Alfred Hitchcock may be the father of modern suspense, but he's also the father of the genre's redheaded stepchild, the erotic thriller. A thin line separates the kinky, restrained elegance of Hitchcock's work and the more graphic, less artful sensationalism of its Cinemax-ready progeny, and Chen Kaige's beautiful but almost comically overwrought Killing Me Softly crosses that line early and often. Denied a theatrical release in America in spite of abundant, often gratuitous nudity from two of cinema's most attractive stars, the movie stars Heather Graham as an Indiana-bred "flatlander through and through" who lives in London with her safe-but-dull boyfriend. Graham's life is turned upside-down once she meets Joseph Fiennes, a dark, brooding Byronic figure who introduces her to a dangerous but seductive world of kinky sex, fearless mountain climbing, and dark secrets. Graham leaves her boyfriend to marry Fiennes, but doubts begin to emerge about his past once she begins receiving anonymous warning notes. Can Fiennes be trusted? What's the deal with his spooky, unusually possessive sister, Natascha McElhone? Is Fiennes a larger-than-life hero, or a rapist and murderer? As Graham attempts to uncover the truth about his past, the film grows increasingly convoluted, leading to a twist ending that will come as a surprise only to those who've never seen a Shannon Tweed movie. Graham and Fiennes make a fetching couple, but their performances border on self-parody. Her wide-eyed, nubile web-geek with a taste for the dark side plays like a straight version of her porn-star-posing-as-virginal-fiancée character in The Guru, while Fiennes plays the sort of hyper-masculine cartoon who nearly beats a thief to death, then proposes to Graham, both in one fell swoop. His character has enough testosterone to become alpha-male of all Britain: He's not just a famous mountain-climber, but also apparently the manliest man ever to suffocate a lover during sex. Like Basic Instinct, Killing Me Softly lends an air of visual sophistication to a script permeated by pulpy idiocy. The result may not be enduring cinema, but it does make for watchable trash.
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