Last October during the Chicago International Film Festival (remember film festivals?), I saw two films within days of each other, and it struck me that they had similar haunting vibes and arguably both contained supernatural (or perhaps “preternatural” is closer to the truth) elements that elevated their stories of doomed romances. One was Portrait of a Lady on Fire, which handled the material and subject matter with a degree of mature passion and artistic integrity that also happened to be wonderfully entertaining thanks to a pair of elevated lead performances. The other was director Emily Harris’ Carmilla, the latest adaptation of Sheridan Le Fanu’s novel of the same name (others go back as far as 1932’s Vampyr and include 1960’s Roger Vadim-directed Blood and Roses, 1936’s Dracula’s Daughter, and 1970’s Vampire Lovers from Hammer Film).
In this new version set in the late 1800s, Harris opts to keep things a bit more grounded in the story of 15-year-old Lara (Hannah Rae, Fighting with My Family), whose mother has long passed, leaving her to be raised by her largely absentee father and hyper-vigilant nanny Miss Fontaine (Jessica Raine). The nanny oversees every part of her charge’s day, from her food intake to her studies, even binding Lara’s dominant left hand behind her back to force her to favor her right. Just before a friend is set to visit the lonely Lara, the visitor becomes ill and is forced to cancel. Perhaps coincidentally, another girl, Carmilla (Devrim Lingnau), shows up barely conscious at their doorstep, claiming not to know how she got there. Soon, it is discovered that the carriage she was traveling in wrecked just off the property, and Carmilla was the only survivor. The area doctor (Tobias Menzies, “Game of Thrones” and “The Crown”) says she needs time to recover, so Lara’s father offers her a room at their home while he heads off on a work trip, leaving Lara and Miss Fontaine to look after the girl. And that’s when things begin to get fuzzy.
Those who know the novella Carmilla understand that it is considered the queen of the gothic lesbian vampire stories, from which all others effectively rip off. But Harris has removed most of the pure vampiric elements and left us with a tale of two rebellious teenagers who fall for each other, leaving the slightly older woman in the lurch after it’s made pretty clear she might also have feelings for Lara. There are hints that Carmilla might be a vampire or a witch, causing Lara to take ill, perhaps in an effort to corrupt her and send her soul to the devil. Or maybe Lara just got sick the same way others in her town and surrounding towns have—the possibility for both is left open.
But for what Carmilla lacks in surface-level supernatural motivation, it somewhat makes up for in its dark, foreboding melancholy and wholly atmospheric beauty. There are moments here that will genuinely make you jump out of your seat, but that isn’t its primarily purpose. It asks you to observe behavior, notice the world in which these women live, where they are in actual bondage at times and where the men (the father, the doctor) are the absolute authority figures. In various ways, the girls and women are attempting to have something of their own and being told they can’t because of morality-fueled religion.
Nothing in Carmilla is especially graphic (either sexually or in terms of the violence), but it does feel mildly dangerous. Lara feels ready to die for her feelings toward her young friend. Rae is particularly good here as the repressed centerpiece of the movie, torn between duty and desire (put that on the back of your airport-bought romance novel). She has gory dreams involving the man who runs her family’s stables, and they either mean she thinks having consensual sex with a man will cause her bloody demise or that men in general are dangerous creatures. However you see it, her upbringing sure did a number on her. And in small but effective ways, this film might do a number on you.
The film is available now as part of the Gene Siskel Film Center’s Film Center from Your Sofa program.
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