An often breathtakingly original meld of road movie, lesbian love story, psychodrama and black comedy, “Butterfly Kiss” wings in as the most original and spirited Brit pic since last year’s “Shallow Grave.” Toplining Amanda Plummer and Saskia Reeves as two Northerners who hook up in a macabre, realist fairy tale of murder and romantic obsession as they travel the U.K.’s highways, the film looks certain to put English director Michael Winterbottom on the international map and spark strong critical response. Cult status seems assured; the challenge for distribs will be to translate the movie’s clear festival and upscale appeal into broader business.
Winterbottom, who helmed two Ingmar Bergman docs and a distinctive pair of TV movies (“Forget About Me,””Under the Sun”) before attracting North American attention with the Roddy Doyle-scripted TV drama “Family” last fall, has negotiated the leap to bigscreen fare with beguiling ease. From its opening shots, “Butterfly Kiss” exudes a confidence and distinctive feel that promises something rather special. Unlike its characters, the pic knows where it’s going.
Plummer plays Eunice, a cross between a punk Harpo Marx and a short-fused free spirit, who’s intro’d antsily stalking a highway service station and asking the convenience salesgirl if her name is Judith. Shortly thereafter, the clerk is seen dead on the floor.
When Eunice repeats the same “Judith” shtick at a gas station where Miriam (Reeves) works, the two women are immediately drawn to each other, and Miriam invites Eunice back home. After they make love — in a scene that is the first of many to spring jaw-dropping surprises — the pair set off on the road.
So totally does Miriam buy into Eunice and her world that, when she’s shown the battered body of a guy Eunice has just enjoyed strenuous sex with, Miriam hardly bats an eyelid. In a morbid but magical sequence that encapsulates the pic’s special flavor, Miriam buries the body in the woods at dusk before the pair head out again on their odyssey to nowhere.
It’s from this point on, and Miriam’s discovery of another Eunice victim in the car trunk, that the movie springs an almost evangelical theme on its audience. Miriam agrees to help dispose of the latest corpse to “save” Eunice and later wields the instrument of death on a man in a blackly funny but shocking sequence that sets the characters up for their final apotheosis on a deserted seashore.
The ease with which Winterbottom and scripter Frank Cottrell Boyce (“Forget About Me”) combine the movie’s many strands and moods into a seamless whole is partly due to the casual way in which the various components are handled.
The women’s lesbian attraction, though shown in one fairly graphic sequence, is never made a central issue, transformed instead into an almost spiritual dimension, with Miriam the saint determined at all costs to serve and maybe save her beloved sinner.
Likewise, though Eunice is on paper a serial killer, several of the murders take place offscreen, and pic shows no interest at all in delving deeply into Eunice’s motivation or showing the effects of violence on the characters. There aren’t any; Eunice knocks off people as casually as Miriam goes out and buys instant noodles, and the two characters (jokily abbreviated to Eu and Mi) exist only within the limitations of the movie screen.
Despite Winterbottom’s technical skills, confidently on display, and Cottrell Boyce’s street-poetic dialogue, it’s still the easy playing of the two leads that motors the movie. In the showier role, Plummer, sporting a thick Northern English accent (that will prove problematic for North Americans), dominates the early going. With her weatherbeaten looks, androgynous long johns
and Doc Martens, thesp tops even her previous outings with one of the most memorable, off-the-wall perfs in memory.
As Miriam, Reeves is seemingly outpaced at the start but finally pulls alongside Plummer with a minutely observed study of a pupil who finally becomes the master. Though it’s always a reactive role, Reeves emerges as the most complex and potentially scary character in the movie.
Though the pic clocks in at a trim 85 minutes, there’s a slight dip halfway when it seems to be going in as many circles as its characters. Also, the device of punctuating the narrative with post-facto B&W video inserts of Miriam commenting on events to an unseen inquisitor becomes detrimental to the pic’s momentum in the latter half, and could be cut with no loss.
On a minimal (undisclosed) budget, tech credits are shapely throughout, with razor-sharp cutting by Trevor Waite, striking lensing of anonymous British highways and landscapes by Seamus McGarvey, and atmospheric use of Dolby, especially in the endless swish of cars passing by, by John Harle.