Larger than life and impossible to ignore, teenager Dawn Davenport was always destined to become the epitome of female trouble, smoking in the school toilets, eating in class, lying to her teachers, held in detention and causing havoc on Christmas morning when her parents fail to give her the gift she craved.
“Nice girls don’t wear cha-cha heels,” they tell her in an attempt at consolation, but Dawn’s temper will not be tamed, running from the house and ending up on her back in a ditch by the road with a man named Earl Peterson. It’s wasn’t an immaculate conception and it won’t be a divine birth, nor is Dawn the mothering type, and unsurprisingly Taffy turns out as a child who bites, screams and tortures her mother.
Leaving Taffy chained to the iron bedstead in the attic, Dawn’s life is built around petty crime and her trips to the Lipstick Beauty Salon where she is groomed by Donald and Donna Dasher who see her potential as “a glamorous guinea pig” for their experiment combining beauty and crime that will see Dawn an accomplice to kidnapping and the perpetrator of murder, ultimately on trial for her life even as her fame and notoriety soar.
A moral reversal, a celebration of the superficial and the abhorrent, of cruelty and selfishness, who else could have penned Female Trouble but the great John Waters, describing it as his favourite of his many collaborations with the iconic Divine who stars as both Dawn Davenport across the decade over which the film takes place and as Earl Peterson, derelict father of her spiteful child.
Presented as a 4K digital restoration for the Criterion Collection, Female Trouble was originally released in 1974 as the follow up to Waters’ deliberately confrontational Pink Flamingos and is considerably tamer, consciously moving away from sensationalism to a narrative form which harks back to the cinema of Waters’ youth, the matriarchal melodramas of Douglas Sirk, though of course with Divine as a unique protagonist.
One of Waters’ first films to be made with an actual crew, Female Trouble was his first step towards what would eventually lead to his “mainstream” films a decade, though that is of course a relative term, and features many of the themes that persist in those later films, the nostalgia of Hairspray and Cry-Baby, the courtroom drama of Serial Mom, the willingness to sacrifice for one’s art and the belief that only what is caught on camera is real which defined Cecil B Demented and the exhibitionism of A Dirty Shame.
Giving a performance of sass, sleaze and absolute conviction, Divine confirms his stature as unique star and an absolute professional, performing his own stunts including trampoline backflips and wading through a freezing river, all in the costumes and make up designed by Waters regular Van Smith which include a translucent wedding dress and a sequinned jumpsuit.
As would be expected, the Criterion edition of Female Trouble is a full bowl of spaghetti with deleted footage which manages to convey the joy of the shoot even though it contains only one full scene of significance, a commentary recorded by Waters in 2004, a new conversation with Waters about the film, an enlightening interview with Hilary Taylor who played the young Taffy and archive material from a variety of sources featuring Waters, Divine, Smith, Mink Stole, Mary Vivian Pearce and others.
Female Trouble will be available on Blu-ray from Criterion from Monday 13th July