Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Daughters of Darkness

Daughters of Darkness (in France, Les Lèvres rouges, and in Belgium, Le Rouge aux lèvres) is a 1971 Belgian horror film (with dialogue in English), directed by Harry Kümel. It is an erotic vampire film, following a style Camille Paglia calls psychological high Gothic.

Paglia writes that, "A classy genre of vampire film follows a style I call psychological high Gothic. It begins in Coleridge's medieval Christabel and its descendants, Poe's Ligeia and James's The Turn of the Screw. A good example is Daughters of Darkness, starring Delphine Seyrig as an elegant lesbian vampire. High gothic is abstract and ceremonious. Evil has become world-weary, hierarchical glamour. There is no bestiality. The theme is eroticized western power, the burden of history."

"Daughters of Darkness" is wondrously stylish and tasteful, and certainly not the sleazy lesbian vampire exploitation flick many people mistake it for. Compared to the films of, say, Jean Rollin or Jess Franco who made movies based on the same classic premise, this is a much more compelling, sophisticated and hypnotizing masterpiece. This is finally a mature version of the character of Elisabeth Bathory that puts the emphasis on mystery and creepy atmosphere, rather than on the naked blood-bathing rituals of the Countess. The nudity here is strictly functional and all the rest is purely absorbing subject matter. The script makes a few convoluted and confusing twists halfway in the film, and they are guaranteed to mislead even the fans that know the detailed legend of Countess Bathory by heart. It's also a very beautiful movie to look at and listen to, with delightful photography and enchanting music. Delphine Seyrig gives a masterful performance as Bathory. Highly recommended Euro-Cult accomplishment.

Delphine Seyrig drifts gracefully into the lobby, and the Resnais note is adduced: "It seems Madam may have already stayed in this hotel," the concierge says, jogging his memory to earlier decades (and to Marienbad). Harry Kümel takes the lead from Nosferatu and establishes the vampiric element as the unbalancing of the heterosexual couple, though less as an outside threat than as a beguiling force that heightens the couple's inner conflict. The setting is Belgium, painted crimson, blue and gold; John Karlen and Danielle Ouimet are the young newlyweds whose honeymoon in Ostend is already tense with the husband's odd refusal to break the news to his mother (possibly because "Mother" is actually Fons Rademakers, a rouged, perfumed mark of Old World faggotry). Their hotel is empty until Seyrig's Countess Bathory arrives in satiny '30s gowns along with her Lulu-coiffed "secretary" (Andrea Rau), one exquisitely soigné and the other exquisitely doleful. The slew of slaughtered women (slashed wrists, drained bodies) taking place in Bruges rouses Karlen's fascination with death -- the couple's formal drawing-room chat with the Countess (her recipe for eternal beauty: "A very strict diet, lots of sleep") climaxes with the husband writhing in ecstasy to her graphic description of medieval atrocities. Kümel understands his Le Fanu antecedents (Dracula's Daughter, Blood and Roses) and contemporaries (Vampyros Lesbos, The Velvet Vampire), and makes his decadence drolly enchanted, building insinuating mood until blood comes in Psycho's shower-sex-blade equation to grant Rau's request ("I wish I could die"). Ouimet's soul lies at the center of the somnambulist tug of war between bloodsucker and asshole hubby -- both sides are vanquished (Karlen in a set-piece that rhymes a distressed ocular iris with a deadly glass bowl, Seyrig in a baroque reworking of Lana Turner's breakdown in The Bad and the Beautiful), the heroine is left to begin a new decade with expanded appetites. 
Fernando F. Croce

Sex and death are linked in Daughters of Darkness. “Don’t lie to me. It gave you pleasure. You actually enjoyed seeing that girl’s dead body,” Valerie says to Stefan in what seems a moment of foreshadowing but ultimately becomes one of misdirection. And herein lies the real intrigue: the darkest elements of the film aren’t there for their own sake, but rather to intimate subtle aspects of the characters. These characters aren’t looking for a sadistic romp; they each have their own needs and desires, often with conflicting means of acquiring them. As a result, the transformations they undergo are far more subtle than human into vampire.

Where the film announces itself most loudly, then, is in its visuals: vibrant red veils laid over lampshades; sharp blacks and whites; and the comparatively desaturated grays and blues of early morning on the ocean. Though striking, the imagery tends to work alongside the goings on rather than dominate them, and the seamless transitions between the many colors in cinematographer Eduard van der Enden’s palette make for a frequently visually arresting experience.

Ultimately, the film’s relative obscurity is unsurprising insofar as it exists on the fringes of both mainstream and cult cinema. Too transgressive for the former, too tame for the latter, it occupies an in-between state that only makes it more fascinating—Daughters of Darkness upturns more genre conventions than it follows. It is neither a bloodbath nor a thinly-veiled morality tale; its candle burns slowly, and from only one end. The resultant half-light is fitting: title notwithstanding, Daughters of Darkness shows itself to be a strange beast fit for neither light not dark.
Michael Nordine


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