Female Trouble, much like writer/director/vulgarian John Waters’ 1972 little masterpiece of nastiness Pink Flamingos, is charming. It’s an exhibition of distilled counterculture that displays masturbation via needle-nosed pliers, sets up incestuous relationships, and arms a traumatized daughter with a mayonnaise-covered knife to murder the father she just met. But it’s really quite charming. It has the aesthetic of a well-staged home movie or a barely-passing student film depending on how full or empty you see the glass, but there’s an undeniable carry-over style from Flamingos to Trouble; that of the popping, kitschy interiors set against dead brown Baltimore woodlands. And Divine. Goodness, Divine.
Watching the film is akin to seeing an odd-looking stranger walking by you on the street, teeth so agape he could floss with a rope, smelling like a month’s worth of bad decisions and poor timing. It’s disgusting, ugly, shocking, and completely not what you’re accustomed to. But it’s funny. For the first hour of Female Trouble, you never know quite where it’s going. Waters effectively constructed a rollercoaster out of sticks and stones where words are so over the top that they won’t hurt, they’ll just shock you into a guilty smile. He paints such vividly vile portraits that the norm–you know, the world where cha-cha heels do not make or break a woman’s sanity, where the reveal of a disfigurement isn’t celebrated as an art exhibition–seems just so damn weird.
With all of the male-Divine-on-female-Divine sex, the chewing off of a child’s umbilical chord, and the writhing around in cribs full of fish, exhaustion does set in. High-quality filmmaking or even storytelling isn’t expected in an early Waters film, but by the time act three rolls around, the lack of variation in shot selection and the glaringly apparent absence of a story makes for unpleasantness in terms of entertainment value. It’s a glorious vehicle for Waters to showcase Divine, whose constant mugging for the camera and knack for delivering the grotesque goods carries the flimsy story, but it drags. It’s a very fun guilty pleasure for about seventy minutes, but by the time we find Divine in jail, awaiting the inevitable punishment for her crimes against the state–nay, against humanity–there’s nothing to care about.
Like any of Waters’ films, you can count on an inversion of normal citizens and outsiders (Waters could be seen as a precursor to the “oh, I’m weird? Take a look at yourself!” school of Tim Burton), you can count on feeling very alienated because of it, and you can definitely count on staying away from food for a few hours afterward. It’s a cute piece of vulgarity, but it’s no more than Diet Pink Flamingos in terms of enjoyability.