Rating ** Worth seeing

Directed by Lynne Stopkewich

Written by Stopkewich and Angus Fraser

With Molly Parker, Peter Outerbridge, Natasha Morley, and Jay Brazeau.

By Lisa Alspector

No filmmaker or storyteller is obliged to have had sex with a dead body to tell a story about a necrophiliac. But unless she examines her personal metaphorical relationship to this or any subject that compels her, the movie she makes may convey unintended and contradictory meanings. Director Lynne Stopkewich, who wrote Kissed with Angus Fraser based on Barbara Gowdy’s story “We So Seldom Look on Love,” begins by creating a striking character who deserves the viewer’s attention, but eventually retreats from her bold portrayal into cliche.

Some of the script’s most authentic scenes describe the burgeoning necrophilia of the young Sandra (Natasha Morley), who takes the curiosity most children have about dead animals step-by-step into the realm of sensual experience, finding animal corpses and burying them in increasingly elaborate rituals. These scenes are pure and poetic; while not derivative of Jane Campion’s revelations of little girls’ secret behavior, they’re eerily like them–and a welcome contrast to the exaggerations a lot of male filmmakers indulge in when they portray young girls. (Todd Solondz’s Welcome to the Dollhouse and Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures are examples of the naivete with which some male filmmakers exploit young girlhood for its camp or even horrific value.)

Clearly Stopkewich identifies on some level with Sandra’s loss of innocence after she invites a cherished girlfriend to join in one of her burial ceremonies; when Sandra rubs a dead rodent all over herself, the friend runs away. In an insightful move, Stopkewich has taken a common childhood experience–the burying of a dead animal with your best friend–and found in it the seeds of an adult lust for dead bodies, without seeming merely to be capitalizing on a cultural cliche. Jeffrey Dahmer reputedly collected dead animals as a child, but instead of pigeonholing Sandra as this kind of misfit, these scenes contain enough emotional resonance that we’re invited to understand her even if we can’t relate directly to what she’s doing. And we’re discouraged from identifying too readily with the friend who runs away, because Sandra’s too young, naive, and isolated to have known that sharing her secret would alienate her friend forever. It’s to her credit that Stopkewich, whose movie is about one of the more potentially repellent young women in cinema history, refrains from making Sandra’s childhood so bizarre and canned it could only be the childhood of a fictional serial killer.

Later we see the teenage Sandra (Molly Parker), now understandably a loner, gain access to dead bodies by securing a job at a funeral home, where a cartoonishly enthusiastic mortician treats her as his protege. His somber assistant tells her the mortician uses the boy corpses for sex, but Sandra’s mute response to this information suggests that she views the quality of her encounters with dead young men as quite different from the mortician’s. In no way does she view her boss as a kindred spirit.

In fact, Sandra has already distanced herself so far from other living people emotionally that she barely seems affected by them. Stopkewich has created an environment for her that’s empty of other people in a partly literal but profoundly figurative sense. Sandra’s often alone or alone with a dead body, but even when other people surround her they might as well be props. We never see her mother again after she tells Sandra not to visit the girlfriend who ran away, and Sandra’s other human contacts are caricatures, treated by her and the movie as if they’re barely there, sometimes only alluded to by offscreen sound. In several scenes Sandra is alone in a place where other people would logically be, but these locations are convincingly vacant. With this expressionism, Stopkewich pulls us into Sandra’s world–we believe her insularity because it’s palpable, and we recognize that her communions with corpses are her only significant emotional contacts.

Then Sandra meets Matt (Peter Outerbridge) in a diner, where a coffee-dispensing waitress is the last semblance of a person to intrude on the psychological environment that almost instantly develops between the two young people. This is one of Stopkewich’s most brilliantly realized scenes, though as soon as Matt is introduced the emotional center of the movie starts to shift away from Sandra: when he first spies her at the diner we’re encouraged to identify as much with his feelings as with her response to having her companionship sought for perhaps the first time since she was a child.

Sandra tests Matt quite uncalculatingly the second time they meet at the diner–a meeting he’s contrived. She could as easily scare him away for good as seduce him when she confides that she regularly has sex with dead men. It’s a spontaneous confession, not intended to be audacious or manipulative. A judgmental listener would surely end the conversation, but Matt isn’t put off.

Like Treat Williams’s character in Smooth Talk–who seems like a real man but on some level is the embodiment of the sexual hopes and fears of the teenage Laura Dern–Matt has demon-lover quality. He’s romantic and mysterious–he brings a gift for Sandra, though he couldn’t have been sure he would see her that day. And he alludes cryptically to having been a medical student. All his characteristics seem to complement Sandra’s with eerie specificity.

As she tells him more and more about her activities, alternating sex with him and sex with corpses, her interests and behavior begin to seem almost conventional–because she and Matt define what the convention is. And her isolation with dead bodies and Matt is so consistent that this terrain becomes a seamless reality.

