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A First Look at Karla

An exclusive review of the contentious film

By Matthew Hays, August 12, 2005

Looks are deceiving: Misha Collins as Paul Bernardo and and Laura Prepon as Karla Homolka in Karla. Courtesy Quantum Entertainment.

Looks are deceiving: Misha Collins as Paul Bernardo and and Laura Prepon as Karla Homolka in Karla. Courtesy Quantum Entertainment.

Not many films have created as much of a furor in Canada as Karla. Nice, polite Canadians reacted with abject horror when it was announced last year that a Los Angeles-based film company had a movie about Karla Homolka in the works. Later, as questions about the films distribution surfaced, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty urged Ontarians to boycott it. The project, it was assumed by many from the get-go, could amount to nothing but sheer exploitation in pursuit of profit.

It didnt help that director Joel Benders filmography includes such titles as Jennifer is Dead and Gas Pump Girls. Media reports also noted that the actors cast as serial killers Homolka and husband Paul Bernardo were Laura Prepon (That 70s Show) and Misha Collins, performers associated with the medium of television as if this distinction somehow made them inherently bottom-drawer. The filmmakers announced that the title of the film had been changed from Deadly to Karla, in an apparent bid for greater sensitivity.

Then came the late-July announcement that Montreals World Film Festival had invited Karla to screen as part of its annual event. Apparently unaware of the level of discomfort much of English Canada had with the films subject matter, festival founder and director Serge Losique insisted that Karla had enough artistic merit to warrant a screening. By early August, however, Losique announced that Karla would be withdrawn from the World Film Festival, publicly acknowledging that he was doing so as a direct result of pressure from one of his key corporate sponsors, Air Canada.

Even if Karla was the most exploitative, sleazy film in history, the move by the World Film Festival undoubtedly sets a precarious precedent: this is the first time a Canadian film festival has yanked a movie while publicly citing corporate-sponsor pressure as the reason for doing so. Film festivals have long been sacred points of distribution for filmmakers, thought to be bastions of integrity where taboo or unpopular subjects could be broached without fear of censorship. Do we really want Air Canada or any corporate sponsor deciding what films we get to see? Losique seemed to think Karla was worth screening and defending when he initially announced its premiere at his festival. Losique even alluded to the horrors depicted by Shakespeare in his defence of the film but when Air Canada threatened to bolt, all mention of the Bard was dropped. One may think that Karla is simply inconsequential garbage, but some of the most intriguing films of recent years have been accompanied by controversy, including Capturing the Friedmans, The Passion of the Christ and Fahrenheit 9/11. Indeed, the term slippery slope does spring to mind.

Though no fan of censorship of any kind, while watching Karla, I could see why the film will incense some Canadian audiences. On its surface, it is a very straightforward accounting of the relationship between Homolka and Bernardo presented here in their Technicolor contrasts: a seemingly simple, ordinary, banal, Southern Ontario couple implicated in rape and killing. True to contemporary filmmaking styles, many of the scenes between the two and their victims are very uncomfortable to watch. The filmmakers have repeatedly told the press they wanted to avoid being too explicit, but in a post-Hitchcock world, audience expectations demand that we see sequences that resemble the Real Thing. Frankly, it is impossible to imagine someone creating a cinematic treatment of this particular story without delving into the lurid for much of the film. We are spared some things: though there is a kiss between Homolka and one of their victims (the victims names have all been changed) there is no actual visualization of rape that much, at least, is left to our imaginations.

The ugly truth: Prepon as Karla. Courtesy Quantum Entertainment.
The ugly truth: Prepon as Karla. Courtesy Quantum Entertainment.

Explicit sex and violence aside, it is Karlas perspective that may upset viewers still reeling from the horrors of the Bernardo-Homolka crimes. Obviously, much of the reason Karla has met with calls for boycotts and censorship is because of timing: the film was completed within weeks of Homolkas release from prison earlier this summer, a release many people feel was premature, given the extent of her involvement in the sexual violations and deaths of several women (including teenaged girls, one of whom was her sister). A superficial reading of the film indicates that Homolka was the victim of a misogynistic, serial-raping and -killing husband, a battered wife who could not escape the clutches of her violent, wildly manipulative mate, a woman so engulfed in fear that she was somehow forced into complicity with his crimes. At one point, an abducted victim has a moment alone with Homolka, who was just hit by Bernardo before he left the room. Why do you stay? she sobs to Homolka, who responds simply, You dont understand.

But Karla subtly throws Homolkas line of reasoning into question in two key ways. The entire film is told in flashback; Homolka describes to a psychiatrist how she met Bernardo and what happened over the years. The psychiatric-interview-as-screenwriting-device is at times a bit clunky, but its intent is clear: to indicate to the audience that Homolka is an unreliable narrator. As well, in her portrayal of Homolka, Laura Prepon delivers a performance so measured and intelligent that it forces us to continually question Homolkas credibility as a victim.

Standing trial: Prepon testifies in Karla. Courtesy Quantum Entertainment.
Standing trial: Prepon testifies in Karla. Courtesy Quantum Entertainment.

Clearly, exploitation is in the eye of the beholder, but Karla has merits that make it something other than just utter sleaze. Despite a limited budget, it is well shot and is buoyed by a solid cast, especially its two leads. Indeed, Canadas collective psyche may not be ready for widespread distribution of Karla, but if people remain so troubled by this now-famous bit of crime and punishment, we can always exercise our democratic right to stay home and do something else with our time.

Though only a handful of Canadians have actually seen Karla, this movie has already ignited a phenomenon in our country. In particular, it has exposed the hypocrisy of much of the media, who have admonished the filmmakers behind Karla for exploiting this piece of true crime while pumping up their own ratings and newspaper sales by languishing in an orgy of Homolka-driven headlines and stories a move that has allowed them to be at once prurient and puritanical.

As horrid as this story may be, it is inarguable that many great filmmakers have made films about murderers that were based on true stories Hitchcock (Psycho), Scorsese (Taxi Driver), Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), Jonathan Demme (Silence of the Lambs), among others. Many are now regarded as important, groundbreaking cinematic art. Some, such as Spike Lees Summer of Sam, were released despite the protests of victims families. My verdict is that Karla is neither a masterpiece nor a disaster. It has its strong moments, but feels much like a better-than-average movie-of-the-week (though perhaps a bit too extreme for the mainstream TV networks). Those opposed to Karla none of whom, it must be noted, have actually seen it will probably succeed in blocking its screening at a Canadian film festival or at any of the nations cinemas. But in what is arguably the most potent irony of the controversy, they have now piqued everyones curiosity about this forbidden film, ensuring that given Internet mail-order service and the popularity of the DVD format Karla will almost certainly find a significant audience.

Matthew Hays is a Montreal writer.

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