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Killing Me Softly (Chen Kaige, 2002)


    Dumped unceremoniously and perhaps unfairly direct to video for its Stateside release, director Chen Kaige’s seeming erotic thriller Killing Me Softly actually does a fair job in updating the Gothic romance novel for modern times and underlines the link between the two genres. Though its rather routine script is loaded with familiar situations, the movie has a cinematic fluidity and sense of intelligence that makes it work more than it probably should. It begins unassumingly enough with the introduction of Alice (Heather Graham), a happily partnered software designer who is tempted out of her comfortable existence by a seemingly harmless flirtation with Adam (Joseph Fiennes), a dashing mountain climber she meets serendipitously on the streets of London one day. The fairy tale courtship that follows is spiced up with a series of fiercely passionate and almost comically exaggerated sex scenes, but since the film adequately illustrates Alice’s sexual restlessness in her prior relationship, they don’t feel gratuitous, exactly. The dichotomy between Alice’s perfunctory ex-lover, who watches footy on the tube, and her new one, who is athletic by profession, is unmistakable, as is the sense of danger that surrounds Adam, and in the extreme portrayals of these men, the film seems to find its métier. The scenes that detail Alice’s insecurities or demonstrate her sexual growth are the most intriguing because they take the concerns that usually exist on the edges in the genre and present them in a head-on, unembarrassed manner.  Considering the movie’s trajectory, it’s not particularly surprising when their wedding nuptials are followed by the introduction of bondage into their sex life, though the explicitness of the sex scene that details the change is a bit of a shock because so few films of this sort are willing to be frank with us.


    Once Alice and Adam marry, a series of mysterious phone calls and notes makes her question his cloudy past. At this point, she begins rummaging through his closets looking for clues, and the movie begins to resemble a sexually liberated version of Hitchcock’s Rebecca. That’s a somewhat pointless exercise, to be sure, but Chen’s visual sensibilities keep things watchable past the forty-five minute mark, when the plot becomes hopelessly predictable. He infuses his compositions with bright, bold shades (the victims of a mountaineering mishap have jumpsuits in each of the primary colors) that feel unusually vivid for an entry in this genre. The exquisite lap dissolves, the sprinkling snowflakes and the softly lit surface of skin are the key visual touchstones here, and they keep the mood energized throughout. Though the actors seem to function mostly as beautiful faces first and performers second, that approach matches the film’s. Aesthetics are placed above characterization, and that’s fortunate because once they’re stripped away, this is the stuff of dime-store novels.


* * 1/2 


Jeremy Heilman