Gradually Sandra’s relationship with Matt becomes less about her perception of him–which mingled the quality of a fantasy with the daily drama of having a live lover–and more about his obsession with her as he attempts to enter her private world by insisting on sharing her life in increasingly intrusive ways. Scenes between Sandra and Matt alternate with hyperreal scenes between Sandra and dead men that have a metaphysical resonance–angelic choruses accompany orgasmic moments, and an otherworldly light frosts Sandra and the bodies. Yet realistic sound effects accompany her clambering on top of bodies on gurneys, keeping things grounded in a clinical reality without diminishing their spiritual quality. The inherent campiness of some of these clashing exaggerated elements would likely unhinge another director; but Stopkewich is a wonderful stylist, and despite the potential for heavy-handedness, she maintains a consistently serious tone. Her integration of strong production and sound design as well as her shaping of Parker’s fine tightrope performance ensure that these scenes inspire both contemplation and a kind of identification.

In one scene Stopkewich stages a philosophical confrontation between Sandra and Matt in a way that forces the viewer to confront the story’s themes. The lovers lie next to each other on Matt’s bed, naked and propped on their elbows, facing us, as Matt suggests to Sandra that her attraction to dead men stems from a control fantasy. This is an obvious interpretation of her behavior, one the movie has nudged us toward–if only because Sandra never expresses the slightest emotion or sexual frustration with the passivity of her dead lovers. Matt’s accusation ruffles her only slightly, and she says he’s wrong about her, he doesn’t understand. She tells him (and us) that a larger, spiritual idea motivates her behavior. Her conviction that the dead souls she fucks derive some positive energy from her love embraces a neat paradox. It doesn’t matter whether she’s right. What matters is that she believes she is–even as she seems to understand that she may be alone in that belief. She’s allowed Matt some access to her spiritual world by being open about her activities with him, but she suspects that he can’t fully understand that she can share her secret life with him only in words.

The script allows Sandra to give her own explanation for her necrophilia, but it doesn’t offer an omniscient or psychoanalytic one. This is the cornerstone of Stopkewich and Fraser’s achievement: they consistently refrain from making Sandra unambiguously insane.

Yet what might have been visionary is allowed to become banal. Instead of continuing to enhance our understanding of Sandra, Matt’s emotions come to dominate the movie, diverting its emphasis from Sandra to follow the course of his more simplistic psychopathology. By indulging in this shift in point of view, Stopkewich reveals a deep discomfort with her subject matter. As she retreats from a brave and complex characterization of Sandra, she destroys her movie’s ability to go beyond telling a rather obvious story.

The shift of dramatic emphasis also wipes out the crucial ambiguity of Matt’s role as realistic human lover and symbolic demon lover. Unable to sleep one night in Matt’s stuffy apartment–he can’t get the window open–Sandra leaves, and as soon as she’s gone he smashes his fist through the glass. The fact that we alone are privy to this act propels us into his point of view. This may be an emotionally significant place to be, but in terms of the story’s larger agenda it makes little sense not to have the camera follow Sandra out of the apartment and keep our attention on her growing frustration with their relationship. Instead the camera stays with Matt, and we’re left with an easy sympathy for a guy doing increasingly predictable and crazy things in the service of a hopeless love.

Finally Matt goes too far in trying to enter Sandra’s private world, and Kissed becomes almost wholly about his obsession. Stopkewich seems to realize that as a writer she’s made a mistake; as a director she tries desperately to salvage Sandra’s point of view with a close-up of her reaction to Matt’s melodramatic behavior in the climactic scene. But camera angles and editing aren’t enough.

A movie that reaches high raises expectations, making its flaws especially frustrating. At first Matt is both a convincing representation of someone who might not be instantly put off by someone like Sandra and a projection of her psyche that enables us to see her as not strictly monstrous. But by focusing on the lengths he goes to to enter her world of love and death, the movie thwarts his purpose in her story. This problem can’t be blamed on the source story by Gowdy, which is careful to maintain the point of view of its necrophiliac narrator throughout.

One subtext in the movie points to a possible irony in the laws and conventions that codify our behavior toward the dead by requiring that most contact with corpses occur within some kind of professional or highly ritualized context. We attempt to compartmentalize death, as if doing so will diminish its threat to us. To touch, look at, even be in the same room with a dead person we must not be emotionally involved unless we’re mourning.

Though Stopkewich has astutely recognized the contradictions in our uneasy relationship to the dead, she doesn’t seem to have examined her own uneasy relationship to the story she tells. She doesn’t seem to have asked herself the difficult but essential questions of why she was compelled to make a movie about necrophilia and what her personal metaphoric relationship to the subject is. Which leaves me wondering if most of the answer is that she recognized the obvious market potential of the sensational topic.

It’s somewhat disingenuous of Stopkewich to urge us to seriously contemplate necrophilia when her movie ultimately dismisses it with a nod to conventional mores. Storytellers can always resort to depicting without inflection the havoc any behavior can wreak. And because Matt comes to a bad end through his association with Sandra, Kissed becomes a simple moral tale we’ve all seen before.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Uncredited photo.