20 October 2011 | chaos-rampant
The scent of absinthe dreaming
Beware as you go into this, it may sound like Hammer but it's nothing like it. It's a chic, stylish vampire film dripping with the most wanton aestheticism. The whole thing exudes the scent of an absinthe dream, the contours of a flowing red dress.
Superficially it is about a couple of newly-weds - but who, as the film opens with them having sex in a train cabin, openly declare that they don't love each other - who find themselves stranded in Ostande and move in to a strangely empty hotel for a few days. A countess Bathory arrives there with her female companion, there's also the baffled concierge who tries to stay out of passion's way.
I say superficially because the dynamics between the couple is what at first sight seems to be driving the story. The woman is desperate to break out from the limbo of anonymous sex and be introduced, thus be legitimized as a wife and woman, to the man's mother, an aristocrat back in England. The man, on the other hand, is content to derail those expectations and savour the erotic dream he has concocted to inhabit.
But of course we come to understand that the narrative is powered from outside. The countess courts both, seducing in the emotional space between them. She personifies that wanton aestheticism right down to her body language. It is important to note that she is played by the actress who starred in Marienbad for Resnais, which this film alludes to; in the mysterious hotel setting with its expansive balustrades, in the twilight wanderings, in the sense of time revoked and sensations amplified.
She is the architect of all this, building around these people the desires that will yield them to her. So it is the man's semi-conscious world of secret pleasures, but it's she who is slowly, slyly perverting them. She does this with the malevolent purity of a femme fatale.
It does not matter that she is Bathory, or that blood is eventually savored from wrists, this is merely the desire made visible in a way that would appeal to a niche audience. So even though Jess Franco borrowed the velvety sunsets and decadent air from this for Vampyros Lesbos, this operates deeper. It matters for example that she seduces the man into a new obsession with violence, the destructive flipside of eros. It further pries the woman apart from him.
Gradually what was a matter of taking pleasure from flesh is spun into something else entirely; again involving flesh but now literally draining from his.
It ends with a stunning sequence across countryside roads; a lot of the imagery recalls L'Herbier - who also inspired Resnais - but here more pertinently. The soul has been so withered away from inside, so consumed from the fever of passion, that mere sunlight sends it reeling. Of course we can explain away by falling back to our knowledge of vampire lore, but we'd be missing on the finer abstractions; how, for example, the femme fatale is magically cast into the circumstances that, as we know from our knowledge of this type of film, would precipitate her demise. Nothing else would do after all.
If we follow the set of reactions from what at first sight appears like an accident, it can be plainly seen how it all flows from her desire to control the narrative.
It's marvelous stuff just the same, the colors, the desolate aura. I just want to urge you to see as more than just an 'artsy vampire flick'. Save that for Jean Rollin.