Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Film Review: Sunkissed

Sunkissed
Directed by Patrick McGuinn

Willing Suspension Films

Reviewed by Max Fincher


An arthouse, erotic thriller, this new film by director Patrick McGuinn leaves the audience to ponder whether the dark fantasies of one of the handsome young men is the destiny or tragic past of the other.

Teddy, bright, romantic and sociable, is a novelist staying temporarily in the Californian desert home of Crispin, his literary agent, to complete his novel. Arriving at the house, Teddy meets the handsome but conflicted Leo, an aspiring actor. Leo settles him into the house and the two of them get drunk and have sex. They then embark on a passionate affair together. However, all is not as it appears. We begin to wonder just what Leo’s past history is, and what will be Teddy’s fate.

Although the initial pace of the film is slow to build, the tension increases after the confessional drunken exchange between Leo and Teddy. This is a pivotal scene that reveals Leo’s backstory. As we subsequently discover, Leo comes out to his mother who denies he is gay. Teddy’s novel, (which Leo suggests should be titled ‘Goodbye’) is partly autobiographical. Teddy tells him that the experience of coming out in the mid-West was a ‘nightmare’. Leo’s story, then, is one that Teddy is, unwittingly, writing. The mystery over what happens to Teddy is intensified by a close shot later on that shows Leo’s name on the dust jacket of Teddy’s novel.

The nightmare that was coming out continues as we realize that Leo suffers either from premonitions or from flashbacks that involve violence and murder. We see Leo waking from a nightmare, and at one point, telling Teddy that he has visions that he doesn’t want to talk about with him, and that he is ‘going through some shit’. Leo’s visions or remembrances unsettle the viewer’s temporal anchors. These unnerving sequences are often filmed as rapid jump-cuts, and contrast effectively with the slower conversations between them and erotic lovemaking scenes filmed in slow motion.

That it is difficult to decide whether these visions that Leo sees are premonitions or flashbacks increases the tension and suspense, and seems intended to deliberately confuse any (straight)forward narrative chronology. The viewer is forced to piece the narrative together, but is left with no definitive answer as to what has happened or what will happen. Was Leo married to Cheryl, whom he then murdered? He tells Teddy that Cheryl was the victim of a random killer on their doorstep. But we are unsure if this is the truth or a fabrication because later we see Leo and Cheryl sunbathing, a copy of Teddy’s story beside them. Earlier, however, there is a startling shot of Teddy and Leo jumping up out of their seats in the front yard rushing towards something or someone. We are not sure if this is another fantasy of Leo’s. The line between what is fiction and fact is blurred to the extent that we feel, like Teddy, that it is impossible to know the character of Leo. Does Leo murder Teddy? We are refused any clear-cut, easy explanation, and are made to work hard to read the film’s narrative.

The effect of these temporal dislocations upon the viewer is dizzying, disorienting, perhaps even frustrating. Indeed, the prevailing mood of the film is dream-like. The cinematography aims to capture that dizzying, dreamy effect of being sunkissed, that slow, dream-like state one feels after being in the sun for too long perhaps. The breezy, ethereal soundtrack by the band The Sea and Cake emphasizes this effect, and imbues the film with an intense eroticism in its whispered, soft slow vocals and refrains. In one scene, Leo kisses a variety of men against a black background. The faces are lit brightly and shot close up, in profile accompanied by the soundtrack of a song, ‘Watch their Mouths’, that is particularly erotic. Other erotic moments include Leo and Teddy showering each other with a hose in the hot sun, and having sex in a Cherokee jeep in the desert. The overall effect feels as if the viewer is experiencing narcolepsy; there are periods of time that cannot be accounted for or are like hazy dreams.

To return to the point that Teddy, like the viewer, does not or cannot really know who Leo is, or what will happen, one perhaps needs to understand McGuinn’s inspiration for making the film. Over the course of one year, four of his close friends passed away in a series of sudden tragic deaths. As part of coming to terms with his grief, McGuinn returned to the desert, where he was brought up, to reconnect with nature. It was here that he felt that he could ‘embrace the creative forces within myself and in nature, as a source of renewal in the midst of loss.’ To some extent, the film reflects the experience of how the sudden death of those closest to us often feels meaningless and impossible to comprehend. The film resists any closure of meaning in that we are not permitted to know what happens.

At one point, we see Teddy looking up shocked into the night-time sky as a bright white light comes down from above. Perhaps it is a fanciful reading, but this moment seemed to play with the possibility of alien abduction. In another scene, Leo and Teddy are both lying down together discussing giving each other some space. The camera angle, shooting from behind their heads, makes their heads/faces appear almost alien-like, inhuman, alienated from each other perhaps. As mentioned above, there is another moment in the film, when the viewer is unsure if s/he is in present narrative time, or Leo’s dream/nightmare. Both of them jump in shock from the front porch and rush across the yard. But we are not shown what causes their shock. Later in the film, we see Leo running back to the house from a creek. The opening of the film shows Cheryll lying dead in the creek. Another of Leo’s visions shows him carrying Teddy back into the house, covered in blood and unconscious, crying over him as he lays him down on the bed. Why? Any explanation is left unclear? Has Leo murdered Teddy? Has he repressed the action, returned to the house to find Teddy missing, and then discovered him out at the creek? Does he have amnesia? Or have the aliens come for him? Teddy’s disappearance and death is the central aporia in the film’s narrative, and the essence of the film’s philosophy: death is more often than not meaningless, absurd and unable to be explained.

The ending finishes with a shot of both characters in profile, walking in slow motion to kiss against the backdrop of the pounding white waves of the Pacific ocean. In another shot, it would seem that Leo is going to walk into the ocean, his back towards us, perhaps even to commit suicide. The shot evokes the famous suicide scene with Joan Crawford in Humouresque. There are also some traces of Hitchcock and Ingmar Bergman’s Persona. One could also read this final scene as the meeting of two halves of a divided personality which Leo stands for.

Sunkissed is a film that blends some beautiful cinematography, of the desert, of desire, and affirms the importance of both passion and truth to oneself as the source of happiness.


Max Fincher wrote his PhD at King’s College London, a queer reading of late eighteenth-century Gothic fiction that was published as Queering Gothic Writing in the Romantic Age by Palgrave Macmillan (2007). He has taught part-time on eighteenth-century fiction and women’s writing, at both King’s College London and Royal Holloway, and is an occasional book reviewer for the TLS. He is currently writing his first novel, tentatively titled The Pretty Gentleman, a queer historical thriller set in the Regency art world.

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