Man of Flowers and Crimes of Passion

December 1, 2011

‘Tis the season for near-explicit slices of sexual hysteria and perversion in the movies, starting with Brian De Palma’s steamy Body Double two weeks ago. The trend continues with two very different examples.

An Australian film titled Man of Flowers is one of the oddest films of the year—and also, I think, one of the best. It’s the utterly singular story of a middle-aged bachelor (Norman Kaye, quietly superb) who lives in seclusion and enjoys collecting art, playing the church organ, buying large amounts of flowers, and paying a woman to take her clothes off in front of him while he plays a recording of Donizetti’s Lucia Di Lammermoor.

He can afford to live his odd lifestyle because his mother left him a huge inheritance. He still corresponds with his mother, although she’s been dead for a number of years.

The film follows his growing friendship with the stripper, and the way in which he begins to feel in touch with reality. Writer-director Paul Cox, who made last year’s quirky Lonely Hearts, has given the film a strange, dreamy rhythm—the hero free-floats through life, and the film catches his unique trajectory.

You can probably tell from this brief description that Man of Flowers is the kind of movie that’s going to entrance some people and bewilder others. It took me a while to go along with the movie—which unfolds in unstressed bits and pieces—but eventually I was won over.

Ken Russell’s Crimes of Passion, on the other hand, goes for the jugular from the first moments. This, naturally, is par for the course for the wild and woolly British director, who loves to bombard his audience with stylistic extravaganzas.

Now, I’ve seen good Ken Russell (The Devils, Altered States) and I’ve seen bad (The Music Lovers), and, no matter how outrageous or improbable the material, he always keeps my eyes on the screen. In many ways, the plot of Crimes of Passion is foolish and overly symbolic—although the dialogue is quite funny and spicy.

It’s about a woman (Kathleen Turner, of Body Heat and Romancing the Stone) who lives a double life: fashion designer by day, prostitute by night. Disrupting this life are two men: an itinerant preacher (Anthony Perkins) who trades barbs with her but also menaces her; and a bored family man (John Laughlin) who is attracted to her danger.

Both men propose “salvation.” Perkins says he wishes to save her, but this may be by killing her. Laughlin may be her last chance to establish roots in the real world, from which she carefully protects herself.

Russell’s vision of this mostly seedy world is filled with splashes of color, sensuality, and Rick Wakeman’s incessant theme music. Barry Sandler’s screenplay ties itself in all kinds of knots—people are always going on about “The Truth,” and the Perkins character comes heavily laden with symbolic baggage—but Russell wrenches a great deal of stimulating cinema out of it all.

A previous version of the film was rated X, so Russell and Sandler had to cut some footage and even shoot a few new scenes. Apparently Russell is still a little peeved about it.

Don’t look for a lot of good vibrations here; it’s a funny movie, but Russell insists, “I want to upset people.” Crimes of Passion should do the trick very well.

First published in the Herald, November 1984

“Goes for the jugular”? Surely I meant some other body part. Crimes of Passion slides into that “Who else but Ken Russell?” file, which means it offers up a great deal of delirious fun, depending, of course, on your definition of fun. Man of Flowers is a much better movie, and a really rather special experience; Paul Cox is one of the unheralded filmmakers of the last thirty years, and this mysterious movie is one of his best.