Starring Heather Graham, Joseph Fiennes, Natascha McElhone, Jason Hughes
The movie begins with the superimposition over snow-covered mountains of the faces of Heather Graham and Joseph Fiennes as they make love. Then we see a tragic accident as parka-clad climbers inching their way up a nearly vertical incline fall to their certain deaths. A voiceover explains that at high altitudes the brain, affected by extreme cold, slows down, and then stops. The Plutonic themes of love and death are thus firmly set in this film about extremes – extreme passion, obsession, violence, deep deception, mystery and murder. Essentially it is about the power and control within relationships: power given away, power abused, and the struggle to reclaim personal power from a position of helplessness.
Award-winning Chinese director Chen Kaige (The Emperor and the Assassin, 1999, Temptress Moon, 1996, and Farewell My Concubine, 1993) here tackles a Western film, with Western stars, with considerable impact. He gives it all the richness and depth of his other films and creates a compellingly erotic love story which becomes a suspenseful murder mystery and thriller exploring the dark urgent desires deep within – perhaps – all of us.
Alice Loudon (Heather Graham) lives with her comfortable, safe and unchallenging boyfriend Jake (Jason Hughes). Their domestic life shows a kind of familiar rapport which has them interacting almost as two halves of the one person. Their rather dull connection is taken for granted by both of them. Then, on her way to work, Alice is thrilled to complete awareness by an accidental meeting with a stranger when their fingers touch on a pedestrian crossing button. Their eyes meet and it is electrifying for both.
Fiennes’ dark, magnetic eyes go deeply into Alice, who is innocently open and unprepared. Without a word they cross the street, but we feel how utterly aware of his every move, every breath, she is. She almost misses her work entrance because he has her complete attention, and when she arrives at her desk, she goes directly to her window to see his destination, a bookshop across the street. Later, she feels compelled to leave work and find him at the bookshop, where she discovers he is the famous Adam Tallis, the hero of a book about the tragic accident glimpsed in the opening scene. He invites her, with a riveting intensity which speaks of obsession, to his house. With just the right degree of hesitation indicating she is both frightened and fascinated, and compelled by the passion he arouses in her, she goes.
Following their passionate tryst, Alice breaks off her relationship with Jake. Adam introduces her to his friends and the exhilarating world of mountain climbing, where extreme risk and potential danger are as heady as oxygen. She meets the beautiful, enigmatic Deborah (Natascha McElhone), whom she at first believes is Adam’s lover and then finds is his sister. This device of an ambiguous apparency gradually falling away to reveal the truth is one of Kaige’s devices to heighten the sense of danger and confusion attending Alice’s headlong rush into a relationship where her knowledge of what she is getting herself into is minimal. She is never portrayed as a submissive character – rather a woman discovering sensual depths within herself, which she finds irresistibly intoxicating.
There are many potent scenes showing Kaige’s artistry which stick in the memory. When they first meet, the camera flicks to the flashing Stop/Go signs, while Graham begins visibly to shine with that inner radiance wasted on many of her lesser films. The use of rich, bright colours in furnishings and clothing creates a sensual statement. Kaige allows just enough time for us to absorb what he wants us to see. Another memorable scene is of Alice naked in the snow, flushed with uncertain excitement, captured on Adam’s Polaroid, and another when he makes love to her, a scarf tightening around her throat as she recounts in voiceover, “I gave up all control. I let him decide when I could breathe and when I couldn’t, and I loved it.” There is a shocking scene where Adam chases a bag-snatching thief who has messed with the wrong man’s woman. The violence inflicted, the apparent inability to stop or to know when enough is enough, is a revealing key to Adam’s character. Adam’s alternating cruelty and kindness and Alice’s submission and perfect trust are an essential part of their relationship.
A subtle turning point in the film is when Alice begins to receive anonymous notes asking her what she really knows about Adam. Feeling that he has not been completely open with her, blocking the profound intimacy she wishes to have with him, she goes searching for information that will tell her more about him, about his past. What she finds is mysterious and creates a deep doubt within her that she must put to rest by sleuthing. It creates the necessity for her first lie to him. So fear and excitement, patience and control are held in a delicate balance, as they are for a mountaineer negotiating a perilous ascent. The intricate layers of the past as they are revealed are as complicated and deceptive as snow drifts covering deep mountain crevasses, while the plot twists and turns back on itself. Has there been murder? And who is the murderer? Adam’s typically intense reaction to her deception is, “Do you sneak around because you need it to get rougher and rougher? Is that it?”
The film has one flaw in Alice’s voiceover telling the story to a policeman. This device is hardly necessary. Her voiceover could more simply have stood on its own, especially since the policeman seems hardly sympathetic enough to allow her the uninhibited expression of the intimate details she is giving him. Their interview seems too coldly impersonal to have credibility and therefore is rather a spurious distraction from the story.
Regardless of this flaw, Killing Me Softly is overall a wonderful feat of cinematic craftsmanship. Mesmerising performances by Graham, Fiennes and McElhone carry a powerful portrayal of love and obsession which grips the viewer in a spell of excitement to the end.
© Avril Carruthers 8th December 2002
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