A LOVING SATIRE OF MATING AND MORES among Park Slope lesbians, Ingrid Jungermann’s Women Who Kill combines romantic comedy and murder mystery, and a dollop of psychodrama, and lightly stirs it into a summer movie treat. (Since crucial scenes take place in the fraught, rule-bound environment of the Greene Hill Food Co-op—actual name and location employed—a cooking metaphor is apropos.) Jungermann, the director, writer, and star of her debut feature, plays Morgan, a character so awkward and insecure that no one could regard the woman who conceived and embodied her as narcissistic or overreaching. Just scrupulously honest and very funny.
Morgan and Jean (Ann Carr) are minor Park Slope celebrities, thanks to their podcast, “Women Who Kill,” for which they research and interview imprisoned female serial killers. Their signoff line—“I’m Morgan,” “I’m Jean,” “and we are women who kill” (the last phrase spoken together)—is a tease suggesting that not only are they fascinated by their sociopathic subjects but they have absorbed them into their own garden-variety neurotic psyches.
The two are ex-lovers, but neither of them can let go—they share an apartment as well as a podcast—until Morgan is attracted to the secretive Simone (Sheila Vand). But the more infatuated Morgan becomes the more she fears that Simone is hiding something, and that this something might be homicide. You don’t have to be obsessed with female killers to wonder what Simone keeps in the sealed wooden box that occupies a dramatically lit shelf in her apartment. When Morgan gets up the courage to inquire, Simone answers, smiling as enigmatically as Simone Simon in Jacques Tourneur’s 1942 The Cat People, that everyone asks that same question.
Jungermann doesn’t flaunt her references, but her inspired twists on movie genres are really pleasurable. Women Who Kill opens with rapid-fire bickering reminiscent of George Cukor’s 1940 The Philadelphia Story (imagine the push-pull of Katharine Hepburn’s romantic impulses if she had been caught between opposing women rather than Cary Grant and James Stewart), and the wit of the early scenes doesn’t disappear, even as the narrative and Morgan’s thoughts turn inward. The relationship between her best friend, Alex (Shannon Patricia O’Neill), and Alex’s seemingly flaky but oddly grounded partner Kim (Grace Rex) keeps the comedy going. If Women Who Kill were to become a cable series (it evolved from Jungermann’s Web series The Slope), I’d want the second season to focus on Alex and Kim.
As Morgan’s affair with Simone grows more intense, her suspicions mount. Who is Simone? Is she a serial killer? The daughter of a serial killer? Or is the mystery of her identity a strategy to make Morgan, whose obsessions have been fully exposed in the “Women Who Kill” podcasts, fall in love with her? The more she ponders the possibilities and the more paranoid she becomes, the more we suspect that her fetishizing of female murderers is a substitute and a shield for her fear of intimacy—of losing herself by falling in love with Simone. It may be asking too much of a spirited romantic comedy that morphs into a disturbing drama to achieve a satisfying narrative resolution. Which is to say that the final twist in Women Who Kill might leave you first shaking your head and then marveling at Jungermann’s courage in allowing a character as alive in her contradictions as Morgan the imaginative luxury of ambiguity to the very end.
Women Who Kill is playing through Tuesday, August 1, at the IFC Center in New York, and is available on VOD on August 29.