When I connected with the twice Emmy-nominated cinematographer Gregory Middleton to discuss his tremendous work on Watchmen, I don’t think either of us expected our interview to be nearly derailed by a micro-budget indie film that he made a quarter-century ago, but that’s exactly what happened. When I asked Greg about working with challenging subject matter on Watchmen, he mentioned his having worked on third rail projects in the past, including his first movie, Kissed (1996): a film he made in his native Canada about a young necrophiliac working at a mortuary. Little did Greg know that I had seen Kissed in an arthouse theater in New Buffalo, Michigan the year it came out.
And that’s how an interview scheduled for 30 minutes turned into nearly an hour-long chat. Greg suggested that he might be able to connect me with the director of Kissed, Lynne Stopkewich. He had barely finished his sentence before I jumped in with a hearty ‘YES!” — then I explained the Reframe series to him. Two weeks later, Greg and I were set to meet with Lynne through Zoom.
Just one day before the interview, Greg let me know that we might have a special guest joining us: the film’s star, Molly Parker. Of course, I could barely contain myself and was glad that Greg couldn’t see me on my phone hopping around my living room. Parker has long been one of my favorite actors, and Kissed is not only where I discovered her, but also the film that made (and as you will later learn, saved) her career.
For many who haven’t seen Kissed, the very idea of a movie about a necrophiliac may seem like too much to handle. But Kissed, much like Nicole Kassel’s The Woodsman, Terrence Malick’s Badlands, or Henry Bean’s The Believer, takes a seemingly impossible subject and approaches it with remarkable sensitivity (and most importantly, no judgement). While there are many scenes showcasing the budding mortician’s predilection toward dead things, the film makes no effort to explain Sandra — she simply is who she is. There’s not even a token character who is “the moral person freaking out,” Middleton points out. “That voice isn’t even heard in the film.” As odd as her fascination may be to us “normal” people, her intent, when she finds her first dead animal, is to honor its life and to help it “cross over.” She wouldn’t be the first child in history to engage in such ritual behavior. But, the adult Sandra not only doesn’t outgrow this phase, she embraces it — with men, dead men, who she, in the words of Lynne Stopkewich, “gets it on with.”
Molly Parker plays Sandra with luminous mystery. Sandra doesn’t feel that her deviance is a choice — at least not a choice she made. It’s as if she believes that this need chose her. And for all the inherent strangeness of the subject, I’ll be damned if she isn’t incredibly sympathetic in the role. Sandra is like most college students in nearly every way except this one… this very particular one. In Parker’s capable hands, you can see past Sandra’s (what many would consider unacceptable) behavior and find a person. Kissed understands that the only way to present Sandra is to simply do that: just present her. She’s that girl sitting next to you in English 101 who turns your head with her beauty, engages you with her intelligence, but always leaves you wanting more.
That is both the attraction for Matt, her new boyfriend (a wonderfully eccentric and tragic performance by Peter Outerbridge), and his downfall. Matt learns, and can accept, that Sandra has this other side to her. What Matt can’t handle is not being a part of it. The fact that Sandra must keep this piece of her life separate from him is simply too much to take. It’s not enough to have her, or even to have her love—he needs all of her. In this exposé of their relationship, Kissed becomes a remarkable treatise on feminism and the need men have to be everything to the object of their affection. How can a man feel fully loved if a woman keeps any part of her for herself? It’s a question the film asks that transcends the basic plot of the film. It’s that other thing that makes a film great—that unexpected topic that arrives with subtlety, almost like a thief. Yes, Kissed is a movie about a necrophiliac, but it’s also about the need for this woman — all women — to belong to themselves first, and the inability of men to accept it. As Parker put it in our interview, “he doesn’t want any part of her that he doesn’t have access to.”
I asked Parker if she was at all concerned about taking the part of a character that partakes in deviant sexual behavior. After all, it is the kind of role — and the kind of movie — that could end careers if both the film and performance don’t land right. This is especially true of the person up front and center, and on camera for almost the entirety of the film’s 78-minute run time. Parker responded by saying that she wasn’t even sure if she wanted to continue acting before Kissed. She had just come off of a guest spot on the Highlander series and felt unfulfilled, not only by that part, but by acting as a profession. She longed to play a full character. Would she ever get the chance to do so? So when Middleton, who had worked with Parker before on a short film, reached out to her and said “you’ll never get a chance to play a part like this again,” Parker took the leap.
