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It's Grim Up North: Michael Winterbottom's Butterfly Kiss
Alex Hocking , September 11th, 2009 07:02

Michael Winterbottom's first film, remastered and released on DVD this week, makes an exquisite corpse out of clichés and comparisons.

“God’s forgotten me, I kill people and nothing happens!” screams Eunice (Amanda Plummer), a masochistic killer drifting across the scrubby grass beside Northern England’s dual carriageways. Her body crisscrossed with chains and clamps, she clinks along from one petrol station to another in search of Judith, grislying up salesmen and attendants en route.

With exaggerated regional accents, aphoristic dialogue and a trip to Camelot Theme Park, Butterfly Kiss easily slips into the category of movie that’s hard to watch without mentally combining the two words ‘gritty’ and ‘northern’. It even has Ricky Tomlinson in it. There are other crude distillations one could use: you might summarise it as a sort of “Thelma and Louise-esque hitch-hiker killing spree film crossed with Natural Born Killers.” Despite all the generic parts, Winterbottom skilfully builds up something pretty fresh in what was his first film.

Eunice meets and beguiles Miriam (Saskia Reeves), who – to quote the DVD case – is ‘a slow-witted, drab’ petrol station attendant. Adopting an unorthodox method of courtship, a fast-talking and anxiously psychotic Eunice strikes up conversation by requesting “a love song, well not really a love song, more a song about love” then goes on to douse herself in petrol and proclaim herself a “human bomb.” Stuck in a dead end and living with her aged mother, Miriam is instantly besotted and decides to follow her.

Serial killers always have their half-baked reasons and crutches. In Butterfly Kiss, Eunice’s hang up is religious, so there’s an elaborate religious subtext at work. Though it may goes straight over unChristened heads, the names were carefully chosen: Miriam and Judith are both Biblical characters who in some way comment on the adherence to Mosaic law. More overt is the theme of redemption through punishment “punishment is the only thing I understand” moans Eunice. She kills and kills, screws and terrorises but to no avail: heavenly punishment just isn’t forthcoming (enough to send anyone crazy I suppose).

Winterbottom’s greatest success is that Miriam’s adoration and downfall are believable. She's one of those people who loves blindly, clinging onto an idealised version of how things might be if they can just help their loved one out. Eunice is wilful, energetic, confident and determined; Miriam gets suckered. Speaking into a camera, an imprisoned Miriam narrates as the action unfurls. “You’ve got to look for the good in people,” she interjects after an outburst of passionate violence, “she never set out to do wrong, it’s just that things went wrong for her”. Despite these naïvely hopeful protestations, a wry smile emerges upon her lips. She doesn’t regret a thing.

In Butterfly Kiss, Winterbottom makes the error typical of many debut films by trying to shoehorn too much into it – too many little nods towards one genre, then another, then grafting in some religion. For the most part, he juggles and melds these ideas with a fair degree of success (although Mi and Eu’s relationship could have been developed more). But even if you’ve only ever eaten a bit of Host to see what it tastes like, the killing and and Plummer’s brash, uninhibited acting keeps it enjoyable enough without all the theological trimmings. The thing that hamstrings the film is its central element – in a film this nihilistic, it’s difficult to grip onto anything.

The ultimate condemnation of a reissue would be to say that it is ‘dated’: the implication that it no longer ‘works’ or that its style is outmoded slays it D.O.A. People might happily buy something that’s ‘vintage’ or ‘retro’, but ‘dated’ - no way. Sidestepping this semiotic minefield, one might say that its age imbues it with nostalgia. When our nutso protagonist passed a Gulf petrol station, it made me wonder what happened to them. Same for some of the music – Shampoo, anyone? Though generally good, this raw debut’s major theme hobbles it slightly – a film about unlikeable characters can be a little unlikeable too.