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BUTTERFLY KISS (1995)

""People who nobody loves – they always end up killing someone, even if it’s only themselves…."

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Director: Michael Winterbottom

Starring: Amanda Plummer, Saskia Reeves, Des McAleer, Freda Dowie

Screenplay: Frank Cottrell Boyce

Synopsis: A solitary young woman, Eunice (Amanda Plummer), travels the motorways of northern England, searching obsessively for someone named Judith and trying to identify a song whose melody has become etched in her mind. At a petrol station, Eunice accosts the cashier, at first trying to get her help in naming the song, then accusing her of being Judith. The cashier denies it, and soon is lying dead. At a second petrol station, Eunice meets a cashier called Miriam (Saskia Reeves). Miriam is friendly, and tries to help Eunice with her song search, but Eunice leaves in a fury when Miriam denies being Judith. Encountering another cashier and receiving another denial, Eunice snatches the pump from a customer and douses herself in petrol. Miriam shuts the pump off and joins Eunice outside the station. Eunice shows Miriam a bundle of letters written by Judith, concluding bleakly that the reason she is unable to find Judith is because she doesn’t deserve her. When Miriam tries to comfort her, Eunice kisses her passionately. Miriam is startled but pleased, and when Eunice indicates that she has nowhere to stay, invites her to the small flat she shares with her grandmother, Elsie (Freda Dowie). At the flat, Eunice suddenly removes her shirt, revealing that her thin, bruised body is tightly bound with chains. After carrying Elsie into Miriam’s own small room, Eunice takes Miriam to bed and makes love to her. The next morning, Miriam wakes to find Eunice gone, the message Your not Judith scrawled across her mirror. Meanwhile, Eunice has hitched a ride along the motorway. When the puzzled driver asks if he hears clinking, Eunice opens her shirt to show him her chains. Soon the two are having sex in the back of his van. Miriam leaves home to search for Eunice, accepting a lift from Mr McDermott (Des McAleer), an acquaintance. She finds Eunice at yet another petrol station, still searching for Judith. Miriam insists on accompanying Eunice, and the two drive the van to a secluded spot by a beach. There, Eunice opens the van doors to reveal the dead body of the van’s owner. Stunned, Miriam offers to help dispose of the body, but Eunice refuses to touch it. Miriam drags the dead man into some nearby woods. Frightened when Eunice suddenly vanishes and drives away, Miriam nevertheless conceals the body. When Eunice reappears, she is angry with Miriam for burying the body, but calms when Miriam offers the act as proof that she likes doing things for her. The two set out again along the motorways, with Miriam drawn deeper and deeper into Eunice’s lethal fantasies until she, too, resorts to deadly violence.

Synopsis: Despite advances in society’s tolerance and understanding, and the emergence of film-makers willing to deal with homosexuality in an honest way, two stereotypical views of gay people still exist in modern cinema. On one hand we have the comic male homosexual, the sidekick, witty at best and bitchy at worst, there to be laughed either with or at but rarely central to the action. My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997) is an obvious recent example of this convention. In contrast, the female homosexual has often been perceived as a threat rather than a joke, with such characters frequently suffering from some kind of dementia (the subtext here, I suspect, is she-doesn’t-want-a-man-she-must-be-mad).

Over the past few years, the bisexual or lesbian psycho-killer has become a popular figure in both mainstream and arthouse cinema, appearing in everything from the tacky and exploitive Basic Instinct (1992) to the more thoughtful but even more disturbing Heavenly Creatures (1994) and Fun (1994). Butterfly Kiss, for all its graphic scenes, is closer in spirit to the latter two films, and closer still to Terrence Malick’s shocking yet mordantly funny Badlands (1973). The events in Butterfly Kiss take place in a grim urban landscape of concrete and asphalt, full of motorways, petrol stations and dingy cafes. The people who populate this wasteland live lives as bleak and empty as their environment. Worse, they are very nearly indistinguishable from one other, a fact underscored by a series of scenes (funny at first, then increasingly discomforting) in which Eunice has exactly the same conversation with every cashier she confronts. It is in this emptiness that Eunice wages her futile war, desperate to make a permanent mark upon the world, to do something to make herself visible to God and man.

