As astonishingly vulgar and paradigm-challenging as 1972's Pink Flamingos was, it was John Waters' follow-up, Female Trouble that is the true jewel the crown of his early (pre-Hairspray) oeuvre. Female Trouble was the ultimate stage onto which Waters could send his superstar, the beautiful Divine, so show that they were both truly big time and unafraid of anything. Divine's performance here is among his very best, truly embracing the over-the-top drag terrorist he really was, and it's a sight to behold.
Female Trouble is the story of the rise and fall of Dawn Davenport, a born juvenile delinquent, who overcomes every challenge thrown at her in order to find her true calling. Fame. On the way there she berates her parents for buying her the wrong kind of shoes for Christmas, sending the pair flying into the Christmas tree and destroying the occasion; is raped in a junkyard (by a scummy degenerate played by Divine himself, de-dragged); conceives a child as a result who she raises - in the loosest sense of the word - to be an entitled little monster; and cultivates a cult of personality around herself and her pursuit of beauty and success.
At this point she's discovered by local beauty mavens and beauty shop owners, the Dashers (David Lochary and Mary Vivian Pearce), who decide to Pygmalion her into fame. However, rather than culturing her to pass among the rich and famous, they decide to test out their theory that "crime is beauty", and send Dawn on a mission of mayhem, which eventually ends in one of the most memorable stage acts of all time involving a trampoline, a baby's crib, miming masturbation with a fish, and murder. All in the name of fame, beauty, and art.
When fans talk about John Waters, it's very easy to stick to his his talent for the outrageous. Very few filmmakers are as adept in creating unforgettable sequences on film with as little to work with as Waters. In Female Trouble there are at least a dozen such sequences that fanatics can likely recite from memory, the climatic stage act being among the most famous. However, there is also the rape and resulting "Go fuck yourself" meta-comeback for the ages, there is the trail of Dawn Davenport, there is the Cha Cha heels sequence, not to mention all of the ridiculous and unforgettable dialogue, but what gets talked about less often is Waters' obsessive focus on fame as a theme.
Female Trouble is among the first films to posit the criminal as celebrity in such an upfront and vulgar way, a theme he would revisit explicitly with Kathleen Turner in Serial Mom twenty years later. However, fame was a constant source of interest for Waters, whose breakout feature Pink Flamingos had two families vying for the enviable position of "filthiest people alive". He'd revisit the theme again and again in films like Hairspray, which has Ricki Lake's Tracy Turnblad desperate to get on TV; Cry Baby, which is ostensibly a love story, but has at its center a singer (Johnny Depp) who finds his true self on stage. Later in his career, Waters would get even more direct in films like Pecker, which finds a young photographer thrust onto the high-art scene for his talent in documenting filth; and Cecil B. DeMented, which follows a crew of renegade filmmakers who may eschew traditional fame, but seek notoriety through their guerrilla tactics.
Waters obsession with fame, and specifically fame attained through infamy, bled into his real life as well. He was well known for attending the criminal trials of notorious villains, a hobby he laments that he can no longer indulge in because of his own visibility. However, it is with Female Trouble that he really lays it all out, and boy, howdy, it's something to see. Not for the faint of heart or stomach, Female Trouble may be less visually obscene than Pink Flamingos, but it truly takes the cake when it comes to over-the-top, expressly offensive content. I wouldn't have it any other way.
The Criterion Collection have restored Female Trouble in a new 4K edition that looks surprisingly good considering its age and the quality of materials with which the film was shot. Colors pop in a way that we likely haven't seen since the very first prints were run through a projector over 40 years ago, and maybe not even then. The mono soundtrack is also pretty solid, though it wasn't exactly a stunner, it gets the job done and any damage is unnoticeable.
Criterion does a fabulous job on the bonus materials here again with the complete and enthusiastic participation of Waters and much of his surviving Dreamland crew. There is an audio commentary from Waters that does an amazing job of contextualizing the film, explaining references, sharing anecdotes, and is generally as entertaining as the film. Waters is a captivating speaker, and it really comes through in the commentary and the other features in which he takes part.
Speaking of which, there is a great conversation between Waters and film writer Dennis Lim that is hilarious and fun to watch. Lim tries to suss out some of the impetus behind the film and Waters does his best to answer, but often has Lim laughing aloud with his answers, it's a great interview. There are also contemporary and archival interviews with cast and crew such as Pat Moran (production manager), Mink Stole (actor), Mary Vivian Pearce (actor), Susan Lowe (actor), Hillary Taylor (actor), Vincent Peranio (production designer), and Van Smith (stylist/costume designer). One nice bit of ephemera included is a half-hour TV chat between Waters, Divine, and Mink Stole from 1975 that is the only archival footage of Divine in the set. Criterion also includes some additional footage from director Jeffrrey Schwarz's amazing 2013 documentary I Am Divine with previously unseen interview footage. It's a lovely, well rounded bonus package.
Last but not least is a printed essay from critic Ed Halter which traces the genesis of the film and its place in the culture of the time and its place in Waters' career.
This is a wonderful set for an amazing film that is just as hilarious and jaw-dropping today as it was 44 years ago. Female Trouble is a must own for John Waters fans, Divine fans, and fans of outre cinema in general.