Film Reviews

Lust for Lifeless

On the festival tour that helped the necrophiliac Kissed net prerelease praise everywhere from the Atlantic Monthly to Newsweek, writer-director Lynne Stopkewich said she thought independent films should be judged by their ingenuity and daring rather than by 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, novelty guarantees art no better than penury does.

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 Barbara Gowdy's original short story, "We So Seldom Look on Love" (the director found it in a collection of women's erotica). Whether because of the story's limitations or her own bent for shimmery impressionism, Stopkewich presents Sandra Larson's yen to press dead flesh as an urge that's just with her from early childhood. (Natasha Morley plays Sandra 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 loves the feel of death, and soon starts ritually dancing in the woods with small dead animals. At one point, she wrongly assumes that twirling in her underwear while caressing a deceased baby chipmunk will cement a bond with her one 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 the confession that she got into embalming for the bodies. Played by Peter Outerbridge with an ambiguous cuteness (like a rounder Peter O'Toole), Matt becomes Sandra's 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; it's as if necrophilia were akin to more normal, operating-table types of after-life experiences. Unless you succumb to the pop mysticism in the voice-over and dialogue, it's painfully easy to see where the movie is heading once Matt tries to enter Sandra's shadow life. It's not an O. Henry or a Rod Serling or even a James M. Cain twist; for the quietly hellbent 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 (again like Cronenberg in Crash) spends most of her craft easing us into a mood that's meant to be numb and ecstatic, yet is mostly soporific.

As David Lynch (at his best) does recognize, kinks get fascinating when they're rooted in normality. A friend's wife, a devoted spouse and a mother, keeps a stuffed pet bird with a removable head in a shoebox; I find this little 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 routine. "They're dead! They're deceased!" he might say, pointing to Sandra's lovemates. "They're ex-human beings! They've joined the choir invisible!"

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--the main defense of Madonna--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 got paid a mere 10 bucks for it.

Directed by Lynne Stopkewich; with Molly Parker.

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Michael Sragow