Ken Russell’s 1984 film Crimes of Passion opens with a conversation among men and women that’s spiked with sexual teases and thinly veiled animosity. It sounds like a heated barroom squabble, but the talk is revealed to be part of a group therapy session, a healing process that only proves why everyone had to sign up for the group in the first place. Yet as nasty as the assembled parties can be in their taunts, they at least have a certain camaraderie that’s lost on the group’s newest member, Bobby (John Laughlin), who says he only tagged along with a friend. Bobby maintains that his life is fine, but as the women of the group mock his claims to a long and stable relationship, he finally explodes, claiming that it’s his wife, not he, who’s sexually dysfunctional, and that she should be in the group instead of him.
Bobby’s pent-up frustration over his marriage is but one example of the repression that defines this seedy neo-noir. Loosely centered on Joanna Crane (Kathleen Turner), a fashion designer who moonlights as prostitute China Blue, the film uses her double life to explore a decade torn between self-indulgence and self-denial. Joanna’s clientèle uses her to live out fantasies they could never admit to wanting to fulfill outside of the professional context of sex work, and Russell subtly aligns the initial group therapy session with Joanna’s work. Yet it’s hard to tell whether Joanna’s indulgence of her johns’ fetishes helps them or merely opens up deranged, tamped-down urges, such as a cop she stimulates with his own nightstick, or an older man who stages a rape fantasy. None is crazier than Peter Shayne (Anthony Perkins), a reverend who snorts amyl nitrate and carries around a bladed sex toy he intends to use to satisfy both his desires and his religious abhorrence of his lust.
But if Shayne’s exaggerated self-loathing epitomizes the extremity of the film’s overall style, Crimes of Passion nonetheless explores subtler, more realistic forms of skewed sexual understanding. Particularly incisive is the manner in which Joanna’s clients reveal their narcissism. Joanna’s willingness to do anything results in the film’s wild sexual scenarios, yet her popularity may be most attributable to the way that she also lets the men follow-up their carnal desires with a compensating effort to save her from the life to which they contribute. Early on, she seems to share a moment with a client who talks about his ex by saying that her own ex beat her, to which the man, rushing to comfort her, somberly whispers, “Is that true?” “Does it matter?” she replies with a thin smile. Joanna caters her biography to each client’s interests, altering her invented traumas to let them further fantasize of “saving” her.
Joanna does find salvation, of a kind, with Bobby, who shakes her out of her blasé, self-defensive attitude toward romance just as she offers him a physical and emotional connection he’s lost with his wife. Yet while the film dabbles in the “hooker with a heart of gold” cliché, it does not pity Joanna for her work. Instead, she and Bobby reach equilibrium in their sexuality, each balancing the other’s extremities. It’s a simple thesis, but Russell’s wild style and shameless exhibitionism places it on a par with the contemporary work of Brian De Palma in terms of its vicious satire of ’80s kitsch and repression.
Ken Russell’s unrated theatrical cut, restored from heavily censored release versions, has received a 2K transfer courtesy of Arrow Video, yet the image quality is wildly inconsistent. Grain and noise levels vary from shot to shot, though colors remain solid throughout. For the most part, the film looks true to its seamy quality, and at any rate, the unrated version looks vastly superior to the material that fills in the included director’s cut, all of which was clearly gathered from inferior sources. The mono track is free of any major issue, cleanly balancing Rick Wakeman’s score and the dialogue.
An audio commentary by Ken Russell and writer/producer Barry Sandler is charmingly laidback, with both talking and cracking jokes about various elements of the film’s production, such as how their use of erotic paintings got cut by ratings boards. The pair have such a sardonic chemistry that it’s sometimes hard to tell if they’re being entirely truthful, as when both say with straight faces that Anthony Perkins really did sniff amyl nitrate in his scenes. Sandler is also profiled in a video interview that discusses his career and his involvement with the film. Another interview focuses on Rick Wakeman, who scored this film and several others for Russell. Wakeman is always an enjoyably self-deprecating and honest subject, and he speaks frankly about the good, the bad, and the weird of working with the director. There are also deleted scenes and a trailer, as well as, curiously, a music video Russell crafted for one of the songs Wakeman composed for the film. A booklet contains an old interview with Russell and an essay by Paul Sutton that contextualizes the film within Russell’s body of work.
Despite an inconsistent video transfer, Ken Russell’s lascivious neo-noir gets a fine Blu-ray from Arrow Video.