This digitally lensed mind roaster is among the darkest depictions of male-female dynamics you’ll ever experience. It’s not for everybody, but those up for a superbly made and acted exploration of psychosexual extremes will definitely want to check out X, Y.
Michael Blumlein’s X, Y (1993) is in my view one of the most remarkable horror novels of the nineties. It details the madness that ensues when a woman awakens from an amnesiac fugue convinced she’s a man, and how her relationship with her boyfriend grows increasingly deranged because of this fact. A fascinating inquiry into gender polarities and the always-elusive nature of love, the book is enhanced by the unnervingly clinical approach of its author, a practicing doctor.
This 2004 film version, written and directed by the debuting Vladimir Vitkin, is a scrupulously faithful adaptation. That means a none-too-cuddly work that has sharply divided audiences and distributors; to date (Fall 2017) it has yet to be released in any form outside the festival venue. That’s a shame, as I for one believe there is an audience for this intelligent and provocative film, limited though it may be.
Frankie is a NYC based topless dancer. One night she collapses upon hearing the wail of a siren, which affects her in disturbing fashion. She comes to unsure of who she is, yet convinced of one incontrovertible fact: she’s a man. Frankie’s meathead boyfriend Terry figures she’s putting on an act, but he’s convinced it’s a test of their love, and so goes along with it.
Frankie becomes fixated on an individual who was in the bar the night of the siren, a businessman who passed out at the same time she did. Might Frankie have somehow switched personalities with this mystery man? Terry manages to track the man to a hospital bed where the guy is near death, but the man passes on before he can reveal any info.
This leaves Frankie stuck in the man-as-woman predicament. This new Frankie doesn’t take to topless dancing with much enthusiasm, and nor does s/he warm up to Terry. The latter grows so frustrated with the situation that he finally snaps and rapes Frankie. She in turn hightails it off to her mother’s house, where Frankie undergoes a much-needed bout of soul-searching.
Days later Frankie returns to Terry a changed man/woman. Frankie has focused all her anger and frustration on Terry, and becomes determined to make him pay. Frankie uses his/her feminine wiles to entice Terry into doing all the household chores and taking an extra job. But what starts out as servitude takes a turn into outright sadism as Frankie begins tying Terry up and dispensing torture in a disquietingly random manner, with Terry making for an all-too-willing victim…and when Frankie takes up knitting, watch out!
X, Y has a premise that recalls Hollywood comedies like SWITCH or BIG, but the body switch conceit is used as a jumping off point more than anything else. Many viewers will be (and apparently have been) upset that the narrative doesn’t seem to follow through on its early set-up. That’s how I felt reading the novel for the first time, but I was drawn back, and found that the tale was actually a cohesive, streamlined piece of work more akin to THE BLIND BEAST or David Cronenberg’s CRASH than FREAKY FRIDAY.
So too the film, which may require multiple viewings to be fully understood. But it does hold together, and is impressive in the way it segues from gritty urban drama to quasi-supernatural thriller, and ends up a gory Cronenbergian freak-out. Writer-director Vladimir Vitkin demonstrates real confidence and filmmaking savvy, evident in the smooth tonal shifts and inventive visuals. The performers are likewise up to the challenge, particularly actress Melissa Murphy as Frankie, who successfully navigates the character’s transition from tawdry sex object to confused tomboy to out-and-out seductress.
The pacing may be a mite frantic (several scenes seem to cut off before they’re complete), but the film definitely isn’t boring, and, despite being set largely inside the protagonists’ stuffy apartment, never feels cramped or stagy. Vitkin has also done a near-flawless job condensing Michael Blumlein’s somewhat bulky novel into a 90-minute framework. The result is a first-class descent into psychosexual hell, and in my view any film this twisted deserves a shot at traumatizing unsuspecting audiences everywhere. Let’s hope X, Y gets that chance!
Director: Vladimir Vitkin
Producer: Helmut Gausterer
Screenplay: Vladimir Vitkin
(Based on a novel by Michael Blumlein)
Cinematography: Richard Lopez
Editing: Jack Scope
Cast: Jamie Harrold, Melissa Murphy, Barbara Spiegel, Thomas Jefferson Byrd, Dina Pearlman, Shelita Birchett, Brian Anthony Wilson, David Vadim, Vinny De Vingo, Robert Haufrecht, Sean Dougherty