Fans of John Waters can rejoice as The Criterion Collection once again does right by the Pope of Trash with an absolutely stellar Blu-ray release of Female Trouble. As the followup to Waters' hit Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble once again features Divine in the lead this time as a troubled teenage girl who gets caught up in the seedier side of society as a thief and crazed obsession with beauty as the muse of a pair of demented fashion photographers. Like all other John Waters movies that aren't Hairspray, it's not a movie for everyone. Not even close, but it is perhaps a bit more digestible than Pink Flamingos while sticking to Waters' signature shock comedy stylings. Featuring a brand new 4K restoration with a host of great bonus features, this is the definitive release of Female Trouble and gives fans hope that more Criterion releases of John Waters flicks are on the horizon. For those who love their movies unhinged and trashy, Female Trouble is Highly Recommended.
For a number of cinephiles, simply saying the name "John Waters" evokes any number of images - most of them shocking and cringe-inducing involving various body parts and fluids. From the very beginning, Waters has maintained a Shock Comedy status that film fans are either 100% on board with or are completely turned off by - save for his lone "safe" film Hairspray. With his 1974 Pink Flamingos followup Female Trouble, Waters once again turns against the squares and societal norms following frequent collaborator Divine as a troubled teenage girl who gets pregnant and falls into a seedy lifestyle as a crime model for a pair of demented fashion photographers obsessed with her "beauty."
Trying to write a summary for any John Waters movie is like completing the Trials of Hercules. It ain't easy and you don't even really know where the hell to start. Just the idea of Divine playing a troubled teenage girl should be cause enough for some measure of confusion. Suspension of disbelief isn't even an appropriate concept for Female Trouble as any number of scenarios would destroy that tenuous tether to cinematic reality. If you've come to know and appreciate John Waters' trashy style and rough around the edges aesthetic then you shouldn't be at all surprised when Divine essentially rapes himself in an awkwardly hilarious duel role. Nor should it be at all surprising when other actors from Waters eccentric stable of frequent collaborators appear in oddly suitable but bizarre roles. When Mink Stole arrives as Divine's mouthy 14-year-old daughter, you're either going to laugh your head off or it may be just one more cinematic oddity that you simply don't know how to process.
While the shock value may be a bit muted compared to Pink Flamingos, I would have to argue that Female Trouble is the better film - at least structurally speaking. Waters and Divine both had a big love for Hollywood melodramas, the cheap and tawdry B-movies about familial upheaval that culminate in some sort of moral lesson. As I watched this film again for the first time in a dozen years, I couldn't help but think of muckrakers like Reefer Madness or troubled youth message movies like I Accuse My Parents and Ed Wood's Violent Years. You expect some sort of doddering old narrator to appear at the end with some sort of trite ambiguous final message to the audience. Perhaps in a disservice to the film, a teaching know-all narrator doesn't appear, but the moralizing vibe is still present making the film a delightfully absurd morality play.
Centering the venture is yet another terrific show-stealing outing for Divine as the willful, troubled, and deranged Dawn Davenport. Divine always had a way of physically commanding every scene and he's in full command here. He gives every moment his all and it's a riot. When his Dawn Davenport becomes so obsessed with her own beauty - even after being scarred by acid - his frequent flamboyant model poses as he delivers a line just kills me. It's a long joke that keeps getting funnier because Divine knew how to crank things up slowly so that by the end when everything's already over the top the schtick stays funny. Likewise, Mink Stole again holds her own as the energetic and bratty daughter Taffy Davenport whose rebellious nature earns a lot of hilarious abuse from Divine. Then there are the great turns from other Waters' frequent friends David Lochary, Edith Massey, Cookie Mueller, Susan Lowe, Pat Moran, and George Stover to name a few who all work together to give this flick a lot of life and energy.
Taken as a whole Female Trouble may not be the best of Waters' early works, but as he was about to segue towards "legitimate" commercially viable films, this one remains a welcome oddity. It's fully unhinged and fearless as it forces the viewer to see and accept any number of terrible gross-out sights and invite them to laugh along with the show. If you're new to John Waters films, I would suggest you crack Multiple Maniacs first as jumping head-on into Female Trouble may not set your expectations for the rest of Waters' catalog correctly. As a fan of Waters and his showmanship, I had a blast revisiting this film. It's also great to see it in such terrific shape as it's endured a run of pretty terrible VHS and DVD releases. Hopefully, Criterion has a few more early John Waters films in their release queue!
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Female Trouble arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of The Criterion Channel. Pressed onto a Region A BD-50 disc, the disc is housed in a traditional clear Criterion hard case with spine number 929 and comes with a booklet containing a fantastic essay by Ed Halter. The disc loads to an animated main menu with Criterion's standard navigation mapping.
