“Single White Female” begins in a bathroom. Two twin girls, not older than eight, sit on a wide sink spread with Mommy’s makeup. They’re dressed in matching white dresses, wearing matching pearl earrings. They smile silently at each other as they apply red lipstick, suppressing giggles so they won’t get caught. It’s a private moment between the sisters, but one they share with us. When they look at the camera, level-eyed and covered in makeup, we become the third member of this hush-hush operation. A trio now, it’s our duty to keep our sisters’ secret. We’ve become the silent accessory, the third twin.
It’s this triangulation that will govern the rest of the movie. “Single White Female” is a story about a friendship between two women, and what happens to that friendship when obsession and murder get introduced. Through it all, we bear witness to a series of doublings and replications and are relegated to the role of third sister. We’re the odd woman out, unable to help or hinder but aware of the terror mounting onscreen. In this way, the movie works. The thrill comes from seeing both sides of the coin and yet not knowing whether to call heads or tails. Watching ‘Female’ is an exercise in restraint: as with most scary movies, you want to scream “Look out! Don’t go in there!” and yet with this one, that impulse feels especially futile. We’re the third twin, remember? That look the sisters gave us in the beginning has sealed our fate. We’ve been sworn to secrecy.
(A quick disclaimer might be necessary at this point in my review: “Single White Female” came out in 1992. If you’ve never heard of Barbet Schroeder, that’s okay, neither have I — although Wikipedia informs me he’s the director. I also have no idea who John Lutz is, but apparently he wrote the novel on which ‘Female’ is based. All I know is that I stayed up late watching this movie on Netflix, and I’m very happy I did.)
“Single White Female” stars Bridget Fonda (as in Henry, Peter and Jane) as Allie, a new New Yorker working the business end of the fashion industry. We meet her settling into a huge rent-controlled apartment and reeling from a breakup. We’re meant to see her as a modern bohemian, chatting with the gay guy upstairs and sporting a bright red pixie haircut. There’s a decidedly European air to Allie that comes across when she carries an armful of produce in a straw grocery bag and wears oversized Oxford shirts belted at the waist. We like her instantly. She’s our heroine.
Jenifer Jason Leigh (“Margot at the Wedding”) plays Hedy, the shy girl Allie enlists as her new roommate. Hedy’s duty is to remain silent and out of sight, for, due to some legal mumbo-jumbo, Allie can’t list Hedy on the lease for fear of losing the apartment. Hedy, clearly impressed by Allie’s beauty and fabulous lifestyle, quickly agrees to this sneaky arrangement. It’s fascinating to watch their budding friendship, a process the movie handles quite believably. Allie, still a mess from dumping her boyfriend, finds in Hedy a loyal girlfriend — her first in the big city. Hedy, so mousy and insecure, loves the attention shown to her by Allie and is more than happy to act as an emotional crutch during her new friend’s time of need.
The girls’ apartment becomes a giggly bachelorette pad, and we see here our first twinning. We watch the two become closer and closer, sharing clothes and perfume like sisters — or perhaps something more? We watch as the film plays up this ambiguity, blurring the lines separating platonic from lesbian relationship. There are moments of awkward sensuality, as when Hedy dries herself off after a shower in front of a surprised and blushing Allie. When the two buy a puppy, we see them as mothers, almost as lifelong partners. They fall asleep in the same bed, arm-in-arm with an old movie playing in the background. The film delights in these are-they-or-aren’t-they scenes, suggesting there’s a slight homosexual undertone between any two close friends of the same gender. It’s all very sorority house, very safe.
Until things start getting weird. Remember that Hedy is literally hiding in Allie’s apartment, an unlisted boarder who can’t get caught. She’s shoved into the shadows, the silent, Sapphic sister consistently outshone by the beautiful, straight Allie. And we, the implied third twin, watch as this living situation becomes more and more suffocating for the girls. Lines get crossed that anger both roommates, and various secondary characters start wondering if the kids are alright. Hedy becomes increasingly controlling of Allie, who begins making more of an effort to shove Hedy out of her life — and the apartment. Things boil over in the movie’s famous scene, in which Hedy drags Allie to a hair salon, only to appear post-makeover with Allie’s exact hairstyle.
(Talk about hair imagery! The Thomas Hardy fan in me is tugging at her shackles, yelling something about red hair vs. brown, about how a woman’s identity is portrayed in Victorian literature by the texture/style/color of the hair on her head! Is “Single White Female” a neo-Victorian masterpiece? Does anyone besides me care?)
After the chilling salon scene, ‘Female’ indulges in some classic genre tropes, reminding us that this movie is, at its heart, a thriller. The details of the murders and attempted murders shouldn’t be ruined in a review, so it’s up to you to find all that out on your own. I would like to highlight, however, one fantastic moment in the movie. It comes after Hedy has recreated herself in Allie’s image, borrowing dresses from Allie’s closet to complete her transformation. The girls are, at a glance, identical. Hedy primps in front of the bathroom mirror, repeating over and over to herself “I love myself like this, I love myself like this.” Creepy, right? Wait until you see what happens after Allie, at this point seriously disturbed by her roommate’s actions, follows Hedy downtown to a sex club.
Allie watches from the shadows as Hedy works the crowd, perched on a barstool with men rubbing her all over. It’s a grim reversal we witness here, and one that pushes too much the other way. Things become unbalanced, as Allie, forever the pretty roommate, watches Hedy surpass her. Hedy does Allie better than Allie ever could, and Allie is now the forgotten “twin,” demoted to shadow-sister. It’s a terrifying moment for us, the third point in the movie’s triangle. We know the danger Allie is in because we’ve seen Hedy in private, spinning more and more out of control, and yet we’re utterly powerless to help. What’s more, we’ve promised to keep the girls’ secret, agreed to become the accomplice to their relationship. By enjoying ourselves during the roommates’ bonding — by giggling and gossiping with them — we’ve come to like and sympathize with them both. Now that we want to warn Allie about Hedy’s instability, we know that we can’t. We could never betray our twin like that.
Moments like the one described above abound throughout “Single White Female.” The movie tracks the girls’ relationship so well, from beginning to bloody end, that you never once doubt its authenticity. Yes, there’s some camp here, but the performances of the lead actresses (especially Ms. Leigh) make up for that. If you give in and let yourself be taken over by the terror, you’ll watch a sprawling New York apartment become a haunted house, watch a haircut and a borrowed dress become indicators of insanity. “Single White Female” is a ’90s gem that should not be passed over.