"Better than sausages"
o say I’m disappointed in you, young lady, is an understatement.” So begins the stern dressing down delivered by Kate (Andie MacDowell), to a child caught smoking at a British private school. The camera pulls out slowly from Kate’s face, to allow you time to absorb her every lovely detail. After ensuring that student knows full well the extent of her displeasure, Kate confiscates the cigarettes, dismisses the girl, and then, alone in her office, sucks down one of those cancer sticks with elaborate pleasure.
Andie MacDowell, Imelda Staunton, Anna Chancellor, Kenny Doughty, Bill Paterson
(Sony Pictures Classics)
US theatrical: 3 Apr 2002 (Limited release)
This first scene in John McKay’s Crush lays out the film’s remarkably banal premise: while Kate appears perfect on the outside, she’s actually unhappy. She manages her boredom with her very proper headmistressing job, her smalltown horizons (she’s an American living in the “quaint English Cotswolds,” so described in the press kit), and most especially, her lack of a man, by spending one evening a week in a grousing session. She and her best friends—single mom-policewoman Janine (Imelda Staunton) and three-times-divorced, cruelly witty doctor Molly (Anna Chancellor)—drink gin, eat chocolates, and swap pitiful stories (pathetic sex, bad sex, no sex), angling to win the prize for “Saddest Fucker of the Week.”
Crush offers itself (according to its website) as “the female perspective.” Even aside from the problem of assuming a single such perspective, the film’s version of it is decidedly unoriginal. This isn’t to say that girlfriends can’t support one another when they’re feeling alienated from the surrounding, narrow-minded culture that expects every woman to nab a man and settle down: but how come, in the movies, the women who comfort one another in the midst of their uncoupledness can’t quite see their way out of the cultural expectations that are so alienating them? ‘Tis a puzzlement.
At any rate, the movie needs a plot, and so, into the women’s melancholy world steps Jed (Kenny Doughty). Kate’s former student, he’s now a lovely-looking 25 and playing organ for funerals at the local church. (Crush has already been compared to Four Weddings and a Funeral, in part because it involves British weddings and funerals: how novel.) When Kate learns that Jed had a crush on her back in the day, she leads him outside to the cemetery, where they enjoy a quick shag on someone’s gravestone, while the rest of the funeral party converses politely on the church steps. It’s the same deal as when she smokes that first secret cigarette in her office: Kate is a good girl who wants to be “bad,” sort of.
Though she’s somewhat embarrassed by her folly, Kate relates this first encounter at that week’s “Saddest Fucker” session. Molly and Janine agree that it’s a sad story, then move on. But trouble comes when Kate finds herself unable to move on. She’s drawn to Jed, again and again. He’s so earnest, so fun, so full of energy, and besides, he’s devoted to her. When she eventually confesses to her friends that she has seen him again, they’re very concerned, imagining that he’s far too immature to be considered an ideal mate. They agree to a dinner to meet Jed, bringing along their own, more properly aged dates. At this point the film goes where you know it will—the older folks are dismayed by Jed’s affection for loud music and soup-slurping. He gets drunk, declares his undying love for his lady, and falls down.
Such antics lead to disapproval from the older, more sophisticated folks, of course. And the film’s “female perspective” here divides, somewhat, as Kate is forced to choose between her friends and Jed. But really, the film never gets over its own investment in conventional arrangements, in terms of love, age, gender, race, and class; even when one character decides she’s open to a lesbian relationship, it’s an afterthought, undeveloped and a means to “wrap up” with a clever twist.
Molly and Janine apparently believe that Kate is much better suited to the dullest man on the planet, the vicar Gerald Farquhar Marsden (Bill Paterson). And indeed, when he pledges his troth to her (he tells her that she’s “better than sausages”), she’s tempted—he’s so solidly bourgeois, and isn’t security and comfort precisely what those of the “female perspective” seek? Alas, Gerald can’t compete with the excitement of secret sex among the footballs and gym jerseys, or playing doctor against the couch, or any number of other “illicit” situations he invents. Kate just can’t resist, but then she can, and then she can’t, and then… well, the film does go on.
Molly is most outspoken about her misgivings, deeming the relationship “hideously perverted.” Janine, ever the mediator, appears to go along, for fear that Kate will end up in a relationship where her younger man will cheat on her. The women take Kate for a weekend to Paris, hoping that the fine hotel room and a few suave Frenchmen will enable her to “get over” her crush. But the plan backfires, and soon Kate is planning a wedding with her young sweetie. This is too much for Molly and the narrative, which rapidly descends into a series of nonsensical and nasty turns. And Jed, as sympathetic, charming, and sincere as he has seemed throughout, is suddenly turned into Plot Device.
It would appear that the women’s friendship is the film’s primary concern, and that the crushes they suffer are just that, as well as means to illustrate and somehow cement their increasingly disturbing power dynamics. Crush is surely “quaint,” but as it purports to demonstrate the binds and frustrations confronting middle-ageish “women,” it’s also sad in ways it probably doesn’t mean to be.