A cross between a serial-killer film and a road movie, Butterfly Kiss was director Michael Winterbottom’s first cinema feature in 1995. Gary Couzens reviews the UK DVD release from Second Sight, released tomorrow.
Somewhere in the north of England, Eunice (Amanda Plummer) is searching for a woman called Judith and asks for her at every service station she gets to. Then she meets Miriam (Saskia Reeves). Intrigued by Eunice’s impulsiveness and volatility, Miriam puts her up at home…and soon after the two become lovers. Miriam helps Eunice in her search for Judith, but soon realises that Eunice is not just eccentric but dangerous. She has killed people before and will no doubt do so again.
Born in 1961, Michael Winterbottom began directing for TV in the late 1980s. By the mid 90s, he had made a name for himself with such small-screen features as Go Now and the Roddy Doyle-scripted miniseries Family. (Both could certainly do with a DVD release in the UK, though Go Now had an Australian release at least.) Butterfly Kiss, made in 1994 with some BBC funding, became Winterbottom’s cinematic debut.
Another regular Winterbottom collaborator was Frank Cottrell Boyce, who wrote the script for Butterfly Kiss. He would write five more films for the director before they had a parting of the ways after 2005’s A Cock and Bull Story, for which Cottrell Boyce was credited under the pseudonym Martin Hardy. He has also had a parallel career as a children’s novelist, including the Carnegie Medal-winning Millions, itself filmed in 2004, directed by Danny Boyle.
There are director’s films and there are writer’s films. Butterfly Kiss is both. It’s a strange film that starts off as an attempt to make a road movie using Northern England’s motorways and service stations as its iconography. (Compare it with the far artier Radio On from 1979, which is a London-to-Bristol road movie.) Beyond it being north of Watford, the film is non-specific in its setting. Morecambe is mentioned at one point, so Lancashire can’t be far away. I’m no expert, but I couldn’t place Eunice’s thick accent, but credit is due to (American) Amanda Plummer for not letting it slip. Saskia Reeves is also not a Northerner, being born in London, but she does not seem out of place either. Meanwhile Miriam’s boss Eric McDermott (Des McAleer) speaks Brummie, and one service station employee in a key scene is Glaswegian.
Importantly, the film doesn’t seek to “explain” Eunice’s evident psychosis, though we have hints. After a while her rants take on a religious tone, a mishmash of Greek myth and Old Testament Christianity. Eunice is seeking retribution for her crimes. She is expecting to be struck down when she kills someone, but…nothing happens. Miriam’s attempts to reach out to her are rebuffed with the comment “I’ll make you evil before you make me good.” In a way, she turns out to be right. But Eunice is seeking redemption, and in a strange way she achieves it.
Winterbottom’s direction puts us on edge right from the start, with deliberately jittery editing from Trevor Waite, and loud traffic sweeps across the soundstage keeping things tense. In a fairly short film, he doesn’t always sustain this: the film slows down in the middle, and could have lost a few of the desaturated flashforwards of Miriam talking to camera in an attempt to justify her actions. If there is a drawback to this film – and it’s true that if you don’t like it you may well hate it – is that many of Winterbottom’s films have an affect that’s somewhat on the cool side. His is a more European sensibility than many British filmmakers: not necessarily shying away from emotion but liable to bathe it in irony and indirection. At times that’s fine, but with other films (notably Welcome to Sarajevo) that was a problem for me. Butterfly Kiss tends to hold the viewer at arms length, making it a film that will leave many cold.
But there’s a lot of admire about this film. Given the showier of the two lead roles, Amanda Plummer gives a brave, completely off the wall performance that at times threatens to descend into the ludicrous. Certainly the sight of her swathed in chains and piercings is not one you’ll forget in a hurry. Saskia Reeves at the time looked like someone at the start of a significant film career, following Stephen Poliakoff’s Close My Eyes three years earlier. She’s mostly been on TV in the last decade, but here she anchors the film, serving as an effective counterpoint to Plummer. Des McAleer is suitably sleazy and further down the cast you’ll find Ricky Tomlinson and Katy Murphy. Behind the camera, Seamus McGarvey’s camerawork adds significantly to the film’s mood and there’s a good mix of music, both old and then-new, on the soundtrack.
Since this film, Michael Winterbottom has become one of the most interesting and certainly the most prolific of contemporary British directors, with fifteen features (one of them a documentary) as of this writing. Not all of them have been successful – I’d rate Wonderland and 24 Hour Party People as his best – but even the misfires have elements which make them worth seeing. Butterfly Kiss comes somewhere in the middle.
Butterfly Kiss is released by Second Sight on a single-layer DVD encoded for Region 2 only.
The transfer is in the correct ratio of 1.85:1 and anamorphically enhanced. It’s a sharp, colourful transfer (at a guess, from a HD master). There’s some grain, but I suspect that’s in the original. Blacks are solid and shadow detail is very good.
Released in cinemas with a Dolby SR-D soundtrack, you’d expect a 5.1 track. However, what we get is a 2.0 track which plays as surround in Dolby Pro-Logic. There’s quite a lot of directional sound left and right – especially passing traffic – and the surround is used mainly for the music score. Unfortunately there are no subtitles, which is bad news for the hard of hearing or anyone defeated by some of the strong regional accents in this film.
There are also no extras, not even a trailer.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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