Thursday 10 July 2014

The Kiss (2013)

Director: Travis Mills
Stars: Renee Bryant, Troy Reeves, Sarah Lovell and Michael Coleman
After a safe opening entry into his 52 Films in 52 Weeks project, writer/director Travis Mills opened up his ambition a little for the second. It's The Kiss, ostensibly based on a short story by Kate Chopin, which was first published in Vogue in 1895, and it feels like a safe story too, as it's really short, only just breaking a thousand words, and it's relatively straightforward in its outlook. Mills's adaptation is also short, running a mere four minutes, but he changes much more than just the timeframe and he adds a heavy dose of that ambiguity that he's so fond of. He retains almost nothing from that original story, merely the setting of a scene around a wedding and, of course, the kiss of the title that is at the centre of both stories; otherwise it's completely unrecognisable. Inevitably the updating of century old material to contemporary settings prompts changes but that doesn't apply here because Chopin's story is notably timeless. In fact it almost describes a concept which didn't obtain a name for another twenty years, the 'gold-digger'.

I much prefer Mills's script to Chopin's short story, though perhaps it's simply because I'm a man. Chopin was an influential feminist and The Kiss revolves around a young lady who gets precisely what she wants, even though the kiss of the title temporarily scuppers her chances at the prize. She wants to get married, to the rich young man who is awkwardly courting her, for a particularly mercenary reason. As she puts it, 'The rather insignificant and unattractive Brantain was enormously rich; and she liked and required the entourage which wealth could give her.' She's about to land this big fish when another man waltzes into her house and plants an 'ardent, lingering kiss upon her lips' which would have done for her chances if she wasn't such a 'outspoken' young lady. In other words, Nathalie is modern enough to marry for money, modern enough to make it happen, even after a cog has been thrown into her machinations, and modern enough after it's done to try to keep the millionaire and the hurler of the cog both.

If any of this is there in Mills's adaptation, it's because we've brought it with us from our homework. None of it would appear to be there otherwise, because he doesn't give us any background detail to tell us why the young bride at the heart of his story got married. Maybe she's a gold-digger like Nathalie, but nothing tells us that. We can certainly see that her husband isn't a passionate man and there's nothing to suggest that she loves him, but there are a hundred reasons to get married and she could easily just be distracted by the chaos of a big wedding. We can believe from Renee Bryant's face that her character isn't sure of her decision, but she doesn't drive the story as Mills presents it. In fact, nobody drives anything except the complete stranger played by Michael Coleman who isn't given a name, a reason or any dialogue. He walks past their table on a restaurant patio, stops to kiss her completely out of the blue and then waltzes off down the road. He exists in this film only to deliver the kiss of the title and set up our story.
And because Mills avoids giving us any background, we have to find a point of reference somewhere else and the only place viable is Renee Bryant's face. She underplays her role from the outset, because she's playing someone reciting an anecdote to a friend while distracted by all the shiny at a wedding fair, so I can buy her lack of engagement (no pun intended). But when she's kissed, she has a new focus and we have to figure out why. There are two ways I can read this film and neither of them follow the original story. The literal one is that she's kissed by a stranger, whose unexpected moment of passion focuses her thoughts and makes her wonder about the commitment she's about to make. That's hardly a feminist approach as it puts her firmly out of control. The alternative I keep coming back to is the one that gives her control, in which she imagines the whole encounter as a mild fantasy to replace the passion her husband is missing in spades. Certainly when he reappears, it's because she conjured him up again.

Michael Hanelin will surely be happy that he's not the only actor tasked with playing ambiguous roles at Running Wild, but I wonder which way Renee Bryant read her character. Everything revolves around that kiss, which she doesn't fight. The last shot of the film shows her face wide open, resonating a whole host of emotions all at once, and it's the one moment in the film that she's alive. It would be easy to denigrate her lack of engagement, if only it wasn't the right choice for the picture. Staying distracted throughout, but ending up with wide eyes, is far more appropriate. The acting generally is certainly more consistent than it was in The Sisters, but these are far from the sort of outstanding performances we know Mills can conjure out of his actors. Mostly I think they did what they needed to; it's just that their characters play second fiddle to the story. There are feminist takes to this, but then the deliberate lack of background makes many readings possible. I firmly feel that the woman isn't in charge here though; the writer is.

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