Monday, October 26, 2020

Blood and Roses / Et mourir de plaisir (1960)

Roses always fade in a Vampire’s hand.”-Carmilla (Annette Stroyberg

I’ve always loved the supernatural femme fatale Carmilla since I was first introduced to her in Vicente Aranda’s The Blood Spattered Bride (1972). There was something so appealing about the sapphic predatory vampiress from J.S. Le Fanu’s 1872 novella, whose influence was all over the erotic vampire films from the 1960s and 1970s I loved, and more. After I reviewed The Blood Spattered Bride, naturally, I felt compelled to read Carmilla, a short but marvelous piece of gothic literature. I loved the dark, forested isolated castle setting and the peculiar relationship that develops between Laura and Carmilla. After reading it, I felt I had hipster boasting rights to tell people who never heard of it that I knew of and read a vampire book that was written twenty-five years before the more well-known Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897). Now, the book, Dracula is much more developed, but it is astounding how many story similarities there are between Dracula and Carmilla (itself sharing similarities to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s unfinished Christabel (1816)). I don’t think there can be any doubt that Carmilla heavily influenced Dracula. 

It’s been a delight to explore different adaptations of Carmilla, such as The Vampire Lovers (1970) and Crypt of the Vampire (1964) as well as movies influenced by Carmilla like Vampyros Lesbos (1971) and Daughters of Darkness (1971). I remember thinking back in 2013 that the time was right for new Carmilla movies. I must have been asleep the last seven years, because I only recently learned that there have been new Carmilla films being made, such as The Unwanted (2014), The Curse of Styria (2014), Carmilla (2015), a Carmilla web-series that eventually got a follow-up movie called Carmilla the Movie (2017), and most recently Carmilla (2019) from Emily Harris. I just recently checked out the 2019 movie, and all I can say is, what a powerful ending. I’d say it comes pretty close to the modern Carmilla film I was hoping for.


 

One adaptation that took a long time for me to finally revisit was the French-Italian produced Blood and Roses from 1960, directed by and co-written by Roger Vadim (And God Created Woman (1956) and Barbarella (1968)). I recall being a little disappointed by how modified the original story from the book was, and I remember having a hard time paying attention a few times, but I’ve come to appreciate it for the Roger Vadim film that it is. I also see it now more as someone’s own separate creation, who used their knowledge of the book as a springboard to bring their own vision to life, with little interest in retelling the same story. There are certain elements to it that remind me of H.P. Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (1943) as well. I’m thankful for the German DVD, released around 2014, I believe, that really lets viewers fully appreciate Claude Renoir’s lush and colorful cinematography. Blood and Roses has a top-notch look and feel to it that would inspire many Eurohorror films to come. Joe Dante said, “this picture practically invents the Eurohorror film as we know it.”

 

Blood and Roses is Carmilla reimagined in the present day, for 1960, in the Roman countryside, filmed in Tivoli, Italy at the Villa Adriana, a Roman emperor’s retreat, constructed from 125 to 134 ce. This ancient complex is really a marvel and is a generous locale for this kind of visual movie. The place isn’t what you’d call a castle, but my brain kept thinking it was a castle every time I watched the film. In the film, it is where a grand celebration is being planned for the engagement of Count Leopoldo De Karnstein (Mel Ferrer) to a judge’s (Marc Allégret) daughter Georgia Monteverdi (Elsa Martinelli). Presumably along for the festivities is Leopoldo’s relative Carmilla (Annette Stroyberg-then Vadim), who’s friends with Georgia but has been close to Leopoldo since she was a child. Carmilla seems to display a melancholic unease over the engagement. Could she be jealous, and if so, of who? Or is she just entranced in thoughts of emulating her supposed vampire ancestor Millarca?  

Mel Ferrer’s Count is an old school gentlemanly type who can get pretty pushy at times. He ranges between likable to churlish. He has a ballroom style dance scene with Carmilla that is really quite charming, and his piano-side fisherman mime is a light hearted brief break from the gloominess.


