Friday, 19 August 2016

Butterfly Kiss (1995)

1995's Butterfly Kiss is director Michael Winterbottom's big screen debut  and it's a clear example of him starting his career as he means to go on, with a significant dollop of provocative storytelling. From the pen of his erstwhile collaborator Frank Cottrell Boyce, Butterfly Kiss is an attempt at creating a specifically American genre type - the wild, law-breaking road movie - right here in the north of England, up and down the M6.

Amanda Plummer (no stranger to walking on the wild side, and adopting a curious baby-doll attempt at a Lancastrian accent that put me in mind of future Winterbottom star Shirley Henderson) stars as Eunice, a clearly troubled and psychotic soul who, swathed in chains, piercings and tattoos beneath her drab clothes, stalks the A roads and lay-bys looking for her 'Judith'; in all likelihood a  figment of her imagination inspired by the Apocrypha story of Judith who beheaded Holofernes during lovemaking to save her city. She first quizzes petrol station cashiers for a song that's 'about love, but it isn't really a love song' before asking 'You're Judith aren't you?' a query that can prove to have deadly consequences.

But not for Miriam (Saskia Reeves) one such attendant whose natural arrested development, innocence and her overall well meaning nature means she doesn't challenge Eunice's bizarre behaviour with irritation or brusqueness that ultimately saves her life. More, she becomes enamoured and fascinated with Eunice - a case of love at first sight. Pretty soon, Miriam and Eunice become lovers and Miriam abandons her work, her home and her ailing grandmother to join Eunice's bloodthirsty quest for Judith and a song about love across the length and breadth of the beautifully empty, sun dappled Lancashire landscape via its anonymous roads and monotonous motorways.

At the heart of this dangerous odd couple love story is Eunice's madness and utter Miriam's inability to truly comprehend it. The film's narrative is broken up with a series of flash-forward monochrome straight-to-camera narration from Miriam as she gives her distinctly matter-of-fact and unemotional interview to the police that acknowledges her actions with Eunice in the most naive of fashions.

Many reviewers at the time and since have been quick to call Butterfly Kiss, Britain's answer to Thelma and Louise, but I think there's a more satisfyingly spiky and complex dynamic between Eunice and Miriam that is more compelling and more provocative than that Hollywood classic. Winterbottom's film doesn't make it easy for the viewer either, he makes their characters intriguing but, certainly in the case of Eunice, hard to like or comprehend. There's no real explanation for why Eunice is as she is, or even why Miriam drops everything to be with her and doesn't stay fazed for long at her murderous antics, Cottrell Boyce's script is deliberately oblique and disorientating, suggesting deeper meanings with the mythical legend of Judith and the many Biblical connotations that Eunice refers to throughout. It's perhaps best to view the pair as two halves of a split-personality, or as a depiction of how easy it is to take the wrong road in life. "I'll make you evil before you make me good," Eunice tells Miriam at one point and it's ultimately more than an observation or an idle threat - it's a prophecy.

It's always fun to watch a film set in a part of the world you know, reside in or - in the case of the scenes shot around the Arthurian theme park Camelot - have memories of attending, but whilst this lends Butterfly Kiss a naturalistic milieu (enhanced by Winterbottom's casting of familiar, or future-familiar, Granadaland and Yorkshire TV faces like Watching's Paul Bown, or Emmerdale's Lisa Riley and Paula Tilbrook and of course the ubiquitous Ricky Tomlinson) Northern Irish cinematographer Seamus McGarvey captures the landscape in a breathtaking manner which rightly  identifies the insignificance of the characters against such an overwhelming backdrop. There's also a great soundtrack too - with The Cranberries featuring predominantly, alongside the likes of Bjork, PJ Harvey and New Order - that firmly ties the film to the mid 90s.

Butterfly Kiss is, like many a debut, far from perfect, but it remains an intriguing, enigmatic and passionate psychological thriller that demands our attention for its subversion of the genre and its ability to offer up something a little different in terms of place.

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