However, no-one seems interested in Eunice or even, significantly, in her trail of victims, and in a fit of despair she challenges the apparently indifferent God: "You’d think He’d smite me, or take me into bondage, but no! Nowt!" More telling still is her bleak recollection of a near-victim: "I was going to kill her and she still looked right through me…." Thwarted in her search for the author of a bundle of letters that she clutches like a talisman, Eunice’s encounter with Miriam contains an unexpected quality: sincerity. Oddly, it becomes apparent that Miriam’s deafness, rather than completing her isolation, has acted instead as a buffer, protecting her from the deadening influence of her surroundings and allowing just enough of a spark to survive within her to make her different. This is enough to catch Eunice’s interest, and she is genuinely hurt to find that Miriam is not the elusive Judith. Similarly, the arrival of Eunice is like an explosion within the vacuum of Miriam’s life, and she is drawn to the frankly deranged young woman like a moth to a flame. That Miriam is so immediately and obviously entranced by her is a lure Eunice is unable to resist, and a deadly pact is sealed. We learn early on that Miriam’s grandmother calls her Mimi, or rather, just "Mi"; not surprisingly, Eunice is rechristened "Eu" as the two set out upon their murderous odyssey.

As the two interact, the details of their characters begin to emerge. We are told nothing of Eunice’s history, but her sado-masochistic tendencies, her constant quoting of the Old Testament, and her ominous pronouncement that punishment is something she "really understands" make it painfully easy to fill in the gaps. As portrayed by Amanda Plummer in an all-stops-out performance, Eunice is a character full of sound and fury, yet not entirely without subtlety. Plummer fairly burns up the screen in the role, horrifying the viewer, while at the same time shading her characterisation with unexpected dips into tenderness or laughter that make Miriam’s continuing enthrallment credible. Nevertheless, memorably frightening as Plummer’s Eunice is, it is Saskia Reeves as Miriam who gives the film’s best performance, and ultimately creates the more disturbing character. While the violent, erratic and passionate Eunice is an aberration, Miriam is not. She is the living, breathing product of the desolate environment we have gradually been exploring. The horror lies in the implication that there could be many Miriams, people so divorced from any kind of emotional reality that even violent death barely makes an impression upon them. When Eunice warns Miriam, "I’ll make you evil before you make me good" it feels like a statement of the film’s premise, but this is misleading. Miriam is not good: she’s empty, neutral. It is here that Butterfly Kiss’s kinship to Badlands is most apparent, because Miriam is blood sister to Sissy Spacek’s Holly, another human being not evil, not cruel, not ill-intentioned, yet emotionally and morally quite bereft. In both cases we see a passive creature involved with an individual of unrestrained homicidal impulses, but whose reaction is rarely more than mild annoyance, and that only when their companion’s behaviour makes their own life uncomfortable.

While initially it seems that Miriam will be a perpetual victim of Eunice’s mania, as the story progresses there is a subtle shift in the relationship. When Eunice clubs a truck driver to death, she protests to Miriam that she did it because, "‘e was ‘urtin’ ya": the initial situation of Miriam "doing things" for Eunice has been reversed. The turning point is Eunice’s heart-breaking encounter with Judith - at least, with a Judith, although perhaps not the Judith - in which her tenaciously held hopes are shattered. Though quick to console her devastated companion, Miriam is clearly delighted with this denouement. However, it is not long before her own hopes are dashed. Having been grudgingly tolerant of Eunice’s obsession with her unseen correspondent (in one of the film’s grimly funny moments, Miriam complains that, "Anyone can write a few letters - I was the one doing all the work!"), when it is borne upon her that she is still expected to share Eunice with others Miriam immediately resorts to fatal violence. It is after this that Eunice loses her tenuous ability to cope, and Miriam, with chilling resolution, "does" one more thing for her. The film’s final word goes to a calm and unrepentant Miriam. Throughout, the story of "Mi" and "Eu" has been intercut with black and white footage of Miriam, presumably taken from a videotaped interview with a police psychiatrist. Whereas during the body of the film Miriam has not seemed particularly attractive, here she looks quite lovely. The violence and futility have finally destroyed Eunice, but Miriam has grown stronger on it. "I don’t regret it - any of it," she tells the camera, and horribly, we believe it. Butterfly Kiss is a grim, bleak film, so much so that it would be almost unwatchable if - again like Badlands - the storyline were not leavened with splashes of the blackest of humour. Much of this springs from the interpolated video of Miriam, whose placid reflections form a comic counterpoint to the film’s horrifying action - for example, the masterly understatement with which she sums up her companion’s insanity: "You knew where you stood with her. When she was cross, you knew she was cross." The film’s soundtrack weighs in with a sickly funny moment after Miriam opens the boot of the girls’ car to find another of Eunice’s victims (presumably the owner of the vehicle, the acquisition of which Miriam has seen no reason to question). As Miriam storms into the inevitable cafe to confront Eunice, the generally mournful soundtrack suddenly launches into the cheerfully inane, "Uh-Oh, We’re In Trouble." Finally, there is the film’s cleverest scene and biggest shock, both for Miriam and the viewer: the unexpected revelation that Eunice hasn’t killed someone....

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