 

I do like the way Vadim et al. put a ghost story spin on the vampire tale. There is more emphasis on ancestral significance and Carmilla’s personal connection with her long-entombed forebear Millarca, who was said to have been a vampire and is rumored to still be entombed somewhere, waiting to return. I love the early scene in the living room, where many of the characters have gathered to discuss and plan the engagement party and the fireworks display. When the conversation tuns to vampires, Carmilla foreshadows Millarca’s return with a dreamy, reverb-heavy speech in a first-person, soft-focus, perspective that’s done in a way that feels like Millarca herself is in the room, watching everyone’s faces. A soothingly haunting harp theme is also heard that really places a nostalgic tenderness to the supernatural threat in the film.


 

On the night of the celebration, where a medieval style costume party is taking place, Carmilla, not feeling festive, is having her own one woman party in her room, drinking and dancing on her bed, refusing to come down even when Leopoldo reproaches her for her behavior, tossing a costume at her, ordering her to get dressed and come down to the party. In a drunken daze, Carmilla visits the old villa wardrobe where she is compelled to wear Millarca’s old white gown and turn heads when she finally joins the party, resembling the woman from the ancestral portrait in the villa, further foreshadowing Millarca’s return. People seem to think she is acting out or showing off, but it starts to become apparent that something is calling to her, and without really knowing it, Carmilla is heeding the call. Stroyberg wandering, in a languid almost sleepwalker-like state, the smoky cemetery at night in her white dress is one of the film’s most memorable and pleasing visuals.

 

Mines unknowingly leftover from WWII are accidently ignited from the firework activity coming from the ancestral cemetery, which opens Millarca’s tomb and draws in Carmilla unwittingly. Carmilla seems to come face-to-face with an unseen deity that one presumes is Millarca. It’s ambiguous what really happens here. Does Millarca possess Carmilla, does she kill and replace her, having her exact likeness? Or is Carmilla just mentally unwell? I like the way the film toys with all possibilities. What is certain is that Carmilla is never really the same after returning from the ancestral tomb the morning after the ball, and her attraction really starts to shift towards Georgia.

 

Carmilla does become deadly at this point, and usually when she’s alone with another woman, she goes into a subtle predator mode. There’s a real striking scene where she stalks Lisa (Gabriella Farinon), a villa handmaid, chasing her through the woods like a familiar that refuses to detach from its fleeing master. The doomed seamstress can’t shake her and ultimately yields to the seductress. 

It was only a matter of time before Carmilla’s perfectly white dress was getting bloodstained, at least as a metaphorical image in a mirror. Carmilla seeing blood on her dress in her mirror image is a little Lady Macbeth-like, a reminder of Carmilla’s guilt or who she might really be. She can’t wash it away, and when she rips the bloody dress away, her breast is still fully covered in blood underneath.

 

Annette Stroyberg portrays Carmilla/Millarca with such grace and nuance. She daydreams a lot with an air of languor and ennui. That part towards the end where Carmilla visits the slumbering Georgia, and Carmilla can be seen lurking behind the bed frame, creepily eyeing Georgia, and around to the bedside before it transitions in to a dream sequence is really one of the most haunting highlights of the movie. It’s quick, but it has a lasting impact, and it is eerie as hell. This is when I realized that I had come to love Roger Vadim and co.’s interpretation of Carmilla here.

 

This Carmilla adaptation feels more like a ghost story than a vampire story, but I do appreciate the way the film handles both elements. Most of the time, it does feel like an era piece with only a few reminders of the present day like the airplane scenes that bookend the movie, with the isolated ancient villa setting making everything seem so timeless. The ending is beautiful, subtle, and emotional, a bittersweet reminder of a tragic past coalescing with a tragic present. Surprisingly the movie does feel longer than its seventy-nine-minute run time, but that might just be innate to the languorous nature of Carmilla and her affliction that she is doomed to endure. 

© At the Mansion of Madness

 




 

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