Stella Does Tricks

Coky Giedroyc, UK, 1996)


By a strange and disturbing coincidence, the late ‘90s brought a cycle of films that take a rather Gothic view of female sexuality and identity.

Under the Skin (1997) is the most accomplished of them, but all tend to share the same pool of elements: dissociated, whorish heroine; an abusive father now old and grotesque; a stream of painful memories; and a somewhat desperate attempt to plaster an optimistic resolution onto all this grief and confusion.

This little genre dipped lowest with Stella Does Tricks. The debut feature by Coky Giedroyc is a dreary, heavy-handed piece, offering little illumination into its tawdry characters.

Stella (Kelly MacDonald from Trainspotting [1996]) is a teen prostitute who receives no joy from her sordid encounters with mildly kinky older men. Like many a British screen heroine, Stella dreams of escape – but, since she has pinned her dreams on a pale junkie, Eddie (Hans Matheson), her chances for redemption-through-love are not exactly high.

This film represents the apotheosis of British miserabilism. It makes Mike Leigh's films seem sunny and uplifting by comparison. Every frame, character, costume and slab of wallpaper is determinedly ugly. The movie's pace, its sluggish use of popular music, and the predictable tenor of kitchen-sink naturalism in the performances are all dispiriting. Giedroyc's inclusion of a little feminist revenge takes a currently fashionable victim-mentality to its childish extreme.

Judging from such contemporaneous releases as Deconstructing Harry (1997) and The Sound of One Hand Clapping (1998), movies are once again mad on flashbacks, as if in homage to a zany strand of ‘60s art cinema. Stella Does Tricks has an elaborate set of flashbacks wrapped in the clumsiest structure I have witnessed in years.

At least, back in the '60s, not every memory scene had to be cued by the main character looking suddenly glassy-eyed in the middle of an action – and not every flashback had to conclude by returning stolidly to the reminiscer. Stella can zone out in the middle of anything (especially sex) and stay that way for minutes at a time. This device renders much of the film miserably laughable.

© Adrian Martin April 1998

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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