A short-haired, degenerate-looking, visibly deranged young woman enters a gas station store by a highway. She asks the clerk if she knows a particular love song that goes something like “tu duuu dddduuuuunnnnnggg tu duuuuu”, the melody more like the horrific sound of an out of tune piano than anything resembling a modern ballad. We later find out this particular song is actually a soccer anthem, charging with the energy of anticipated victory.
Butterfly Kiss, Michael Winterbottom’s first feature is about themes that have been of interest to me lately: mental illness, sexual energy, and criminal behavior. The more I question the moral standards set forth by society, the more I feel myself pulled towards the strongest, most destabilizing, human urges and the limits of control. Eunice, the main character of this story, is somebody whose own sense of alienation from humanity has turned her into a sexually obsessed murderess.
Eunice roams the country side, stealing from stores, hitching rides, and looking for someone named Judith (most likely someone she made up). Beneath her clothes she is wrapped in metal chains, a symbol of her own loathing, and a self-inflicted punishment for the transgressive acts she commits on a regular basis. She will find in Miriam, a gas station store clerk, a protege who will fall head over heels for her. Together they will embark on a road trip through the British country side, catching body after body, and eventually burning out at sea.
The story is framed by Miriam, who in a police interrogation recalls her relationship with Eunice, rationalizing her erratic behavior and violent outbursts. The story cuts back and forth between the events of their escape, and Miriam’s recollections of their time together. This narrative intervention provides a much needed balancing of the story’s wildly exaggerated characterization of Eunice, and Miriam’s attempt, as well as ours, to extenuate her actions.
It occurs to me that Eunice might be labelled schizophrenic, so it is interesting that the story omits any psychological references. Miriam agrees that Eunice has mood swings, but as she puts it “If you want the good things, you have to put up with the bad sometimes”. Except in this case, the bad involves murdering men during sexual intercourse, stealing trucks and cars, and threatening young children. The mix of violence and sexuality, embodied by Eunice, who in a moment of psychotic rage begins quoting the Bible, seems to be a direct reference to cinema’s own propensity to explore themes of sex, death, and spirituality. Eunice represents these urges as experienced by a human being at their extreme potential.
In terms of cinematic craft, Winterbottom delivers his highly economical, but skillful storytelling style, advancing the story forward and adjusting his rhythm when needed to the screenplay’s plot points. What is a gradual progression into the discovery of Eunice’s madness is portrayed as an unrelenting going forward like a car speeding in the fast lane without brakes. Some viewers might find the use of popular songs by artists like Bjork and PJ Harvey to lend an unnecessary touch of lightness to the story, but upon closer inspection this apparent clash of style is representative of the moral friction contained in the story.
This is a daring film, which lays bare the urges at the heart of individuals who question authority and the moral standards set forth by society. Any viewer who has ever wondered about the solitary act of moviewatching and the malleable and fragile constituency of their psyche will recognize in the story a metaphor for the pleasures as well as the dangers that cinema offers its devotees. With a tour de force performance by Amanda Plummer which recalls David Thewlis in “Naked” and anticipates Katrin Cartlidge in “Claire Dolan”, this debut feature by Michael Winterbottom is highly recommendable and essential viewing for anybody interested in his work.