Carmilla (a film review by John Andrew Fredrick)

Written and directed by Emily Harris
(2019) Streaming Now

“Pray hard, Lara”

Played by newishcomer Hannah Rae, Lara is really pretty and really lonely and bored, yet bright and earnestly curious about the worlds natural and elsewhere “out there,” as girls who live in country mansions with absent fathers and dead mums must needs cinematically always and ever be.  She’s also very much sexually repressed, as is her even-prettier and slightly draconican governess, Miss Fontaine (played by the impossibly gorgeous Jessica Raine whom you’ll recall from Wolf Hall). 

Auteur Emily Harris establishes such notions of ennui and repression via an overt interest in the cycles of nature, death and sex with respect to flowers/Lynchian insects, etc.  And we get splendidly-shot close-ups (courtesy veteran cinematographer Michael Wood) of such as a way to efficiently clue us in to the fact that Lara needs a girlish experience (she’s keen to have a friend she’s never met come visit) with a capital E; and that Miss F. really needs what Marvin Gaye made immemorially famous (i.e. sexual healing, for those of you who–I don’t know–have a major gap in your music collection).  

There’s an incredible scene–at once quiet and inquiet–where Miss Fontaine waits alone at the breakfast table (early to rise keeps the devil at bay, I reckon); and the way she butters her toast and severely slices it, and crunches it down her exquisite, long-necked milky-white gullet, absolutely a) harrows; and b) points up the considerable extent of her frustrations/aggression. 

These tropes (a polite term for cliches, I daresay) are a sure-thing set-up for disappointment–and for reversals.  For Charlotte, the ostensible penfriend Lara looks forward to having 18th Century-type sleepovers with, calls in sick (with some mysterious affliction nobody can suss) via the English post; and Miss Fontaine’s a bit chuffed to find her ward crestfallen.  Aren’t all cruel people alike in their glee over/at the letdowns others suffer?  Harris eschews any sort of cheapish backgroundly info re: Miss Fontaine’s mega-uptightedness, instead letting her singular shot-making abilities do the trick.  Let me put it this way:  auteurs have their artistic provenance in one (or a melange) of three disciplines:  photography, painting, or literature.  Harris, formerly a film editor, obviously has an affinity for shots of persons that resemble famous black-and-white photographs; shots of nature that call up paintings in the styles of Gainsborough and Wain; and allusions from your classic Eng. Lit poets a la John Donne and Andrew Marvell.  And Raine, who has as I think I’ve hinted, an eerie, otherworldly beauty has never been more evocative of your Golden Era icons than she is here:  a modern-day Dunaway or Bergman in the chiaroscuro making.

So good, so far.  So far as soft-porn art-house vampire motif pictures-by-numbers go.  (There’s nary a scary bit in any frame–let alone the first third of the film; horror buffs who don’t mind the occasional Austen/Brontean soft-focus “romp” once in a moon blue will find much to forgive here; as indeed will those of us who cannot watch The Shining or The Exorcist by ourselves.)  It’s all chastening chastisements and a bit of piecemeal-shot bondage (Miss F. ties one of Lara’s hands behind her back when she’s been wilful or neglectful or daydreamy).  

Come a bit of a spell of time (marked by delicious walks through the painterly woods, saunterings by pond and stream and meadow), a carriage crash brings even prettier newbie Devrim Lingnau (no fictive name until she and Lara decide upon the titular Carmilla) to visit (in glorious invalidity), and death (the theme of, and literal) to the carriage driver.

Cue coterminous awakenings, sexual and literal, as Carmilla and Lara play and canoodle.  Why is it that the vampire genre’s as homoerotic as they come.  Short form answer:  because the vampirish one’s indiscriminate, always-and-ever, in quest of the blood that is lust, that is life, that is living and life-in-death, n’est-ce pas?  And vogue filmic lesbianism is… I don’t know what anymore.  Not yet exactly passe; let’s leave it at that and N.B. what a great film Portrait of a Girl on Fire was in that it certainly transcended its au courant/zeitgeisty themes and reached heights of universality that, for me, have been the purlieu of your Polanskis and Kieslowskis.

Amidst all the beauteous cinematography and “cutting” in the adolescent sense between the two Sapphic intimates (Harris is gunning for the stars here, after all; she’s certainly done her homework, shot-wise), the picture gravely missteps midish-way:  out the veritable blue comes a mountebank/magician conjurer:  handsome, be-bearded, charming, pointless.  And he just as abruptly (as abruptly as the cut that ushers him in) abracadabras himself away and out of the picture.  Such jarring harshnesses show us that Harris has a bit more to work on in her workbook, as it were.  I mean, wot the fack?  

Maybe the actor playing the tricky troubadour had a super-puissant agent.  Who knows?

Good old reliable Tobias Menzies (you know him from Rome, you know him from The Crown if The Crown’s your thing), the good Dr Renquist, at last gives Miss Fontaine (courtesy absolutely no prior sexual tension between them) the hoisting she’s been longing forand Carmilla, after having, erm, achieved her putative goal (becoming blood sisters with Lara) suffers the fate all lady-vampires suffer (no spoilers here; you’ll just have to use your Lara-like imaginations).  And Lara’s left, at film’s end, pondside, tossing pebbles into a puddle your Ophelias, your Harriet Shelley’s would be proud to throw themselves into and then some.  Ooh, eerie; ooh, spooky.  Well, not really.  Just pretty; as pretty as are the three markedly successful femme-fatale leads here.  

Adapted from a French novel I’ve never heard of and certainly have no interest in seeking out, Carmilla’s a minor success in that it shows that thing artists forever-and-always feed on like the sleek necks of jeune filles:  promise.  It’s bound to impress viewers who’ve never seen Peter Weir’s Picnic At Hanging Rock.  Hey, if you haven’t seen that masterpiece, what the devil are you waiting for, luvs?

John Andrew Fredrick is the principal songwriter of an indie pop band called the black watch that has released nineteen LPs to considerable acclaim.  He’s the author of four novels and a book on the early films of Wes Anderson.  He lives in Los Angeles and London and is happy he quit being an English and Film Studies professor.

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