It is not too often that I feel envy towards the people of Europe, but I found myself anxious at the idea that this movie was released in their theaters last summer while we in the States had to pine away. Our domestic release was moved back while film critics on the other side of the sink got to tear into what had to be a riotous experience. Well no longer need I bide this pitiless film as MGM has decided not to add to the glut of weak movies released this year and instead shot this gem out directly to DVD.
Any viewer will find that “Killing Me Softly” is a rollicking farce with scenes that are staged for full comedic effect and the actors have a fine sense of witty delivery that will ensure you have a smile on your face start to finish. I also should add that this is intended to be an erotic thriller. It is helmed by the Chinese director of “Farwell My Concubine”, Chen Kaige and there is so much that goes awry on screen that I wonder if maybe his on set translator wasn’t tampering with his directives to exact some sort of personal reprisal. Let’s dig in to the fun.
Heather Graham plays Alice, a computer programmer working in London who is in a deep and committed relationship with Jake. Jake is a sweet and dedicated lover who makes Alice feel comfortable and safe, so you just know this sap is about to get shot out of the saddle. On the way to work one day Alice encounters Joseph Fiennes at a street corner and she is overcome by his glowering unshaven mug. Later that day they meet again and silently share a cab, starting a pattern of barely speaking to each other. At his apartment that afternoon they embark on a deep relationship of shedding their clothes for athletic coitus.
The next day on the way to work Alice spots a book store display where she learns his name for the first time, Adam Tallis, so we can assume she dismissed looking into her partner’s sexual history before their romp. We get taught that in England mountain climbers are celebrities based on Adam being featured in a book, a magazine interview and a TV appearance, and all because people seem to die whenever he takes them up a sheer face. After leaving the boring Jake and moving in with a man who has even less personality Heather gets her first taste of Adam’s skewed world view. To illustrate the lack of oxygen a climber experiences at high altitude he plucks a goldfish from a bowl and holds it gasping in his palm, the sick bastard.
Alice is introduced to Adam’s creepily affectionate sister Deborah, who reveals that Adam’s fiancé died on an ill-fated expedition. The sister lingers around the couple like cheap perfume in an elevator, to the extent that you have to suspect her of something untoward, even if it is overacting. Adam meanwhile is busy acting like a shifty, brooding lug, however Alice is too caught up in compensating for the lack of chemistry in the relationship with acrobatic sex. Later Deborah gives her this unhelpful tidbit: “The thing about my brother—you’re either with him or you’re not.” Alice nods at the profundity, as if it were delivered by Gandhi.
This brings us to the best scene of the film. While walking with a friend Alice gets her wallet stolen, but as the assailant runs off Adam, who just happened to be nearby, chases after the thief. The shots of Fiennes sprinting after the man are hilarious, both for his facial contortions in the effort to appear “angry”, and for looking like a prep-school grad completely unaccustomed to running. Eventually the mugger has to slow down so he can be caught. When Adam reaches the pickpocket he drives his head into a phone booth and then beats him to a bloody pile. When Alice catches up he takes her into his arms and, while standing over the body, takes this moment to ask her to marry him. Poor Alice—years later when her friends are trading stories of their romantic proposals with diamonds nestled in dessert pastries or dozens of flower petals strewn about a secluded gazebo, all she’ll have to offer is how Adam looked like a long-shore man and that she had to step around a body to keep the blood off her Joan& Davids.
And we are only halfway through at this time. Alice decides that not knowing a man is a perfectly sound reason to become married and they have a quaint mountainside ceremony where nobody is bludgeoned by the groom. Their first task as husband and wife is for Alice to pose for some nude Polaroids in a cemetery and then trekking up a slope for the honeymoon. Adam feels that it is best to show off his skills by leaving his flatlander of a bride to climb up a hill at night to find their cabin retreat. Once she arrives Alice learns something new about her shiny new husband; he has a preference for sexual asphyxia. This is the type of thing that may have been revealed prior to the nuptials had they done so much as carried on a conversation, but instead Alice finds herself on her honeymoon with bed sheets wrapped into a noose while they consummate.
From the early stages of their relationship and into the marriage Alice is the recipient of clues that her new beau could invalidate her from the company health plan. There is a series of phone calls where no one responds, and then she gets some anonymous notes warning her off the guy. Also, the woman who interviewed Adam faxes a letter from a former lover contending she was raped by Adam. Alice poses as the reporter to talk to the girl but she may have just confused Adam’s penchant for degenerate sexual antics as assault. Adam doesn’t help his cause during this time by acting as an emotional Cro-Magnon.
With no thought of self-preservation Alice is instead intrigued, and commences looking into Adam’s personal effects. A good place to start might be that closet that he keeps permanently locked—in fact wouldn’t that have been a good place to start say, around the second or third date? Alice paws through some of his papers and discovers there is another doomed woman in his past; this one didn’t fall off a mountain, she simply up and disappeared, but it looks suspicious none the less. This is when Adam returns home and the musical score surges and races as Alice cleans up, and Adam slowly mounts the stairs—close your eyes for a moment and you’d swear there was a chase scene taking place. (I won’t reveal if she tidied up in time or not.)
This discovery prompts the intrepid Alice to go off and visit the missing girl’s grieving mother. Using the woman’s emotional distress to salve her relationship problems Alice compels the woman to bring out an overstuffed photo album and thereby picking open the wounds of losing her child. Amid loving scenes of school days and pony rides Alice discovers a surprise. Not only does the AWOL girl strongly resemble herself but there is an almost identical naked picture of her taken while standing beside the very statue that Alice had posed with on her wedding day.
Want to know what is more eerie than that coincidence? A mother keeping a nude snapshot of her daughter in a scrapbook next to the birthday photos!
Back home Alice is intent on getting answers. She searches for her husband in an apartment for five minutes and coming up empty starts snooping anew. Then we see him sitting in the shadows of the breakfast nook with an ashtray holding half of a carton’s lot of cigarette butts; you would think if she could not see him she certainly could have smelled him out. Newly enraged he accosts his betrothed and takes such an offense to her second-guessing that he ties her to the heavy kitchen table with rope from a tramp steamer in order to lecture her on distrust. Now supposing for a moment that Adam is innocent of all the suspicions, I think lashing the wife to a slab of butcher’s block would be grounds enough for her to file papers and claim fifty percent of his climbing gear.
With Alice as a captive audience Adam uses the moment to pace around and speak quietly like a Bond villain before shrieking, “I have nothing to hide!!” To get proof he then moves immediately to the closet that he keeps sealed like a sepulcher.
Things eventually build to a frothy climax and quite frankly if you don’t see the big twist for the finale coming down the block you are forgiven. There are enough giddy moments that it could be easy to forget you were supposed to be caught up in intrigue, and that is fine. Sit back and savor what has to be up to this time the best DVD release of the young year, even if it is not for the reasons the makers had wished.