In Kissed, Parker found a role that allowed her to not only play the lead role, but be directed by a woman from a script that presented Sandra as an autonomous character. She wouldn’t be playing, as Parker put it, “someone’s girlfriend, someone’s daughter, some appendage of a man.” Even now, she finds that unusual in her profession. Before her starring role in Kissed, Parker considered a return to university to seek a different career path. Kissed provided her with the hope and belief that well-rounded female parts were out there, and, while they may be hard to find, they are worth seeking. As Parker put it to me, she wasn’t worried about ruining her career because to her mind, she “didn’t have a career to ruin yet.” To this day, Parker considers this the special role where she got to do “that thing,” that is to say, play a “full woman.”
As you might guess, with a microscopic budget, Stopkewich, Middleton, and Parker did a lot with a little. To suggest the sense of transcendence Sandra experiences when she is alone with a body, Middleton methodically floods the scenes with light until Parker’s pale complexion merges into a near white-out. In moments like these, the viewer may find themselves perplexed by how moving, spiritual, and yes, erotic the film is. As you watch the ethereal tenderness and beauty of Sandra’s ritual one almost expects her to levitate — you can feel her passion and understand, on some psychic level, her compulsion. It’s remarkable filmmaking.
At first, it may be hard to buy that this film is for you. Granted, the genre of sympathetic necrophiliac films has only one entry. One could easily imagine the film having gone in a gothic/horror direction, but that would have been easy. Kissed is not about “easy.” It’s a film you have never seen before—one you can’t even imagine someone trying to make. That alone should create intrigue. Stopkewich put off telling her parents what the film was about for over a year. Once she broke the news to her mom and dad, they were horrified at first. But, after they saw their daughter’s film, the director’s mother exited the theater weeping with affection for Sandra. Her father was moved as well. As Stopkewich said: “I had just committed a subversive act. I got my parents to love this necrophile.”
The film is so much more than the sum of its amazing parts. At times, it’s almost a comedy (a dark one to be sure, but a sly and clever one). Sandra’s mentor, the mortician, Mr. Walls (played with a stone-faced wit by Jay Brazeau), is a seat-shifting scream, and James Timmons as Jan, the mortuary help, wouldn’t be out of place in a Coen Brothers movie. There’s a very funny grand guignol sequence where Mr. Walls shows Sandra how to remove all the bodily fluid from a corpse to ready it for embalming that is so full of sucking sounds, you might think it an outtake from a Re-Animator movie.
The crazy thing about this crazy little movie is that everything in it works. It stands up on the highest of high-wires and asks you to follow — and so, you follow. And that thin piece of rope never bows, never breaks. It’s almost a miracle. Any mistake of tone or in performance could easily have sent the film off the tracks and into “point and laugh” territory. But that never happens. Kissed is a singular cinematic experience that asks you to meet it where it lives. Watching it, you may find that it creeps up on you. You might lean in closer. You might be surprised by how involved you become. And, during the film’s beautiful close (set perfectly, to of all things, Sarah McLachlan’s “Fumbling Towards Ecstasy”), you might find you have no more resistance to this story of a young woman who finds her soul in copulating with dead men.
Remarkably, Kissed was never intended for theaters at all. Stopkewich made the film as her Master’s thesis for film school at the University of British Columbia. Very few of the cast and crew involved in the making of the film had worked on a feature before — they didn’t even have a regular call sheet, as Lynne revealed in our interview. Some members of the crew (including Parker) lived in the production office. It was true guerrilla filmmaking — they once put the camera on a wheelchair to get a shot. The building they filmed in was used for five different sets, and was only intermittently vacant. They didn’t have dailies while filming, and only saw them three months later, after Lynne had received some financing from the National Film Board in Canada. Middleton had broken down in tears once, thinking that they had butchered the café scene where Sandra and Matt first meet.
But Kissed is the kind of film that could only have been made this way. Because as Middleton notes, “no one would ever give you (real) money to make this movie.” There were many times shooting this film when it was only Greg, Lynne, and Molly on set. For all the challenges of making an indie movie, it has its advantages: Stopkewich reminisced that it “was the only time in my career that I had complete freedom.” Parker also pointed out the struggle to make dynamic films: “It costs so much money to make things, and the system in place to protect that money makes it so hard to make things that are good.”
Stopkewich expected her professor and classmates to see the finished product, but she never dreamed that the film would be shown at the Toronto Film Festival. Even more surprising was the film’s appearance at Cannes. It also played in small specialty theaters throughout the United States — including one in New Buffalo, Michigan, where I sat in the third row after closing out my shift at the local record store.
When I was young, my family was poor, and as a young man I worked my way through school. Since vacations and traveling were never an option, the movies were where I went to escape. It was film that introduced me to new places, different types of people, and new ways of looking at the world. It’s where I learned to see life through the eyes of someone else. On the best nights, even to this day, a movie will take me away from my troubles, open my eyes, and help me to understand lives that are foreign to me in nearly every way.
In that regard, Kissed is one of the best nights I’ve ever had.