starring Megan Maczko, Edward Akrout, Matt Barber, Sadie Frost
screenplay by Mark Rogers
directed by Ate de Jong
by Alice Stoehr "You cannot fight," explains the villain to his rope-bound prisoner. "Your only chance of survival comes from compliance." This lecture is the starting point for Deadly Virtues: Love.Honour.Obey. [sic], an erotic cat-and-mouse thriller that takes place over a long weekend in a suburban English home. Said villain is Aaron, an intruder played by handsome French actor Edward Akrout. He has a sparse moustache and a head of unkempt hair, locks of which fall dashingly across his forehead. The camera adores him. Megan Maczko, playing Aaron's prisoner Alison, receives far less flattering treatment. She spends much of her screentime tied up and in some degree of undress, her face contorted with faint disgust, eyes averting her captor's gaze. Like Akrout, she has to look hot, but hers must be a hotness coloured by mixed emotions and performed under duress. As her co-star murmurs the lion's share of the dialogue, Maczko needs to indicate reluctant arousal blossoming into full-on emotional liberation. She fails, but so would any actress, because the film's greasy sexual politics set her up to fail. Meanwhile, the third member of the cast--Matt Barber, as Alison's husband Tom--has to squirm in a bathtub and howl as Aaron mutilates Tom. He acquits himself adequately, especially given paltry lines like, "Did you touch my wife?" and, "I can't have anyone else inside you."
This preoccupation with infidelity makes little sense for a man who's been urinated on and had two fingers snipped off. A more plausibly written character might have other priorities. ("Are you OK, Alison?" or, "Please free me.") Tom's jealousy carries a hint of "the lady doth protest too much" excess that threatens to reframe the whole movie as a grisly cuckold fantasy. Like his wife's nascent Stockholm syndrome, his behaviour is a broad, credibility-free contrivance screenwriter Mark Rogers uses to prop up a familiar hypothetical: A married woman probably wouldn't benefit from three days of sexual servitude to a stranger... but what if she would? "I want you to want me," purrs Aaron, "the way any loving wife would want her husband." Rogers presents him as a fusion of Hannibal Lecter and the 50 Shades series' Christian Grey. He's sadistic yet sensitive; crass yet erudite; a good cook and an expert in bondage. Though he may imprison Alison and sexually manipulate her, it's only to help her realize that her husband's a physically-abusive rotter who's impregnated her best friend. This moral sleight of hand ascribes a therapeutic function to Aaron's mind games: If cruel treatment enables a woman to leave her abuser, it suggests, then perhaps it's not so cruel. It's a clumsy ploy, and it reeks of cowardice. Why bother writing a sleazy home-invasion thriller if you're squeamish about evil?
Well, Deadly Virtues is a sleazy home-invasion thriller with pretensions. It bids for a footing in some loftier genre. This is palpable in Aaron's supposedly wry and literate dialogue, in the plot's supposedly clever twists and turns, and in veteran director Ate de Jong's array of stylistic flourishes. As Aaron leads Alison around the house, de Jong employs angles that are low or artlessly canted. His idea of softcore sensuality is an extreme close-up on a mouth sipping coffee or ingesting raw meat. His horror filmmaking evokes the more lurid work of Michael Haneke, with doorways bisecting static frames and the house's pristine white surfaces standing in ironic counterpoint to bloodshed. (The epilogue, in which Aaron eyes his next victim, even nods towards the nihilistic ending of Funny Games.) Haneke's films, however, tend to be more consistent in their visual austerity, more outrageous in their violence. They eschew non-diegetic music like the banal wisps of piano and guitar that mar Deadly Virtues' soundtrack. Their repugnance, at least, boasts some integrity, whereas this film lacks even a shred of slimy conviction. Deadly Virtues casually conflates BDSM with sexual assault while also exploiting it as a plot device. It characterizes its version of kinky desire as both beyond the pale and a cure-all for discontented wives. Its tired story strives to unsettle the viewer by asserting that women might be better off controlled by men, which is hardly a dangerous claim for a movie to make. What stance could be safer than misogyny?