Film of the week: Kelly + Victor

Two fevered lovers transcend their Liverpool binds in a dangerous, electric romance.

Trevor Johnston
Updated:

from our October 2013 issue

He tells her “I’m coming up” when they first meet on the dance floor. On the surface, it’s an everyday, mutually understood drugs reference grounding the story among contemporary Merseyside twentysomethings.

In the course of the highly charged love story that unfolds between the eponymous Kelly and Victor, however, that phrase comes to mean a whole lot more. Entirely appropriate, too, since the words themselves hint at a secret ocean of meaning – a desire for ecstatic release, for heightened experience taking us out of our quotidian selves.

In this sensual, provocative and (yes!) dangerously romantic first fiction feature from Kieran Evans, a distinctive individual yearning for the transcendent thus flickers within a mundane big-city nightclub and its bodies in motion. What follows, when the mutual attraction between shopgirl Kelly and scrapyard worker Victor is subsequently consummated in her grotty bedsit – played out in a give-and-take of grasping hands, biting teeth and intensified orgasm – is a gateway moment opening up startling new avenues of possibility for both of them.

Done badly, this sort of material could be truly calamitous – Hollyoaks meets Fifty Shades of Grey, anyone? – so it’s a real tribute to Evans’s adaptation of Niall Griffiths’ 2002 novel that it’s the only independent British film feasibly comparable with Nagisa Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses, still the acme of serious celluloid exploration of sexuality even if it’s getting on for 40 years old.

Kelly + Victor is tamer, certainly, since the simulated couplings preserve the modesty of co-stars Antonia Campbell-Hughes and Julian Morris with more delicacy than their up-for-anything Japanese forebears, and Morris doesn’t submit himself to extremes of strangulation as Fuji Tatsuya did. In essence, though, both films spring from a similar insight – that the fevered consensual transgressions of domination and submission offer access to the idea of sexuality as a journey beyond one’s daily self. In Oshima’s film they are a refuge from the increasingly militarised environs of 1930s Japan, here a departure from dysfunctional family life and a post-industrial economy offering scant rewards for ordinary working folk.

That said, it would be misleading to suggest that Evans is placing his passionate lovers in some tract about ‘broken Britain’. Yes, the proceedings involve at various moments absent parents, dockyard scrap, black-market drugs and a contentious domestic restraining order, but much of this material has to do with the superficial texture of the characters’ lives – and the happenstances of sustaining a feature-length storyline – rather than the essential truths the film ambitiously seeks to explore.

Campbell-Hughes is striking in the way her performance integrates demure shopgirl ordinariness with scary psycho-pixie threat

The Liverpool that Evans puts on screen is a place where rusting scrap and abandoned buildings denote the impermanence of the urban environment, an impermanence made even more apparent by the city’s proximity to the surrounding countryside and its coastal location, so that we’re reminded of the uncertainty of human endeavours by the constancy of nature in view. Merseyside stands as a collision point between the now and the eternal, the very same collision enacted in the sweat and transcendence of the lovers’ fevered encounters.

Without seeing the film, you’d be forgiven for wondering if these highfalutin’ associations perhaps exist mainly in the mind of an overzealous reviewer. Key to Evans’s achievement, however – and what makes him potentially the most exciting British filmmaker to emerge in the wake of Lynne Ramsay, Steve McQueen and Andrea Arnold – is that these ideas aren’t just talked about in Kelly + Victor, they’re manifested on screen in a thought-through visual language.

A story thread that has Victor’s laddish friends buying drugs from a supplier in a quiet rural hideaway, for instance, cuts back and forth to Kelly under strip-lighting in a garage, watching her part-time dominatrix pal whipping a submissive, self-loathing banker.

Time and again, Evans and editor Tony Kearns play enclosing urban environments against the freedom of open natural spaces. We see striking frontal compositions of streets, tunnels and bridges thrusting deep within the frame, hemming in the characters’ movement to a narrow strip of road or pavement – in complete contrast to the sea views on the horizon, or even the wide-angle vistas across the lake in Sefton Park.

There is an ongoing association between nature and escape: at the height of sexual ecstasy, Victor visualises the idea of transcendence as sunlight breaking through trees, and subsequently seeks to communicate this sense of longing to Kelly via a mix-CD song – Viking Moses’ sweetly doom-laden waltz Dancing by the Water Day – that equates drowning and beatific calm.

It was a criticism of Niall Griffiths’ source novel, which narrated its events from Victor’s and then Kelly’s perspective, that it was more successful in conveying his inner world than hers. That pattern is repeated to some degree here, where the notion that her dominant sexuality awakens dark yearnings in him proves more succinctly readable than the rather vaguer origins (paternal abandonment, a previous abusive boyfriend) of her need to strangle and cut her lover.

While Morris wisely refuses to overplay Victor’s anxiety and helplessness in the face of his submissive needs, the petite Campbell-Hughes is, if anything, even more striking in the way her performance integrates demure shopgirl ordinariness with scary psycho-pixie threat when Kelly gets carried away by her controlling desires. It’ll be interesting to see what filmmakers do with her unique screen presence, since she brings to vivid life a slightly underwritten role.

Typically, though, Evans sometimes does better with pictures than script, since the banter with the secondary array of friends and relatives comes across as slightly anodyne. In the end it’s not what Kelly says that helps us fathom her more fully, but Evans’s striking visual transition from her fascination with a Victorian sculpture immortalising two lovers in marble to the reveal that she’s carved ‘K+V’ into her bound and less-than-willing partner’s back. Put like that, Kelly’s anxious need to circumvent self-esteem issues and leave a lasting mark on the world now makes more sense.

The sculpture in question, by the way, is Alfred Gilbert’s Mors Janua Vitae (or ‘Death, the Gateway to Life’), part of the collection at Liverpool’s Walker Art Gallery, which is visited by Kelly and Victor following a Saturday-afternoon toddle round Sefton Park, where the same artist’s statue of Eros is another landmark.

In no way does it seem contrived, however, that Gilbert’s works are a perfect thematic fit in this dramatic context, since throughout the film it’s as if the urban/nature contrast between Liverpool and its environs is a setting for, and an expression of, the transience/transcendence ideas dramatised through the love story. That’s quite some trick to pull off, though it can surely be read as a development of Evans’s previous documentary work – from 2003’s co-directed London portrait Finisterre to the recent urban-fringes Thames-side odyssey The Outer Edges – which concerns itself with what one might broadly term ‘psychogeography’.

Here, though, he’s found a way to combine his visual facility for the portraiture of location with an engrossing emotional narrative, resulting in a fascinating interchange between what’s going on with the people and what’s happening with the places. There’s a telling shot in the opening scene-setting of Kelly + Victor which looks past high-rise blocks to wind turbines turning at sea. At this early juncture, their significance is not apparent, but as the camera repeatedly returns to them we grasp how they represent the intersection of man and nature, now and eternity, which is central to the whole story. Wind meets blade, idea meets image, and what Evans generates is cinematic electricity.

And in the October 2013 issue of Sight & Sound

Sex and the city

Kieran Evans discusses the importance of Liverpool, landscape and matter-of-fact sex in his feature debut Kelly + Victor.

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