Jenny Kissed Me
In an essay in The Australian Screen (Penguin, 1989) titled “The Fairest Child of the Motherland”, William Routt explores the frequently intense, ambiguous and even perverse relationships between fathers and daughters in Australian cinema – particularly during the 1920s and ‘30s. He refers, however, to the much-later Jenny Kissed Me as “perhaps the single most extreme example of the father-daughter sub-genre”. And he’s absolutely right.
It plunges us, right from the start, into a volatile character triangle: Carol (Deborra-Lee Furness), a frustrated housewife stagnating in a sleepy country town; her moody young daughter, Jenny (Tamsin West); and the de facto partner, Lindsay (Ivar Kants) – who appears to care more (certainly more intensely) for Jenny than for Carol. What’s more, Jenny reciprocates the preference.
Urged on by her old pal (and high-class prostitute from the city), Gaynor (Carmen Duncan), Carol has a tryst with her neighbour. During this, a storm rages, leaving Jenny alone, crying out for “Dad!” Lindsay is moved to rage by this and other of Carol’s actions, which he takes as proof of her inability to be a “proper” mother. Their relationship then becomes violent and impossible to sustain.
Carol flees to the city with Jenny in tow, duly becoming a prostitute and getting entangled with a drug-pushing pimp. Lindsay, for his part, searches the city in vain for his little golden girl, while he slowly dies from cancer. Ultimately, after a strident court battle, Carol and Lindsay are married at his deathbed. In a coda back at the country home, mother and daughter are finally united in love.
I re-tell the plot of this film in such detail (against my usual practice) because it is one that so few people have seen, or are able to see; as the Oz Movies website drolly reports, it “doesn’t appear to have jumped the digital divide” after its initial TV screenings and VHS release of the 1980s or ‘90s. But hope springs eternal – even in the 21st century era when the “Ozploitation” cult on DVD and elsewhere leans far more heavily toward the unproblematically masculine action genres (in which Trenchard-Smith usually worked) than an odd, melodramatic fish like Jenny Kissed Me. Not all “trash”, it would seem, is equally redeemable by denizens of the cult-movie crowd.
Beyond its crisp and efficient direction (Trenchard-Smith is deft at cutting on movement), what makes the film intriguing, even fascinating, is precisely the vein of B movie melodrama (an aspect which, as Oz Movies suspects, indeed “beguiled” me: beware – it would seem – the seductive wiles of this feminine genre!). There is virtually no conventional or legible psychology; only a series of action-packed, sometimes barely motivated, behavioural “moves” by characters maintained, for the most part, as walking stereotypes. That would serve, moreover, as a description of a great deal of good and under-sung cinema that lands between diverse genres.
The film’s moral stance toward what it shows is extremely opaque and fluctuating. The script would seem to essentially take Lindsay’s side, as a loving, caring, selfless father-figure – as opposed to Carol, who is presented as the philandering, selfish, literally whoring Bad Mother. This would fully tally with a lumpy trend in 1980s popular cinema, and beyond: the melodrama of male pathos, where guys (and especially fathers), feeling themselves victimised by feminism, lose contact with their kids. It was (probably still is) the “weepie” side of the Iron John masculinist movement in New Age circles. Hence the necessary recourse to melodrama in Jenny Kissed Me – mixed up with a few outbursts of action.
As it plays, however, the film’s central triangle is far more ambiguous than a straightforwardly anti-feminist tearjerker for blokey blokes. Carol is, at times, an extremely sympathetic character, while Lindsay’s single-minded obsession for Jenny registers, much more often, as excessive and “unnatural” (as Carol flatly suggests) – if we follow the conventional social logic that Jenny is not his “biological” child. Almost inevitably, therefore – given the terms in which the melodrama is set up – the film trembles with a strange, disquieting, largely unspoken theme of incest. That is why it is the “single most extreme” case in Routt’s survey.
When, finally, Carol simply takes Lindsay’s place in Jenny’s affections by repeating the same, ritualistic words and gestures of love that he performed earlier, the drama seems not at all resolved, but left still gaping open, in suspense – as if, now, the mother-daughter relationship has become just as perversely charged as the previous filial arrangement.
Jenny Kissed Me’s undeniably compelling level of intensity is caught in the verse – the second half of the 18th century romantic ode “Rondeau” by J.H. Leigh Hunt – that is inscribed on the screen at the start, and which we hear spoken (by Lindsay!) over the ending.
Say I’m weary, say I’m sad,
Say that health and wealth have missed me,
Say I’m growing old, but add,
Jenny kissed me.
MORE Trenchard-Smith: BMX Bandits
© Adrian Martin 1991 / update February 2022