wants: to be in the moment, to have someone passionately moaning Allie’s name.

Hedy takes an identity because she doesn’t really have one of her own. This problematic lens makes Single White Female a strongly crafted examination of obsessive crushes. A small fixation can be fine, but it can often balloon into something much bigger. In Single White Female, being fixated with a person’s looks, behavior and personality represents a fetishization of that person as a whole. It’s a female-driven Fatal Attraction, in which physical transformation not only overcomes sexual gratification, it completely replaces it.

Nat Brehmer (@NatBrehmer) is a freelance writer and journalist who has somehow conned several of his favorite sites into giving him a platform to write about Puppet Master. You can find his reviews, analyses and absurd (but sincere) opinions at Wicked Horror, Dread Central, Bloody Disgusting, Diabolique, We Got This Covered and more. 


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