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Peter Bowen on Lynne Stopkewich's Kissed

From its inception, film has been in love with death. Perhaps it started with photography, a medium of which Roland Barthes fondly observed, "Each photograph always contains the impervious sign of my future death." Film continually reanimates the dead, bringing them back to life and causing us to fall in love with them all over again. In Lynne Stopkewich's first feature, Kissed (due out this April from the recently revived Samuel Goldwyn), this cinematic obsession is given a literal and tragic twist.

Molly Parker In Kissed
Adapted from a Barbara Goudy short story, "We So Seldom Look on Love," Kissed recounts the sentimental education of a female necrophile, Sandra Larson (Molly Parker), who grows up finding death as material, erotic and satisfying as life itself. But whereas film's obsession with death traditionally focuses on the object of its desire (corpses, zombies, murders and bad marriages), Kissed considers as its subject a person drawn to the edge of mortality, to the nebulous space between life and death, or, in cinematic terms, light and darkness.

While the film's subject matter will no doubt incite some to dismiss it as simply perverse, a label that might well garner it an NC-17 rating in the States, the film's approach is far from pandering. To be sure, recent American films (Spanking the Monkey, Female Perversions, The House of Yes, not to mention Nick Broomfield's recent doc Fetishes) have often reduced perversity to a narrative novelty. Kissed, however, is more in line with perversity's great masters: Sade, Genet, Bataille, and more recently David Lynch, whom Stopkewich cites as an influence. The film demands that we acknowledge the metaphysics, even the theology, of the perverse before entering its narrative. In Kissed, necrophilia emerges not simply as a series of illicit acts but as a belief system which, as Stopkewich observes, touches on "love, sex, and death." To capture the arc of Sandra's perversion, from her fascination with small animal corpses to her career as an embalmer in a local funeral home to her ill-fated love affair with a live man, Stopkewich found it necessary to "try to put aside my own critical and moral judgments and allow myself to truly enter into the world of the characters. If this works, perhaps we can float freely between an acceptance/understanding of another's experience as well bring something back to our own."

No doubt Stopkewich's sense of a character's world, as well as the character as a world of its own, emerges from her established career as a production designer. For her, production design "is essential in defining character, of pointing out how what they wear and where they live is crucial to who they are." Despite directing her first of eight short films at the age of 12 (the Super-8 "Pencils in Action" set to Elton John's "Bongo Rock"), Stopkewich since 1992 has worked as a production designer to finance her MFA in film at the University of British Columbia. Her first production design credit, John Pozer's The Grocer's Wife, went on to open the Critic's Week at the 1992 Cannes Film Festival. It was the sort of true collaboration that Stopkewich jokes proved rare in future film jobs: "There was one real low-budget film where I wanted the color red to appear only when the woman character got shot. People on the project thought I was insane to try and control an element of design so extremely on a low-budget film. It became such a joke that people on the production would try to sneak in some red cloth into scenes at the last moment to see if I was watching."

But this obsession with controlling a film's look is for Stopkewich crucial to her structuring how we look at it. When directing, Stopkewich continually asks herself, "If I was watching this film, where would I engage, where would I disengage? How would this play down the road?" This is not just a form of internalized test screening; Stopkewich continually returns to the historically problematic position of a female spectator and the equally problematic spectacle of female desire. In Kissed, "it was crucial to empower Sandra's sexuality when we finally see her engaged in necrophilia. I wanted to make her the subject of the scene and not the object," a figure she quips would "literally be the corpse." And while dead men don't have much star presence, being on top doesn't also always elicit sympathy. For Stopkewich, "The biggest challenge and driving force was to try to see what would make this character believable, what would make her someone you cared about.

The audience's identification with or empathy for the character extends far beyond the demands of realist drama. Few people can count a necrophile among their close friends. From Stopkwich's research, "Ninety-eight percent of necrophiles are men of above-average intelligence who can't connect with living people." As such, a bright, amiable female necrophile not only pushes the limits of identification, but of imagination. It is here that Kissed distinguishes itself from other recent perverse fare. Rather than assume an ironic distance from its characters, the film pushes cinematic intimacy. In her camerawork, for example, Stopkewich promotes an almost uncomfortable proximity during the sex scenes: "It was important to shoot them in a way that makes you feel like you are there in the room and not looking through the safety of a keyhole. When Sandra reaches climax, she is looking right into the camera - at us and into the [projector's] light." From the film's opening voiceover, the character's desire resonates as sublime and deeply mysterious, inviting us to eroticize death in transcendent and spirtual ways.

Interestingly this appeal to the sublime, this sense of wanting things that remain unseen, can be found in such other recent foreign films as Breaking the Waves and Prisoner of the Mountains, films that not only imagine an afterlife but dramatize the complicated link between religious belief and erotic love.

Stopkewich attributes Goudy with giving her the cinematic palette needed to bring necrophilia to life. While the film is "an interpretation of the piece, not so much a literal translation," Stopkewich herself was seduced by the story's look: "Goudy describes Sandra making love to a corpse as being like being burned by a white light." The play of light and darkness that symbolize the story's libidinal and spiritual forces also illuminates the character's sense of the world: "We used burns to white whenever Sandra touches death to play against the idea of a cold so deep it is seen as a white light. It's also an homage to Fassbinder's Effi Briest," whose blinding fades to white mark another tale of sexual repression. Stopkewich's use of white burns to imagine the ineffable also quite whimsically imagines a direct appeal to the audience: "I thought that towards the end if people hated the film and started walking out, the sudden bursts of bright light would make them easier to pick out, so they would be less reluctant to leave." But this cinematic joke eeriely references the warning and welcome of so many near-death experiences, repeated in another film about death: "Don't be afraid! Go into the light!"


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