Black Swan countdown: female-centric suspense

I’m excited enough about the Natalie Portman/Darren Aronofsky film Black Swan that I already posted about its potential connection to a great dance psychodrama, The Red Shoes. The older film isn’t scary at all, but it does dramatize a woman possessed by conflicts of ambition, identity and eros.

What is female-centric suspense? It has women as main characters driving the action (not the love interest or pawn). Female identity—how does a woman look, succeed, love—is a central issue. Complicated relationships between women often show mirroring or doubling themes. Sexual tension and eroticism aren’t exclusively heterosexual. Here is a personal top ten. Forgive me if I cheat genres. Scroll down for Black Swan clips at the end.


It’s no shock to me that Jane Fonda won an Oscar for this. She’s become a pop-culture caricature, but her performance as stalked call-girl Bree Daniels is fantastic. She’s self-defeating and neurotic, but also insightful and resilient. Not only that, the movie really nails the dynamics of a therapy relationship, where the therapist is not some kind of unprofessional quack, enabler, or psycho.

Double Indemnity

Prepare to get schooled by femme fatale Barbara Stanwyck.


Violet and Corky meet and plot their getaway; definitely click through

Before the Matrix, the Wachowski brothers debuted with a cult lesbian gangster noir. Gina Gershon and Jennifer Tilly are smoldering, but also clever, greedy, and invested in their relationship. The bloody movie is excellently constructed and paced, and the women come out on top.

Eyes Without a Face

Older French plastic surgery horror—the mask of beauty. It’s eerie rather than graphic and has stuck with me and the friends I saw it with.

Mulholland Drive

As Black Swan will do (?), Mulholland Drive’s lesbian scenes between Naomi Watts and Laura Harring (in a lookalike blonde wig) bring up questions of identity, not just sexual but even more basic. I normally can’t take David Lynch’s work, finding it intensely troubling to watch and also degrading to women. The depressing final twist seems to make a less interesting statement than the story that preceded it, but I enjoyed what the actresses were able to do in this nouveau noir.

All About Eve

They call it a dark comedy; I call it every woman’s nightmare. Before Carrie Bradshaw wrote about “frenemies” on Sex and the City, Bette Davis dealt with two-faced backstabber Anne Baxter trying to steal her life right out from under her. Will she get away with it? Deservedly famous dialogue.


In this experimental film from Ingmar Bergman, two women, a mute patient and her talkative nurse, lose the boundaries separating them; the mood is of mounting ominousness and threat. His Cries and Whispers, about three sisters facing one’s illness, shares the same enigmatic blend of insight, fear and formal beauty. Heavy stuff.

The Piano Teacher

Not a thriller, per se, but an incredibly disturbing psychological drama. I don’t want to suffer watching a film unless it has a point—sufficient raison d’être to torture me. This film about a repressed, harsh music teacher played by Isabelle Huppert passes that test. I can’t objectively say why. Huppert’s total commitment? Perhaps because it shows that relationships sometimes deform rather than enrich us.

Single White Female

I wouldn’t say this is a good movie. It’s a campy one. But something about the treatment of treachery, jealousy and enmeshment in female friendships resonated with me as a teen. “Living with a roommate… can be murder.”

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

This is immortalized as camp, but divas Bette Davis and Joan Crawford give brave performances. That female ambition and aging are often viewed as grotesque is the reality the film sends up.

In the queue


A Deneuve-Polanski tour de force. A building up and then snapping of tension as Deneuve goes insane inside the walls of her Paris apartment. I have a recommendation for this I trust so highly I’m afraid to watch it! The trailer is quite pulpy though I’m not sure the movie is.


This early Brian De Palma is another female doppelganger story. A female reporter investigates separated Siamese twins, one of them suspected of murder.

The Hunger

I haven’t seen the whole movie, but the love scene between Susan Sarandon and Catherine Deneuve fogs up the screen. And I love David Bowie. But this is 100% cheesetastic vampire, so file it under guilty pleasure.

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