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Perverse Visions.

By Jesse Fox Mayshark

JULY 27, 1998:  The word "perversion" is one of those cultural artifacts—like "taboo"—that used to mean a lot more than it does now. Not long ago, practicing something like oral sex was enough to get you labeled mentally unsound. These days, it doesn't even put a dent in your poll standing.

So what's a perversion in the 1990s? About seven years ago, feminist scholar Louise J. Kaplan wrote a tome arguing that for women, perversions are anything they're forced into by coping with life in a patriarchy. Director Susan Streitfeld borrowed Kaplan's ideas and shaped them into a movie with the same title as Kaplan's book: Female Perversions (1996, R). It's an interesting film and more entertaining than you'd expect, but it's ultimately kind of annoying. Tilda Swinton, who's making a career of movies about gender (Othello, Edward II), does a nice turn as the heroine, a lawyer not-so-subtly named Eve. Her high-stakes career—including a looming judgeship nomination—is jeopardized when her artsy philosopher sister Madelyn (Amy Madigan) is arrested for shoplifting. In scenes both slyly real and dreamily surreal, the film sets up and deconstructs stereotypes of female behavior. But a handful of great moments—a study of body language in a courtroom, a young adolescent symbolically fighting her menstruation—are undercut by the movie's contradictions. It ultimately suggests that since men control society, it's impossible for women to do anything that arises from themselves. That statement of powerlessness seems every bit as proscriptive as the constraints it rails against.

Perversity also figures metaphorically in the succès de scandale Tokyo Decadence (1992, NR). The Japanese film shows—in graphic detail—the degrading experiences of a young Tokyo prostitute. The movie's intended as a critique of modern Japan, its oddly repressed hedonism and callous materialism. It works to an extent, although the story and the viewer's sympathy for the heroine both deteriorate toward the end.

Roman Polanski, a renowned pervert himself (not to mention alleged rapist), offered his own exploration of kinkiness in Bitter Moon (1992, R), a shaggy-dog story about a jaded couple and the young honeymooners they meet on a trans-Atlantic voyage. Hugh Grant is well-cast as the neophyte, as is Peter Coyote in the role of the cynical seductor. As Grant is drawn in by Coyote and his nymphomaniac wife (Emmanuelle Seigner), the film teasingly traces the lure of the forbidden. It's as sharp and funny as you'd expect from Polanski—and as mean-spirited too.

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