Picture this: Lesbian lovers drive along the desolate Lancashire roads in England, looking for the good and evil in the other and killing a few people along the way. The image filling your mind is probably a sort of low-budget modernized Bonnie & Clyde without the charm or the fast pace, and it is also Michael Winterbottom’s debut feature Butterfly Kiss.
Winterbottom had a handful of TV credits to his name prior to Butterfly Kiss, and at times, it shows. Winterbottom works as if he is on heavy time constraints. His longshots often give us an interesting image, particularly the ending montage, but he rushes ahead and never gives his images a chance to sink in. Perhaps he does not want his natural lighting—or as natural as lighting gets on the cloudy days that surround this film—to show too much, or perhaps he is eager to hurry the plot along. Neither one of these is entirely helpful: The naturalist style and unpolished look mutes the colors and highlights the barren meaninglessness that the two lovers are rebelling against, and Butterfly Kiss is more parable than dramatic story.
Like many road-trip films, the story is quite loose, the interaction between the passengers far more important than where they are going. In this case, it’s the talkative serial killer Eunice (Amanda Plummer) and her submissive lover Miriam, who find something trustworthy and lovable in Eunice. Where are they going? Nowhere, really. Eunice is looking for her old friend Judith and a piano song “about love,” perhaps one that they shared. She accuses every clerk in every roadside petrol station of being the one. The responses vary but generally contain a hint of uneasiness, as Plummer plays Eunice with the same unhinged bombastic vulgarity that she gave to “Honey Bunny” Yolanda in Pulp Fiction a year prior. When Miriam is taken in by that craziness, they also begin to lazily look for God, deciding that if he punishes them for murder, he’s at least acknowledging them.
“Eu” and “Mi” get into several fights along the way, particularly about how to deal with the people that Eunice perceives as victims. Occasionally, there is a cut to Miriam talking into a camera, briefly explaining what she thought about a particular sequence. This could be a confession video, but Butterfly Kiss is far richer if it is a recording at an insane asylum. That the two refer to each other as homophones for “you” and “me” suggests that the lovers are really one victim of schizophrenia or dissociative identity disorder. At one point, Miriam says “I’ll help you be a better person.” Eunice’s concerns are much more metaphysical; “God forgot me,” and every murder she commits is part of a search for punishment that will at least confirm to her that there is a God concerned enough with humankind to do anything about it. Her response to Miriam is quite pessimistic, then: “I’ll turn you evil before you turn me good.” There are not many subtle metaphors to be found here, from this dialogue to the chains Eunice wears on her body as a reminder of a past affair.
Whether they are two people or one, Butterfly Kiss does primarily concern itself with the transition from good to evil, how those two voices talk to each other and lure each other. It is a fascinating idea for a road trip movie, but it is one expressed primarily through cliché and an obsession with trying to be “haunting” rather than actually being expressive or, more importantly, ideologically coherent. Butterfly Kiss makes some big statements about what it means to balance good with evil, but they mostly contradict each other. Everything from Eunice’s self-punishing chains to the predictable ending that lacks weight makes Butterfly Kiss come up very short in morality and spirituality.
Butterfly Kiss also had trouble adhering to its own internal logic: Miriam mentions how she can’t leave her mother and then entirely forgets her, and her constant reversal on what she thinks of Eunice is unexplored, providing a feeling of inconsistency rather than conflict. On the other hand, it empowers the interpretation that the two are the same character and that the evil Eu slowly begins to take over the righteous Mi, first by ignoring their mother, then by forcing her to assist with murder in a more active way each time. Still, this thesis-statement approach is presented without awareness of conflict or character and is undermined by the film’s rushed, contradictory series of conclusions, presented so sloppily it’s as if the film was simply trying to find a reason for everything that came before it. But to paraphrase Billy Wilder, if there is a problem with the third act, the real problem is in the first act. Only Winterbottom’s naturalist style and theme-enhancing soundtrack keep this one intriguing, otherwise it’s a film with a lot to say but no idea how to say it.