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November 12, 2008 |

By TK Burton | | November 12, 2008 |

“Love is about craving. Our craving for transformation; and all transformation, all movement, happens because life turns into death.”

I’ve come to realize that the Twisted Masterpiece is not just about blood and gore and making you clench your eyes shut and grit your teeth and swallow your gorge. Twisted Masterpieces are simply films that shake up the norms, that call into question our thoughts and values and understanding of the world around us. As Ranylt said in the first review in the series, “readers who delight in the abnormal have a new playground.” I’d like to add another piece to that playground. It’s not terribly bloody or scary or nauseating… but it’s unquestionably twisted and thought-provoking and undeniably bizarre. It’s a love story the likes of which you’re probably never seen, and likely will never see again.

Kissed is the story of Sandra Larson; a timid, sweet, endearing young woman who is fascinated with death. The film starts at the beginning of her life, where for reasons unknown, she is riveted by finding dead birds and chipmunks. She buries them in lovingly and holds special ceremonial bacchanals and dances that she sees as a form of worship and adulation. Cast out by her peers for her timidity and her awkward shyness, she manages to maintain a brief friendship with Carol, another local misfit, and together they form a friendship based on their mutual roles as outsiders. But when Carol witnesses Sandra’s more unusual traits, particular her penchant for stripping to her underwear and rubbing dead birds over her skin, Sandra is once again doomed to her path of loneliness, inner tumult and misunderstanding.

Fast forward to Sandra as an adult, where she is portrayed with a luminous yet apprehensive grace by the lovely Molly Parker (HBO’s “Deadwood”). Working for a florist, she still is fascinated by death and sees an opportunity to pursue her passion when she makes a delivery to a funeral home. She takes a job as an assistant there, which leads to the pivotal moment in her life. You see, Sandra isn’t fascinated by death in a nihilistic, Marilyn Manson-fanboy manner. Nor is it a strange, pseudo-thanatoligical or scientific interest. Instead, her fixation is an emotional one, deep within her psyche and inexplicable to others. She is not just interested in death… she is in love with it. Not just as a strange, ethereal philosophical love, either (though it is that as well). She is actually physically in love with the dead.

Perhaps you can see where this is going.

Sandra goes on to decide to study embalming, the act of preserving the bodies of the recently deceased, from her boss Mr. Wallis. Wallis has no such connection with the dead - he goes about his task with a workmanlike manner that Sandra finds unnerving and almost offensive. For her, the dead are deserving of our respect, and she treats them with a reverence and sensitivity that is both touching and disturbing. Finally, one night she finds her way back to the mortuary and finds herself alone with one of the recently embalmed bodies. No longer able to contain the urges that fuel her, she finally consummates her love. It’s a harrowing, haunting and, yes, erotically charged scene. It’s not played for cheap thrills or tawdry titillation. Instead, it’s actually a surprisingly moving, brave scene that is quite captivating.

By breaking through the final emotional and physical barrier, Sandra finds herself more free, more alive than she’s ever felt, to the point where she slowly begins to learn to actually interact on a personal level with the (living) people around her. Eventually, she encounters Matt (Peter Outerbridge), a medical student at the local university who finds her study of embalming to be intriguing. Eventually it leads to a discussion of dead bodies, and in a surprising moment of honesty, Sandra confesses her attraction and her actions to him. Matt, instead of being repulsed, is actually interested, if not aroused by the concept. The two slowly form a strange, stuttering relationship while Sandra continues the pursuit of her necrophiliac urges. However, Matt is not without his own bizarre fetish — he is endlessly mesmerized by Sandra’s inclinations, so much so that he repeatedly bombards her with questions. Ultimately though, Matt’s becomes an almost neurotic need, leading to embarrassment and eventually, estrangement. For Sandra, her love of the dead is a deeply personal, fervent experience — in many ways, it defines her on a fundamental level, and she is reluctant to share that much of herself. Not because of the taboos associated with it, but because it’s hers. She truly believes that her actions have a transformative and almost divine power. In the end, oddly, it’s Matt’s fixation that drives them apart, and slowly drives him to jealousy, confusion, and madness. It’s never clear whether he envies the bodies she worships, or if he just seeks a greater understanding, but it leads to a series of tense, painfully affecting scenes where both of their inner turmoils are laid bare. Eventually and inevitably, their relationship, rife with raw emotion and confused feelings, leads to tragic results.

