Kill Your Lover

Kill Your Lover (2023)

Kill Your Lover had its UK première at the Glasgow FrightFest 2024.

There are two ‘prologues’ at the beginning of Alix Austin and Keir Siewert’s Kill Your Lover. In the first, a woman, out-of-focus but clearly bloody and bandaged, smashes a framed photograph of two lovers, and heads off determinedly clenching a glass sherd in her hand to use as a weapon. In the second, Dakota (Paige Gilmore) sits before her best friend Rose (May Kelly) and rehearses a breakup speech with her partner of two years Axel (Shane Quigley Murphy). “I think, the thing that makes the most sense is for us to break it off before we become truly toxic,” Dakota says, before adding, hesitantly, “But, um, I hope we can still be friends.” Rose suggests Dakota not use that last, ‘mean’ clause, advising, ”you don’t have to rip his heart out.” And then Axel himself arrives home early from work, feeling ill, and overhears part of the conversation – enough to know that Dakota is thinking of ending things. Rose discreetly leaves, and the real fun begins.

The reason for those scare quotes around the word ‘prologue’ is that although these two sequences come at the beginning of Kill Your Lover, chronologically they are much closer to the story’s finish (and are themselves played in reverse order, to hint early at the film’s games with time). For while this is most certainly a breakup movie, through a series of flashbacks it traces the relationship back to its happier beginnings, with a naked, post-coital Axel examining the wall of photos on Dakota’s shared apartment – photos which form a mosaic of her hard-rocking, sexually liberated, toke-happy days in the all-female punk band Black Glove Killer. After producing one album, Final Girls, this overtly giallo-and-horror-themed group have themselves broken up, leaving Dakota – who has a tattoo on her arm that reads “everything is replaceable” – wondering what to do next. 

Although Axel is certainly attracted to this wild child, he also, from early on, wants to tame her. “Not even one day and you’re already trying to change me”, Dakota says drily – and cut to two years later, she is indeed a different person: living in a newer, cleaner apartment stripped entirely of her own chaotic touch, dressed more conservatively, having anxiously to keep her cigarettes and dope stash hidden, looking desperately diminished and unhappy, and planning her escape. ‘Lover’ is what both Dakota and Alex call each other – a name that they negotiated back in their more passionate days – but now they have settled into a routine and a rut, with any sexual spark between them long gone and replaced only with resentment and recrimination. Along with those photos on the wall, Axel has taken down every last vestige of Dakota’s former life, and has gradually stopped hiding his own possessive, jealous and controlling sides, so that his love for Dakota has become suffocating.

All this finds vivid expression in the illness which Axel has today brought home with him, turning him into the literal monster that he had already long since become metaphorically. “My germs are your germs,” he will tell Dakota – and sure enough, over this one long night, his toxicity will prove both destructive and contagious, scarring Dakota as much as him, and bringing out her own monstrousness. Accordingly, Kill Your Lover is the Blue Valentine of body horror, as it keeps switching from the promising start of this couple’s relationship to its bitter, combative conclusion. Likewise, as in Nicholas Pesce’s Piercing (2018), J.-P. Valkeapää’s Dogs Don’t Wear Pants (2019), Jen and Sylvia Soska’s Over The Edge (2022) and Viljar Bøe’s Good Boy (2022), here the BDSM that Dakota occasionally indulges in the bedroom comes to reflect the emotional and physical chokehold in which she is now caught. Even the two paramedics (Joshua Whincup, Chloe Wigmore) who briefly visit the apartment are quick to grasp that there is something suspiciously abusive in the way that Axel treats Dakota and shields her from any outsiders – and they too will become trapped in the fallout of all this simmering domestic tension.

Modulating a vicious breakup through the language and tropes of grotesque, gory horror, Kill Your Lover tracks the erotic highs and acrimonious lows of a poisonous relationship in freefall, and suggests that the end has always been inscribed, like a tattoo, in the beginning. Here romance is not so much dead, as terminally sick – and reclaiming yourself can require destroying what you love.

strap: Alix Austin and Keir Siewert’s apartment-set anti-romance brings body horror to the breakup of a toxic relationship

© Anton Bitel