Tuesday 10 July 2012

Top 20 Films Challenge #5: Crimes Of Passion (1984)

Staying comfortably in the murky waters of neon lit 80's alternative cinema, Crimes Of Passion at number 5. The French title is so much better by the way, (a rarity, from the country which gave us The Teeth of the Sea for Jaws!): The Nights and Days of China Blue.

In Crimes of Passion, Joanna Crane is a cold, workaholic and divorced fashion designer by day. By night however, she becomes China Blue, a hooker who helps her clients live out their fantasies as well as her own, in a world of pink and blue neon lights. She attracts the attention of sexually frustrated Bobby Grady (John McLaughlin) whose is married to a frigid wife, as well as those of a demented preacher (Anthony Perkins).

So Crimes of Passion, or The Nights and Days of China Blue. I was (and still am) a huge fan of Kathleen Turner as a child, having adored her in Romancing the Stone, Prizzi's Honor and Peggy Sue Got Married. So when I saw some stills of her as China Blue later on in a film magazine, all lit in pink and blue neon lights and with a tarty blonde wig, it piqued my attention, even though I knew I was probably too young to be watching this. And good job I did not at the time.

I have to be completely honest, I have not always been such a fan of Ken Russell, as much as I admire him. I often found his films to descend too easily into a rather tiresome hysteria. He was a bit like an embarrassing uncle at a wedding, funny to a point until he drank too much. Or dropped acid. Either way, not a pretty sight.

But in here, his usual histrionics are somehow a little more muted. Although do not fear, he hasn't lost his knack for striking images: the priest stabbing an erotic dancer with a sharp, metal dildo, as if she was a blow-up doll (quite literally as this is how he sees her), the grotesque scene of a man at a suburban house party impersonating a giant penis, complete with fluid explosion at the end, or the wonderfully crummy and stylised recreation of a red light district.

The subject might make it sound like one of those godawful, "stylish", glossy erotic films of the 80's such as 9 1/2 weeks but Crimes of Passion is far too tart for that, a tart with a heart however. It might be the epitome of 80's naff, with the constant pink and blue neon lighting and the ever present electronic soundtrack, but under this patina lies a much more subtle and relevant film than its coarse exterior might lead you to believe.

It is an exploration of the sexual communication between people, in all its forms, free from other social conventions, showing how sex bends (no puns intended) the social interactions. Each character's personality here is defined by a particular sex scene, from which we learn all there is to know about them, be it the total lack of sex of a frigid, suburban housewife's life, the priest unable to have a "normal" intercourse, or China Blue's clients and their fantasies (not to mention hers!). And there is a very touching scene which could have been ridiculous in the hands of somebody else, where China Blue is brought over a suburban house by an older woman hoping to offer her as a treat to her terminally ill husband.

Crimes of Passion's vision might seem a little simplistic, with on the one side a boring, frigid suburban lifestyle, and on the other side a life of downtown debauchery and sexual exploration, yet it is still relevant now, with the continuous negative hysteria surrounding sex. The two lead characters are two intelligent adults who act out their desires, and their relationship, no matter how unusual at first, is one built on trust and understanding. I love the way it starts so inconspicuously and grows from there, out of an unexpected chemistry.

The film itself is rather sexy, and I'm not just talking about the hit me/lick me liquorice red whip. The scene where China Blue and Bobby meet for the first time and sleep together is surprisingly sensual and tender, as we understand how, despite being a hooker and a trick, they are instantly falling for each other, and this is one of the best and most convincing sex scenes I have seen on film. 

Kathleen Turner as Joanna Crane/China Blue, is quite simply sensational, and this my favourite performance of her in such a distinguished career. Her opening scene is hilarious, she is so fearlessly vulgar it is unreal, while at the same time always mesmerising and fearlessly sexy. But the film does not let her become a one trick-pony (so to speak) and just some male fantasy. Several scenes see her much more reserved alter-ego Joanna Crane, offering more depth to her character than it first appears. It must have taken some guts for an actress on her way to superstardom to take on such a risky part and it is always so refreshing to see a strong woman on film, in control of her destiny and in tune with her desire.

Anthony Perkins' part is probably the only duff note in this, as a demented and perverted priest with an unhealthy obssession for China Blue. In fact, his hysterical part could have been edited out completely without he film suffering, and his murderous impulses are an attempt to bring an element of menace and plot development which were not really needed.

But this is a minor niggle, Crimes of Passion is a cult classic that demands to be discovered, a film that is at once sexy, smart and hilarious, and whose dialogue is an absolute firework, so incredibly witty and eminently quotable, I wonder why there are no special quote-along screenings the world over. It also has a lot more to say about sex than the recent, one-note Shame in my humble opinion.

Tomorrow at number, get ready for some teenage sulking and an awesome built-in ironing board.

In our interblogs film challenge, Martyn Conterio at Cinemart picked L'humanité. You can read his post here.

Crimes of Passion. 1984 USA. Directed by Ken Russell. Starring Kathleen Turner, John McLaughlin, Anthony Perkins, Annie Potts...

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