Kissed was a quiet little Canadian production, filmed in 1996 and directed by first-time director Lynne Stopkewich (who has since directed episodes of “The L Word” as well as Canadian TV’s “Terminal City”). Based on the short story “We So Seldom Look on Love,” by Barbara Gowdy, which in turn was inspired by poem by Frank O’Hara aptly entitled “Ode to Necrophilia.” It was filmed on a next-to-nothing budget, and unsurprisingly, grossed less than half a million dollars in the U.S. The performances are all excellent. Parker brings a soft, sympathetic touch to her portrayal of Sandra — a woman whose fragility is rooted in the knowledge that what she does is completely unacceptable on a societal level. At the same time, she has a quiet strength that stems from her conviction that her predilections are truly her heart’s desire, and more so, she believes that what she does has a sort of cosmic, karmic affect on the deceased themselves — almost as if she is granting them a gift. It’s a courageous, haunting performance. Similarly, Outerbridge’s Matt is another very good piece of acting. At first, he seems like a normal, smooth-talking intellectual, but as Stopkewich peels back his layers, we discover that he’s another uncomfortable, almost unstable yet impassioned soul who is seeking some sort of answer to his life, even if he lacks the right question.

It’s a strange film, and not just because of the seemingly perverse subject matter. When I sat down to watch it, I was frankly baffled by the concept. How do you make a film about necrophilia? How do you make a good film about necrophilia? And perhaps more importantly, why do you make this film? It’s clearly one of the most unmentionable of subjects. While films are frequently made that deal with difficult, uncomfortable, and even stomach-turning subjects, rarely are those films about that subject. Films like Sleepers and The Woodsman use a terrible issue, pedophilia, to provide back-story and move the narrative. They are not about pedophilia. Yet there’s no questioning it — at first glance, Kissed is about necrophilia.

Yet that doesn’t fully tell the story. Kissed is certainly about a woman’s love, both emotional and physical, of the dead. But it’s also about the connection between love and life and death, about people’s emotional scars and how some of us may have needs that simply cannot be understood by the average person. No matter of how perverse and freakish that need may be, it doesn’t diminish its affect on you. The film is in no way a comfortable one - there are squirm inducing moments that will make your spine shiver and shudder. But then, it’s not meant to make you feel warm and cozy; it’s meant to disturb and provoke. Yet despite all that, Kissed is actually a deeply moving, almost spiritual film. Sandra’s evolution as a person is a real journey, and one can sense that she is not racing towards oblivion, as one would assume with an appetite such as hers, but instead gracefully drifting towards her own twisted enlightenment — for better or for worse.

Perhaps the most important and difficult to grasp part about Stopkewich’s film is that she makes no judgments. Regardless of where our respective moral compasses may lead us, she refuses to damn her characters by portraying them as sick or broken individuals. Kissed is an alluring, meditative work, one that makes us think beyond its subject matter, and instead you find yourself contemplating life and death, love and obsession, and right and wrong. In truth, no matter what the subject matter, if a film can bring us to such lofty ruminations, then it’s an artistic success, regardless of the road it travels to get us there.

TK can be found wandering aimlessly through suburban Massachusetts, wondering how the hell he got there while yelling at the kids on his lawn. You can find him raising the dead in preparation for world domination at Uncooked Meat.

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Kissed / TK

November 12, 2008 |

TK Burton is the Editorial Director. You may email him here or follow him on Twitter.

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