Female Trouble (1974)
Directed by John Waters

Artistic Value: * * * * ½
Entertainment Value: * * * * *

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Dawn Davenport (Divine), a delinquent and wildly trashy teenaged girl, runs away from home on Christmas day after her parents fail to give her shoes with cha-cha heels. While subsequently hitchhiking, she is picked up by the leering Earl Peterson (Divine), with whom she promptly has sex (and whose wallet she steals while copulating with him). Dawn later learns that she has been impregnated and, after Earl refuses to give her money, finds works in a restaurant, as a stripper, and as a cat burglar, all the while pampering herself and viciously abusing her daughter Taffy (Mink Stole). Eventually, Dawn meets Gator (Michael Potter), a heterosexual hairdresser who works in a salon owned by the eccentric and vain Donald and Donna Dasher (David Lochary and Mary Vivian Pearce), and who lives in the flat next to Dawn with his Aunt Ida (Edith Massey). Although this obese old woman (who, incidentally, consistently wears skin tight leather costumes or other painfully revealing attire) is determined that Gator learns to be gay, he resists her efforts and marries Dawn. Unfortunately, Dawn and Gator's union beaks down, due to the the latter's infidelities, and he decides to move away. Ida blames Dawn for Gator's departure and throws acid on her face. Now horribly disfigured, Dawn begins her transformation into a fashion icon under the tutelage of the Dashers, who are out to prove that a person's sex appeal increases as that person commits worse crimes.

John Waters's Female Trouble is an outrageously trashy, wonderfully campy, and grotesquely funny film. There is no point in the movie that is not alive with inept overacting, exaggerated misdeeds, and general strangeness. It is a genuinely fun work to watch.

For one thing, the story the director tells is both overwrought and complicated. It begins with a depiction of Dawn's days as an obnoxious and rebellious teenaged delinquent, goes on to show her life as a runaway, her wildly unsuccessful marriage, and her rise to fame, and it ends by revealing her incarceration, trial, and execution. The whole thing is a lurid melodrama that races along so fast the moviegoer is always caught up in the whirlwind that is is composed of the protagonist's nasty existence, vile behaviors, weird acquaintances, and tumultuous rise to fame as a mass murderer.

Like many of Waters' movies, Female Trouble explores popular perceptions of celebrity. Happily, the director is adept at revealing the connection of fame with criminality. He is especially so here. At various points, Waters reminds the viewer of Dawn's desire to be famous and then shows how she gains notoriety as a result of the murders she commits. During her trail, Dawn even notes that she is the most famous person the jurors will know and that she is in all the papers. By making just this point, Waters reminds the viewer that many actual mass murderers could make exactly the same claim. Such elements are not, however, presented in a heavy-handed or didactic way, but, instead, give the film a real humorousness. Waters revels in human failings and provides the moviegoer with the chance to laugh and cringe at our less admirable traits.

What is more, the film is absolutely packed with sometimes funny and often grotesque oddities. The Dashers, for example, kidnap Ida, imprison her in a birdcage, and give her to Dawn, who chops off one of her captive's hands. The heroine later performs a goofy show that begins with her bouncing on a trampoline and ends with her trying to slaughters her audience. At other times, she brutally mistreats her daughter, refusing to allow the girl to go to school or to have friends, tying her up, telling her that she is retarded, and otherwise abusing her. This child, who, at fourteen, looks like (and is played by) a woman in her late twenties, dresses like a little girl, amuses herself by playing "car accident" (and spraying herself and a dummy with catsup to simulate blood), and throws frequent (and justified) tantrums. Eventually, she does leave her mother in order to seek out her father, but he makes sexual advances towards her, forcing her to return. I cannot come close to listing all of the strange things the viewer is going to encounter in the movie. They really add to its peculiar, silly campiness.

Lastly, I should mention that while Divine may not be an accomplished performer in any conventional sense, she does acquit herself well in the film. Not only is she a joy to watch as the selfish, vile, foul, and murderous Dawn, but she is also equally repulsively entertaining as Earl Peterson, the filthy, lecherous father of Dawn's daughter Taffy. In fact, a large part of Female Trouble's appeal comes from the lead's weirdly charismatic presence. Divine is a pleasure to watch.

Although I am disinclined to say that Waters has created a classic in Female Trouble, it is still one of his best films, being equalled only by Desperate Living and surpassed only by Pink Flamingos.

Review by Keith Allen

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