The lady killers

Edinburgh Festival: At this year's Film Festival, the female of the species seems more deadly than the male. And then some. Liese Spencer investigates
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The Independent Culture
Two women mow down a man on a road, bundle his dead body into a well and force-feed him sandwiches. Another kills her work colleagues then takes them home to keep her company in front of the television. Spinsters burn the midnight oil cooking up the remains of their dead lodger. Meanwhile, an ethereal young beauty trips out for a midnight tryst at a funeral parlour. Home is where the heart is, but at this year's Edinburgh Film Festival it's where all the other body parts are too.

It's no surprise to find at the centre of all this carnage Cindy Sherman; millionaire photographer, subversive feminist, and an artist whose images have often courted controversy. Office Killer, her directorial debut, is a film of quirky B-movie brilliance. Set in the dimly lit, dun-coloured offices of Constant Consumer Magazine, it shows a frumpy drone called Dorene bumping off her work-mates one by one. After killing them, she drives them home, where she cosies up to them on the sofa, fussing away to make them comfortable and dabbing at their decomposing forms as if tidying up the mess left behind by a family of particularly messy eaters.

It's one of a slew of films at the festival that has given a new meaning to the phrase "domestic violence", invading the sanctuary of the home with images of death and dismemberment. In the Australian feature Mushrooms, this finds camp expression in the story of two old women who ecologically re-cycle a male lodger who expires in their upstairs bedroom. In the eerie psychodrama of Samantha Lang's The Well, shots of the bleakly beautiful Australian outback seem to promise an escape from this horrific homeliness. But, before you can say "repression", two female friends have a dead body stashed at the bottom of their garden well.

So where has this female gothic suddenly sprung from? "I chose to make my leads female because women are both more emotionally vulnerable and more involved in death," suggests Alan Madden, the director of Mushrooms. "Statistically they live longer, so they have to cope with loss. Also, the tradition has been that, while men have gone off to war to kill and be killed, women have stayed home to lay out the dead."

Madden took the irreverent tone for his movie from the no-nonsense attitude towards death shown by a widowed friend, who told him that her dead husband's absence was like "walking around as if I'd forgotten my handbag". It's a banal approach to mortality shared by all the directors here. They handle their disturbing subject-matter not so much with kid gloves as with metaphorical Marigolds. Surprised by a suspicious visitor at home, Sherman's killer hastily drapes a dish-cloth over a pair of dismembered hands that sit on a plate. She passes them off as "meatloaf".

It's tempting to regard this kind of "kitchen gothic" as a variation on films like Fatal Attraction and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle - suburban nightmares that threatened the nuclear family with monstrous, sexually active women. In fact, the undercurrent of perverse domesticity on show at this festival has something far more interesting to say about feminity and female desire. These are films about death, not the act of killing. For all their corpses, none of them display much on-screen violence. The most gory is Office Killer. Even then, Sherman has said, "The thing that interested me about Dorene is the way she wanted to play with the bodies after they're dead."

Sure, Sherman's film works as a bloody pastiche of horror movies, like Carrie, which offer female spectactors the pseudo-masochistic pleasure of watching a victim turn aggressor. But like the rest of this grotesque crop, Office Killer is less about the catharsis of suffering than the sickness of female desire. The only real relationships Dorene maintains in the film are with corpses. All the films hark back to the age-old Romantic pre-occupation with sex and death which found expression in the spectacle of the dead female body. Here the difference is that the body is male.

According to Film Festival director Lizzie Francke, this imagery is not about female mastery of the male body, but an expression of a profound, feminine masochism: "Masochism is a very deadening thing; pain and sexuality are very closely linked. What these movies underline is the bankruptcy of that sexual currency. They reflect on women's self-destructive drive to be accommodating. And they take the cliche that the only good man is a dead man, and tease out of that something far more complex and mournful."

The culmination of this process is found in Canadian director Lynne Stopkewich's delicately sensual Kissed, in which Molly Parker's girl-next-door works in a funeral parlour and indulges in a spot of after-hours sex with her cadavers. For her, necrophilia is an act of such metaphysical ecstasy that she describes it as "looking into the sun without going blind". It allows her to "pass over to the other side", to be "consumed".

"Kissed is a very sad film about the rupture between men and women," says Francke. "Quite literally it's about female sexuality coming to a dead end."

For Francke, the ebullient black comedy of Mushrooms makes it redolent of Arsenic and Old Lace, but she sees the work of Sherman, Stopkewich and Lang as coming from a different lineage: "Office Killer and The Well belong in the tradition of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, but these movies are also pushing to its limits the female literary gothic tradition of novels such as Jane Eyre, where Jane can only consummate her desire for Rochester when he is maimed and blind."

As different as the bodies stacked in a mortuary vault, these films none the less share a melancholy sensibility, dreaming dark fairy tales that invert the myth of Sleeping Beauty and haunt the screen with a sepulchral female sexuality

`Kissed' screens Sat 23, Filmhouse 1 (FH1); `Office Killer' screens Mon 18, FH1 (Q&A with Sherman) and Fri 22, FH1; `Mushrooms' is on today, Cameo 1 and screens again Wed 20, Cameo 3; `The Well' screens Tues 19, Cameo 1, Wed 20, GFT 1 and Sat 23, Cameo 2

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