Film: Drop-dead gorgeous: the life and loves of a female mortuary worker

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A film about a woman who is sexually attracted to dead bodies is bound to stir up controversy, but Liese Spencer is impressed by the very `ordinariness' of the portrayal of cinema's first necrophiliac heroine.

Many studio chiefs must have come close to a heart attack when their productions have run over budget, but Kissed may be the first movie to cast its executive producer as a carcass. John Pozer, who helped bankroll this debut feature from Canadian director Lynne Stopkewich, is just one of a number of deceased objects of desire for the film's mortuary worker star, Sandra Larson.

Despite such sensational-sounding material, Kissed will disappoint dirty macs hoping for a salacious near-death experience. More metaphysical love story than explicit sexual adventure, the film poignantly explores Sandra's singular attempts to "pass over to the other side" while tapping into the age-old fascination with sex and death.

"I have found a deep mine of literary gold in the cemetery of Forest Lawn and the work of the morticians," wrote Evelyn Waugh in 1947, after a visit to the funeral homes of California, "and intend to get to work immediately." A similar resolve coursed through Stopkewich's veins three years ago when she stumbled upon a short story about necrophilia in a collection of women's erotica. "It haunted me for weeks, I just couldn't get it out of my mind," she recalls. "I thought, `If a story can do that, imagine how powerful a film could be.'"

Waugh's eagerness to satirise the American funeral industry resulted in his mordant comic novel The Loved One, but Stopkewich was less fascinated by the burial business than by the opportunity to imagine female sexual identity from an arresting new perspective. "So many women on film and in life are still defined by the men they're with rather than who they are," she explains. "This story really captured my imagination because Sandra is such a strong protagonist."

Stopkewich is quick to add, however, that Sandra's post-mortem predilections are, of course, "completely out on a limb. On another branch of the tree. Way out there. On a twig on the end of the branch".

After securing the rights to Barbara Gowdy's story, Stopkewich had only nine weeks to script and cast the film and hastily set about researching the modern way of death. "There's really nothing on necrophilia other than a textbook definition," laments the film-maker. "Since it's illegal there aren't really even any medical studies. In the library in Vancouver there was just one book on embalming and when I tried to take it out I discovered there was a four-month waiting list!"

Luckily, the film-maker was less concerned with the ins and outs of brain drainage than with creating a portrait of liberating, if sepulchral, female sexuality. "I didn't worry too much about accuracy," she explains, "because I wanted the film to have a surreal, lyrical feel. You assume immediately that this woman's a monster and should be painted as one but what we did was try and turn that on its head. Portray her as an angel, not as a devil."

Central to the success of this project was the casting of her lead, Molly Parker. An ethereal beauty with milk white skin, black hair and rosebud pout, Parker was the perfect Snow White for the perverse fairy tale. Together they mapped out ways to make Sandra human. "Her behaviour was so outside our experience", Stopkewich says, "we had to really work to find ways to make her real. What we did was focus on the emotions we felt that she'd gone through. Through puberty, first date, first lover, things we could relate to. The biggest challenge was how to make this character sympathetic."

The thick band of black humour helps disarm the wary viewer. "I don't fuck everything that's dead," snaps Sandra impatiently in answer to one of her boyfriend's incessant probes, while his consternation when she arrives at a date with blood on her nails, smelling of formaldehyde is a neat parody of the jealous woman checking her partner's collar for lipstick and unfamiliar scent.

Despite such smart touches, the film's real comic honours must go to Jay Brazeau's embalmer Mr Wallis. Wrapped in a rubber apron and grasping a mini-harpoon, Wallis is a creation to equal Waugh's Mr Joyboy for sheer workmanlike creepiness.

At its heart, however, the film is a delicately sensual study of the isolation of morbid desire. Sandra describes her feelings of ecstasy as "like looking into the sun without going blind" and, at her moment of climax, Stopkewich shrouds the screen in a dazzling white glare. Elsewhere the film is similarly discreet, avoiding the explicit and prurient.

With its chill humour, spare set design, and bleached look the resulting film is as cool and bloodless as one of Sandra's cadavers. Stopkewich downplayed the plasma but kept the Seventies setting of the original. "I grew up then, so it was a way for me to identify with her," explains the 34-year-old director. "Also, the film was low-budget and paid for largely on my credit card. In the second-hand stores the cheapest stuff we could find was 1970s clothing, props and furniture."

Despite such economies Stopkewich needed money to complete Kissed from a publicly funded Canadian film body, a donation that provoked a letter- writing campaign against the film in Canada when it was released there last year. "As soon as the religious right discovered that some tax-payers' hard-earned dollars had gone into funding `this necrophile movie' they were up in arms.

"Kissed is not something that's going to play in the mall multiplexes out in the boondocks. It really is an inner city art house film and I don't think that it's a movie that's going to convert people or anything."

Indeed so mournfully calm is the Kissed appraisal of its girl-next-door necrophile and her collection of Much Loved Ones that the film occasionally verges on the mundane. "I wanted to fly in the face of people's expectations," says Stopkewich. "Because of the subject-matter many people would automatically pigeonhole it as horror but I thought it would be more subversive if it had an ordinary, everyday feel."

`Kissed' is released today.

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