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by Peter Sobczynski

"Blood Red Is The Warmest Color"
2 stars

Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1872 novella “Carmilla” is arguably the most famous vampire-related tale not named “Dracula” (it actually predates Bram Stoker’s creation by 26 years) and over the years has inspired, directly or otherwise, any number of screen versions, including “Vampyr” (1932), “Dracula’s Daughter” (1936) and “The Vampire Lovers” (1972), to name just a few. The reason for its long-running popularity and influence is not especially difficult to divine—the story of a young and innocent maiden being pursued by a more worldly woman who turns out to be a vampire provided filmmakers with a gateway to delve into lesbian-related themes under the guise of being a horror film and, perhaps more importantly, allowed them to mix those two most exploitable of ingredients—sex and violence—into one package. Of course, things have changes and it is no longer necessary to bring in the supernatural as an excuse to explore a Sapphic-themed narrative. In response to that, writer-director Emily Harris has now presented us with an adaptation of “Carmilla” that has essentially eliminated all of the supernatural elements in order to present a more straightforward take on the material. The result is a film that is conceptually interesting and undeniably stylish but which, ironically, has now been rendered bloodless, like a grad school paper on the original story brought only nominally to life.

The story takes place almost entirely within the confines of a remote country manor populated by the often-absent widower Mr. Bauer (Greg Wise), his teenaged daughter Lara (Hannah Rae) and Lara’s super-strict governess, Ms. Fontaine (Jessica Raine). Needless to say, Lara is bored and restless and the casual cruelties of Ms. Fontaine—when we first see her, she is tying Lara’s left arm behind her back in order to make her right-handed since the left hand is supposedly connected to evil—and the only good news on the horizon is that another girl of her age is going to be staying with them for the summer. Alas, at the last minute, news arrives that their guest has mysteriously taken ill and will not be joining them after all. Understandably, Lara is crushed by the news and is resigned to yet another summer of crushing boredom.

That all changes one stormy night when there is a terrible carriage wreck nearby and the only survivor, a young woman (Devrim Lingnau), is brought to the house. The girl appears to be remarkably uninjured but insists that she has no memory of what happened, where she came from or even what her name is. The decision is made to let her stay until it can be determined who she is and where she is supposed to be. While that is happening, Lara and the stranger, whom Lara dubs Carmilla, become fast friends and before long, she is beginning to have feelings for the more worldly newcomer that she does not quite understand at first. Ms. Fontaine, on the other hand, is all too wary of Carmilla and when she notices the effect that she is having on Lara, she grows increasingly frustrated by her charge’s emerging sexuality—an aspect of life that she has repressed in herself for years—and when she catches the two in a somewhat compromising position, it kicks off a grisly and inevitably tragic chain of events.

The idea behind this particular take on “Camilla”—removing all the vampiric subterfuge in order to let the subtext take center stage—is intriguing on some basic fundamental level, I suppose, but it soon becomes apparent that Harris doesn’t really have any firm ideas on how to follow up and expand on the concept. Without the vampiric element, what is left is just another take on the narrative about the Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name and not an especially interesting one at that. Perhaps recognizing this, Harris puts a heavy emphasis on atmosphere instead with mixed results. Visually, the film is frequently quite striking in the way that it deploys its Gothic trappings to bring a sinister edge to the proceedings throughout. However, there are times when she ends up laying on the symbolism so thickly—especially in its repeated cutaways to various bugs and insects doing their icky things just out of sight—that the whole thing takes on an oppressive and airless feel that makes the film a chore to set through at times, especially since it never once betrays anything resembling a sense of humor about itself. The whole thing is basically an intellectual exercise that has already done all of the thinking for you, leaving you curiously disengaged from the proceedings.

The performances from the three main actresses are pretty good, even though their efforts are not quite enough to overcome the other flaws. Rae and Lingnau play well off of each other and create the kind of convincing screen relationship that makes you wish that it was in the service of a stronger film—instead of going for the expected hysterics, both deftly underplay their roles to good effect. As for Raine, her performance is hampered slightly by the fact that she has been inexplicably miscast in a role that would be somewhat more believable in the hands of an older actress. However, if you can work around that major hurdle, she does some good stuff here, especially during one scene at breakfast when she is outwardly trying to project a sense of calm, casual disinterest while trying to keep her actual feelings of anger, betrayal and jealousy from bursting forth. As for the guys in the cast, they make precious little impression but when you are dealing with an adaptation of material like this, that is probably appropriate.

I realize that it is not entirely fair to review a movie by comparing it to a different film and yet, while watching “Camilla” and contemplating it afterwards, I could not help but be reminded on “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” the recent French film that is one of the most powerful and passionate films to come along in recent memory. Both films are period romantic dramas involving the ultimately doomed relationships between two young women and both consciously play with the conventions that have utilized in film and literature in the past to deal with female sexuality. The difference between the two is that “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” also made sure to include a compelling story, fascinating characters and powerful emotional beats into the mix as well while “Camilla” just never clicks. By taking out all of the supernatural material, Harris has essentially tied the film’s left arm behind its own back and the end result is much like what its central character might have become if not for the arrival of Camilla—good-looking, well-mannered and kind of dull.

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originally posted: 07/17/20 04:03:59
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Directed by
  Emily Harris

Written by
  Emily Harris

  Devrim Lingnau
  Hannah Rae
  Jessica Raine
  Daniel Tuite
  Lorna Gayle
  Greg Wise

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