Love cannot conquer all. I would like to believe it could. I like movies where love can overcome misunderstandings, doubt, and various illnesses. Kieran Evans‘ Kelly + Victor is an anti-love story. It doesn’t argue that love is false or it can’t exist. But it presents love as something that’s powerless to penetrate the damage done by physical and emotional abuse. Love becomes not an affliction or a panacea, but perhaps something far worse: an illusion. However, as the film slowly pushes us to its painful and powerful conclusion, we’re left with a sentiment that’s not only bitter but hollow as well.
During his birthday party a club, Victor (Julian Morris) meets Kelly (Antonia Campbell-Hughes). The two quickly find themselves locking lips and later that night back at her place, locking other body parts. She also turns him on to erotic asphyxiation, the act of choking to provide a more powerful orgasm. For her, it’s a release of tension from past abuse. Kelly is more damaged than the love-struck Victor, but they’re both starting to fall apart. Kelly reluctantly joins her prostitute friend on an S&M job, and Victor begrudging helps his dumb friends peddle drugs. When Victor and Kelly come back together, their relationship intensifies and begins changing their personalities in unexpected ways.
It wouldn’t be quite right to say that the relationship between Victor and Kelly feels “lived-in” because that would imply it’s a long-term romance. Instead, the relationship between the two leads in Kelly + Victor feels authentic. They’re a couple we see on the bus or on the street and casually think to ourselves, “Where do they come from? How did they find each other? Where will they go?” Evans is more concerned about the individuals who make up a relationship rather than telling us how to feel about the relationship itself.
Thankfully, he’s not trying to make a grand statement. There’s no pervading accusation or general remark on relationships. The slow pacing, editing, and cinematography create an intimacy that allows us to focus on our central characters, and see the pain that prevents them from achieving the kind of romance they believe they could have. Their midnight walk along the city streets could be something out of Before Sunrise, but when they’re apart or together in the bedroom, there’s a strong sense of loss and brutality.
Neither character is to blame, but the abuse inflicted on Kelly in her past has now rolled to her relationship with Victor, and creates a fascinatingly different power dynamic where the man is the one who is physically abused. The relationship is made more powerful by the excellent performances of the lead actors. Morris is endearing as the wayward innocent who has become drawn to the sexual punishment, and Campbell-Hughes is remarkable in her portrayal of the hurt, struggling Kelly. Evans lets the performances speak for themselves rather than cheaply pushing us to root for or against someone.
Evans has put together an incredibly well-made film, but one that’s difficult to watch. Part of that stems from the intentional slowness that’s a product of the subtlety and mood of the picture, which then allows the director to land a serious punch when it comes to the intensity of the sex scenes. But despite the talent and restraint behind the camera, the conclusion is ultimately unconstructive. The film is deeply moving without being overtly manipulative, but we’re moved to nothing beyond sadness and regret. It’s a fresh perspective on a human relationship, but there’s still not much to see.
It is here where I must admit to my own bias against the emotions conjured by this kind of film. I’ll accept a good-hearted but shallow movie as a nice time. I can’t do anything with a flick like The Intouchables or The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, but they’re inoffensive, affable pictures. By the same token, Kelly + Victor isn’t offensive. It’s earnest, competent, but extremely distressing in its tone and message. However, it leaves me with nothing more than the painful shortcomings of love. It may be a truth, but we gain little from considering it.
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