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Now is an unfortunate time for Kissed, Lynne Stopkewich’s extraordinary 78-minute film about a young girl’s discovery of sexual transcendence through death. The film is likely to be either relegated to the midnight-movie circuit or dismissed as the most debased expression so far of the current trend in ostentatious cinematic perversity, of which Crash was most recently made an example. Though, to be fair to Stopkewich, whose subject is unarguably transgressive, it’s hard to see how the ancient art of sex in cars is in quite the same class.
Kissed is actually a painstakingly cut and highly polished jewel of a film, a cool, dreamy, melancholy meditation on the validity of the soul. It’s about an intelligent, demure girl-next-door who is frenzied with lust for young male corpses. Where Barbara Gowdy, author of the short story that inspired the film, “We So Seldom Look on Love,” hammers on the words “corpse” and “cadaver” and gets specific about her nameless heroine’s lovemaking method (you don’t want to know), Stopkewich excises all potentially sensational aspects of her story. Often disgusting, it’s never prurient, and is more for the medically fascinated than the sexually so.
Pretty Sandra Larson has always been spellbound by death, or rather, by the dead. Her interest is entire and self-sustaining; it needs nothing to complete or explain it. From her earliest years she is unapologetic about her obsession but aware that it isn’t something to parade; as a young girl, little Sandra (Natasha Morley) conducted ornate blessings and interments of the local expired pet population in the woods, but only at the shifting hour of midnight. Putting to rest a chipmunk who died giving birth, Sandra gets her first periodand her first inkling that what she’s doing is tied up in something big and secret.
As a young woman, self-possessed Sandra (Molly Parker) approaches the director of a funeral home while delivering flowers from her family store. Her eyes shine with the possibilities of surrounding herself with death. “What do you know about funerals?” asks Mr. Wallis, the none-too-stable funeral director. Eagerly she answers, “What is there to know?” in the tone not of a shrugging apathetic but a knowledge-hungry acolyte, desperate to hear her question answered.
One day, driving an “occupied” hearse through the carwash, Sandra takes advantage of their privacy to spend a moment contemplating her passenger. She lifts his head from its satin pillow and, overwhelmed by the same desire that led her to tenderly lick a dead lab mouse 10 years earlier, she kisses him, the carwash’s expository torrent whipping outside.
Sandra is relatively happy with her life. She’s studying pathology to become a better embalmer (a detailed embalming class is stone fascinating for those interested, probably a bit rich for the squeamies) and ravishing her unwitting charges by night. Her world is unreal, the way fairy tales and films shot in Canada tend to be (Kissed is both): The princess is supplied with a succession of fresh corpses; in this weatherless, depopulated town, young men seem to be dropping like flies. Soon reality intrudes in the form of Matt (Peter Outerbridge, a dead ringer for a very young and toothsome Peter Fonda). He is a medical student to whom Sandra finds herself confessing almost straightawayand with a little pride: “The bodies,” she answers, when asked why she’d want to work at the funeral home, “I make love to them.”
Matt takes her confession in stride; he can’t help it, he’s too smitten to see where such tastes might lead him if he follows up his interest. Sandra accepts his attentions but can’t focus on himhis occupied bed is too warm, his apartment too noisy, his sexual style far more aggressive, to say the least, than what she is used to. She slips out every night to visit the funeral home. Aware that he’s initiating a virgin, Matt tries to reassure her, saying, “It’s all right,” unaware that that is what she, a sexual aggressor in her own right, tells her dead lovers.
Sandra’s inability to reciprocate Matt’s love drives him into a frenzy, and he begins acting oddly, surprising her as she walks home from the morgue, dreamily fulfilled. In an awful parody of the jealous lover, he sniffs the formaldehyde in her hair and searches her fingernails for blood, and tauntingly reads the obituaries of likely lovers who have found their way to her funeral home. (“I don’t fuck everything that’s dead,” she snaps.) Matt begins to become unhinged, dressing in Dracula-wear and painting his face like a mannequin. He asks her over and over why she does it, what it’s like, but her explanations don’t satisfy him. With the insensitivity of the unrequiting lover she explains ecstatically, “I’m consumed.” “So am I,” he whimpers.
Hushed voice-overs speculate and rhapsodize but never offer a psychological explanation for Sandra’s activities. Stopkewich doesn’t cheapen her story by crafting a childhood trauma or revelation that would make a young girl’s attraction to dead things understandablesuch an attraction is not understandable, nor should it be. Sandra feels that life-breath is so much spiritual white noise, distorting pure expression of the soulthe “who” of a personand blurring her vision of other people. Her necrophilia is the gift of her essential self, and with this gift she can touch the selves of others. (Each body has an energy, she explains: only as much kindness, wickedness, or hope as it had in life.) The narration indicates that Sandra feels herself to be peculiarly blessed: “It’s like looking into the sun and not going blind.” (In Gowdy’s story, she disgustedly tells Matt, who is desperate to be closer to her if only through mimicry, “Necrophilia isn’t something you force yourself to do, it’s something you have to do.” The n-word isn’t in the movie, and Stopkewich’s Sandra calls her lovers “bodies,” our word for the loved and the dead.)
Although Kissed deals with such lurid and potentially decorative subjects as sex and death, it doesn’t surrender to ornamental allure. Sandra is totally uninterested in the trappings of death-love; the candles, crucifixes, capes, and other Gothic furniture that callow youngsters find irresistible are mere distractions from her fearless, clear-eyed, bone-deep obsession. It is related to nothing other than itself, just as Sandra is complete without other living people in her life. It isn’t her love for Matt that gives him a fierce erotic energy, but his for her. Her impulse to “cross over,” as she refers to her sexual experiments, come from love, perverse but nonetheless purethus her impatience with aspirations to decadence.
Stopkewich envisions Sandra as sweet and freckled; the radiant Parker has some of Kate Beckinsale’s slightly toothy loveliness, with English Rose skin and sober dark hair. Her schoolmarmish long pencil skirts add to the illusion of sensual reserve, providing a counterweight for the reality.
“Any thought you act on pushes you further out,” she says in voice-overshe has to be so normal in every other way. The imbalance between her inner life and outer aspect cannot be rectified without signifiers of chasteness pulling down hard on one side.
When critics praise a film’s beauty, or a director refers to his first love, painting, they’re usually talking about that Tokyo-blue light that has stood in for atmosphere since the ’80s (cf. David Lynch, whose compositional idiosyncrasies have become so patented you could number them). Stopkewich has a true painter’s visionVermeer’s, if you want to get specificin which the elegant and the unexpected meld to make each shot look splendid, uncontrived, right. (Gregory Middleton is the director of photography.) Sandra’s younger years are sunny orange and green, and are punctured by premonitory lacunae of blinding white, into which she will plummet in the latter part of the film, with its burnt-orange interiors, like funeral-home gladioli, and Maxfield Parrish night skies. She describes her descents into the abandoned morgue as “like diving into a lakecold, and then silence,” and the chrome-and-white functionality of the room takes on a magical glow as she dances frenziedly for her unseeing conquests.
The very subject matter of Kissed will keep or drive away some types of audiencesunwitting ticket-winners poured out of the screening during the embalming lesson. It will discomfit others who prefer that a sensational subject be explored in a style that allows for emotional distancecorrespondingly high-pitched, for example, or affectless, ironic, and bored. But Kissed is too reverent, too focused to allow viewers to step away. For all the voice-over’s enraptured metaphors, the script never makes necrophilia fathomable; it doesn’t try to. Stopkewich has attempted a rather more difficult and ambiguous taskto let Sandra tell her horror story, and not to be scared.CP