Early John Waters movies have never looked that great. In part due to technical limitations but also because the director frequently would shoot location scenes without a permit adding a little extra bit of grunge and grime to the image. To that point, the new 4K restoration from the original 16mm negative is a bit of a miracle for this 1.67:1 1080p transfer. Again, due to the rough around the edges nature of early Waters films, it's important not to set your expectations too high. Softness, focus issues, lighting inconsistencies, the reversal film stock - all lend themselves to a particular look and feel of the film. This restoration maintains that authentic trashy look while showcasing how great a modern restoration can look. Film grain is readily apparent and can be quite noisy, but that's largely due to the stock used. Details are pretty fantastic considering all things, Divine's scar tissue makeup work is particularly grotesque. Details in the costuming and the set design are terrific. Colors are bright and bold highlighting those primaries nicely - especially in later movies. Blues are also nice and vivid. Black levels and contrast are uniformly strong giving the image a nice three-dimensional feel - but again are subject to the shot in question. As there don't appear to be any age-related hallmarks like splits, scratches, or speckling, I've got to tip my hat to Criterion for delivering a beautiful transfer for a delightfully ugly film.
Female Trouble lands with an authentic and lively English LPCM 1.0 audio mix. As with most of Waters' earliest films, you can hear the amateur nature in that there doesn't sound like much in the way of post-production audio correction. Dialogue exchanges are clear enough, but you can tell they were recorded in the moment without any post-production ADR work. Likewise, sound effects are very in the moment and really only have an impact depending on how close they were to the microphone. But that's all part of the charm of these movies. The mix wouldn't sound right if it was too clean. It's very warts and all. However, per the restoration process, the audio track is free of any serious hiss, pops, or dropouts delivering a clean and authentic audio track.
No Criterion Collection release is complete without a great assortment of bonus features and Female Trouble has quite the package. From deleted and cutscenes and behind the scenes footage to a stellar commentary track to new interviews, there is a lot of great material for John Waters fans to dig through.
Audio Commentary This track was ported over from the 2004 DVD release and features director John Waters proving an immense amount of detail about the making of the film. It also features Waters' natural wit and humor so do give it a listen if you haven't already heard it, it's well worth it and very entertaining.
Lady Divine (SD 32:36) This is an archival interview from 1975 for Manhattan public-access television and features John Waters, David Lochary, Divine, and Mink Stole moderated by R. Couri Hay. It's a single camera setup, the photography isn't very good and the condition is dependent on the recording but it's still a great interview that gives a great look at everyone in their prime as they talk about the film and their careers up to that point. It's a lively interview and it's a lot of fun.
Female Trouble John Waters and Dennis Lim (HD 22:50) This new interview between director John Waters and film critic Dennis Lim is a terrific interview as Waters covers a lot of material, some of it also featured in the commentary, but there is still plenty of great material here.
Crime and Beauty: Remembering Female Trouble (HD 17:49) This is a collection of scenes and interviews from Jeffery Schwartz's documentary I Am Divine featuring John Waters, and other cast and crew members discussing Divine and their working relationship.
On Set Footage - with commentary by John Waters (HD 11:15) This is raw behind the scenes footage shot by Steve Yeager during the production. Waters does a great job narrating what is happening in the footage, the scene, and some more behind the scenes information.
Little Taffy (HD 17:20) John Waters interviews Hilary Taylor who played the 9-year-old Taffy in the film. It's a fun little look at how Waters just assembled their friends and their families to make their movies.
Van Smith (HD 4:33) This is an audio interview with costume and makeup artist Van Smith played against behind the scenes footage of the film.
Moran, Pearce, and Smith (HD 8:16) This is a collection of interviews featuring Pat Moran, Mary Vivian Pearce, and Van Smith from 1974. There isn't a whole lot of amazing stuff here, but it's fun to see how well everyone worked together in such a loose and unstructured atmosphere.
Trims and Cut Scenes (HD 14:57) There isn't a whole lot "missing" from the proper film here, this is more of a collection of blown takes, trimmed scenes stuff that just didn't fit. But, the stuff of Divine out on the street is pretty terrific.
Like most John Waters films, you're either a fan, or you're completely turned off by his brand of shock humor - especially for early films like Female Trouble. While being a little easier than Pink Flamingos, this film certainly isn't for everyone. However, as a satire of 50s morality plays, this film is a riot featuring a terrific and hilarious performance from Divine in his prime. It's a gas of a flick with a wild nature that proves to be endlessly entertaining - if you're into that sort of thing. The Criterion Collection brings Female Trouble to Blu-ray in all it's gaudy over-the-top glory with a fantastic new image and audio restoration that leaves the film looking and sounding better than ever. Top it off with a fantastic buffet of new and archival bonus features and you have one hell of a great disc. Highly Recommended.