John Waters is a director most associated with kitsch, overt sexuality, and subversive sincerity. The 1974 film Female Trouble stands as some of his greatest work. If it doesn’t eclipse Pink Flamingos in being a traditional Waters film, Divine’s performance in the film certainly eclipses all others. The film may have a meager runtime (an 89-minute theatrical cut), but the brisk pace and delicious irony and aesthetic squeeze joy out of every frame. The appeal of the product isn’t in the polish or the quality but in the humanity.
The main character’s name is Dawn Davenport (played by famous drag star Divine), and you’ll certainly remember the name if nothing else by the end. The language of the film and dialogue draw direct focus to her; most characters even use her full name. Her personality and charisma are meant to capture your attention, and her actions in the film allow you to examine criminality as something beyond the beautiful, the trashy, or even the fashionable. Her descent into moral depravity feels more natural than in other Waters films. She’s portrayed as a rotten apple from the start and is manipulated into believing in a false image of herself and her lifestyle.
The social bubbles of Dawn’s world may seem odd from the outside, but Waters uses it as a way to reflect on our own reality. Early in the film a character named Ida lectures and questions her nephew Gator about his sexuality. In an inverse of traditional archetypes and conversations, she pushes him to abandon heterosexuality and instead embrace homosexuality. In her words: “Turn nelly.” He could just choose to be gay. Wouldn’t it be wonderful? Wouldn’t it be nicer? She could finally be proud of him. Finally, she won’t have to worry. Only she doesn’t worry about stability and conformity, rather that he will “work in an office, have children, celebrate wedding anniversaries.“
Other secondary characters like the Dashers add different degrees to what would otherwise be a relatively clear celebration of the criminal counterculture. The Dashers, being an elite couple that financially push Dawn to become more and more of a criminal, are meant to be a standard critique on the elite and possibly even an audience analog for enjoying and profiting from the violence and the trash aesthetic without actually participating or identifying with it. Dawn’s daughter Taffy has her own struggles and a very unfortunate arc that really puts the tragedy of all this madness on display.
Divine’s presence is better suited to this film’s sensibilities than Pink Flamingos, which had a shock factor integral to its marketing and aesthetic. Female Trouble is tame in comparison. Any shock derived is a product of your own expectations. Divine doesn’t do anything nearly as wild as eating dog feces. Her most offensive physical activity in the film is probably eating eyeliner, but even that is laced with a memorable joke and, much like the rest of the film, has become endlessly quoted by the gay community. Divine also displays amazing talent in her line delivery and the physicality found in the final act in the nightclub, where we see a wonderful climax that involves some very impressive stuntwork.
I’m personally glad Criterion chose to celebrate Female Trouble because it not only involves most of the truly original and landmark traits of a Waters film, but those traits are properly utilized for appropriate and unique social commentary. The film is explicit fun.