Ellen is recently out of college, still dependent on her parents for a job on the weekends, and spends her free time having sex with her ex-boyfriend, Chris. Ellen’s roommate, Patrick, is working on an audio project, recording interviews with people as they tell of their breakup stories, their dreams from when they were young, their parents, and every other illusion that is shattered once you become an adult. Patrick and Ellen do not have a sexual relationship, but I think Patrick has a crush on her. In one scene I think he imagines making out with her in the shower. I say I think because I wasn’t sure if the woman was Ellen or her best friend, Laura. Looking on IMDb, the actress playing Laura seems to be related to writer / director / actor (producer / editor/ photographer, etc) Joe Swanberg, who plays Patrick, so they’re probably brother and sister so he wasn’t making out with her. It’s sad when a movie is sloppy you can’t tell the characters apart. When Patrick learns that his roommate is still seeing her ex, he gets passive-aggressive.
The movie is filled with improvised dialogue and conversations; the characters stutter, spout out one word phrases and stop to think, hum and ho while trying to think of what’s next. Swanberg is one of the more prolific Mumblecore directors and this is a trademark of the movement, but a talent like Aaron Katz knows the right tempo for his characters’ mumblings, and knows enough to create powerful visuals without, for example, showing an untold number of close-ups of hands or bare feet. At first, the shots of the characters’ feet go along with the title and the images it congers, ideas of childhood wonder and naiveté, but after the tenth such image I began to realize that if Swanberg couldn’t rely on these images he just might have to find the truth and honesty in his scenarios. Such as it is, he dodges every honest moment for convention, with dialogue that is not funny, profound, or insightful. The best piece of dialogue made me laugh out loud, though: Ellen and Chris have just had sex, he wants to talk. He thinks he’s going nowhere. Ellen says, “No one is. Have you heard Patrick’s project?” It’s a funny line, one that was probably written down in some sort of script. The underlying story, a woman in need of sex with a familiar partner though unwilling to emotionally commit, is interesting, but inexperienced filmmakers need to know that looking at a character’s face, or hands or feet, or random out of focus shots, does not a profundity make.
In general the film looks amateurish. We can’t really fault the filmmakers, though. Mumblecore is an underground movement, one that offers true originality among an increasingly homogenized American independent market, but this is poorly lit digital filmmaking, the sort made with an untrained eye. Swanberg does not know how to mount the camera to a tripod. This is probably intentional, but a shaky camera is a superficial way to add drama or tension in a scene. That should have occurred in the writing stage.
One plus for the film is its explicitness, and beyond that the bodies the movie uncovers. Swanberg, actress Kate Winterich (Ellen) and actor Kevin Pittman are all naked in Kissing on the Mouth. None of them are conventional beauties, though Winterich has moments of elegance. There’s an awkwardly framed shot on Pittman putting on a condom, and Chris and Ellen’s lovemaking scenes are as honest a sexual coupling I’ve ever seen on the screen: folds in their skin, blemishes, realistic sexual positions, the quite. It made me recall the sounds of lovemaking as I’ve experienced them, and it’s always soft breathing and something like pressure or tension filling the background. Patrick masturbates in the shower, and Swanberg, in what must be a ballsy move for a director, actually shows himself ejaculating. He shows off his round, pale belly, and this explicitness was exciting and refreshing.
But this is not a very good movie. At only 78 minutes it was an endurance test. Nothing much happened, and I generally love when movies don’t tell a story. At least we’re compensated with atmosphere and character. Kissing on the Mouth is the work of a young filmmaker who may or may not have something interesting to say. Joe Swanberg should try to think about what it’s like living as a 20-something, trying to make it for yourself, and hoping to enjoy as much of it as you can. He probably has great insights just as a human being, but he can’t render them onscreen quite yet. Years have passed since this one, so maybe he has.
Kissing on the Mouth (2005)
Director: Joe Swanberg
Writers: Joe Swanberg and cast
Stars: Kate Winterich, Joe Swanberg, and Kevin Pittman
Runtime: 78 minutes