On the festival-and-promo tour that helped the necrophiliac Kissed net advance praise everywhere from the Atlantic Monthly to Newsweek, writer/director Lynne Stopkewich said she thought independent films should be judged on their ingenuity and daring rather than on the size of their budgets. As arts-world stump speeches go, it's a good one. We'll doubtless see dozens of feature stories on how Stopkewich took three years of her life to complete this tale of a woman finding passion with dead bodies. But Kissed, like David Cronenberg's Crash, harks back to an earlier, pre-Sundance time, when art films gained notoriety because they were sexually outre. Unfortunately, neither penury nor novelty guarantees that the end result will be art.
Kissed isn't dramatized enough to be a thesis film: It's a demonstration film. Stopkewich makes her heroine's ravishing of corpses credible and even creepily romantic without ever making it intriguing. I haven't been able to get my hands on a copy of "We So Seldom Look on Love," the short story Stopkewich used as a basis for her film, but whether because of the story's limitations or her own bent for shimmery impressionism, Stopkewich presents her heroine's yen to press dead flesh as an urge that's just with her from early childhood. (Natasha Morley plays the corpse lover, Sandra Larson, as a child; Molly Parker plays her as a young woman.) Sandra is a wallflower of Welcome to the Dollhouse proportions. For some reason, she adores the feel of death, and soon starts ritually dancing in the woods with small dead animals. At one point, she assumes that twirling in her underwear while caressing a deceased baby chipmunk will cement a bond with a potential friend. Instead, her pal gets hysterical.
After that, Sandra keeps her morbid-erotic tendencies to herself. The movie jumps ahead to her young womanhood, when Sandra hits the sexual jackpot in the undertaking biz. That's when a college mate named Matt sees her poring over an embalming text at an off-campus diner. (Matt, a would-be med student, is on a vague kind of leave from school.) Something in the way he grooves on her elicits Sandra's confession that she got into embalming for the bodies. Played by Peter Outerbridge with an ambiguous cuteness (like a rounder Peter O'Toole), Matt offers Sandra a chance to experience sex with an animate partner. But he's jealous of her corpses.
There's a lot of talk about bodies giving off bursts of light and Sandra somehow getting to know their individual personalities, but unless you succumb to the film's pop mysticism, it's painfully easy to see where it's heading once Matt tries to enter Sandra's life. It's not an O. Henry or a Rod Serling or even a James M. Cain twist; for the quietly hell-bent Matt, the postman rings only once. As in Crash, there's little opportunity for juicy conflict, because any characters who resist the lead figures' manias are pushed to the edges of the narrative. Stopkewich spends most of her time easing us into a mood that's meant to be numb and ecstatic, yet is mostly soporific.
As David Lynch (at his best) recognizes, kinks get fascinating when they're rooted in normality. A friend of mine's wife, a devoted spouse and mother, keeps a stuffed pet bird with a removable head in a shoebox; I find this quirk more suggestive than anything in Kissed. The movie does establish Stopkewich as a dedicated craftsperson. She varies the lighting and the color, the movement and the pace. She even tosses in a smattering of comic relief when the epicene undertaker, Sandra's boss, holds forth on the art of embalming, or when his menial, Jan, makes doleful religious sounds and faces like the lab aide in a horror movie. But overall, the movie is ridiculously earnest. I kept hoping that John Cleese would appear out of nowhere and, in the high dudgeon of his Dead Parrot sketch, point to Sandra's lovemates and intone, "They're dead! They're deceased! They're ex-human beings! They've joined the choir invisible!"
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Struggling for an extra ounce of relevance, Stopkewich speaks of Sandra as the rare female character who takes control as a sexual aggressor. I've never been able to understand the pop-feminist embrace of control freaks as empowering role models, and I don't see how Sandra's ravishing of corpses makes her more potent than pathetic. If this movie inspires any kind of action, it will be an upsurge of membership in the Neptune Society. Let's keep the young-indie-artist hoopla in perspective: Poe wrote Ligeia, an insidiously complex necrophiliac love story, when he was 30, and he got paid a mere ten bucks for it.
-- Michael Sragow
Directed by Lynne Stopkewich. With Molly Parker, Peter Outerbridge and Jay Brazeau.