Synopsis: Young Carmilla is jealous of her friend’s engagement, and her obsession leads her to the tomb of a female vampire. The tale of her obsession with her family’s history of vampirism is based on Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Carmilla.”
Et mourir de plaisir 7.75
eyelights: its cinematography. its aesthetic. its setting. its surrealistic bits.
eyesores: its clunky finale. its hissy and crackling audio.
“She frees me from myself.”
Many people don’t know that, before ‘Dracula’, there was ‘Carmilla’: the 1871 serial by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu predates Bram Stoker’s own novel by approximately 25 years. And yet ‘Dracula’ is frequently referred to as the original, as the first vampire.
Admittedly, Stoker’s novel was adapted successfully more often than Le Fanu ever was, most notably by Universal Pictures, who made a star of Bela Lugosi in the process. But the story of ‘Carmilla’ has been brought to the screen as early as 1932 in ‘Vampyr’.
For most, Carl Th. Dreyer’s silent film is an obscure title, and it certainly doesn’t have the stature of Universal’s 1931 box office smash. But it’s widely considered an effective vampire picture, and is almost as classic as F.W. Murnau’s ‘Nosferatu’ is.
Another notable one is ‘Et mourir de plaisir’, the 1960 motion picture by Roger Vadim. The young director, who had made a splash just four years prior with ‘Et Dieu… créa la femme‘, was struggling and tried to reboot his career with something a bit scandalous.
Enter the lesbian vampire.
‘Carmilla’ tells the story of the incredibly wealthy von Karnsteins, who for generations have been suspected of vampirism. The extended family have gathered at Count Leopoldo’s sprawling mansion for his upcoming nuptuals to the beautiful Georgia.
His cousin Carmilla, however, is out of sorts: she is moody and prone to sulking alone in her room. Though many believe her to be jealous of Georgia, after she is drawn to the family crypt, where she makes a strange encounter, her interest shifts.
She has her eyes on Georgia.
‘Et mourir de plaisir’ is a gorgeous picture; unlike other cheapie vampire films from that era, Vadim not only invested a tremendous amount of money in the production, he also spent much time planning the camerawork; this must be his most ambitious work.
Shot in Italy, both in the studio and on location at Hadrian’s Villa, it’s an awe-inspiring sight: the property is so vast that it seems boundless and it’s so meticulously cared for that it’s like a work of art; the trees are perfectly lined up and spaced.
Vadim and cinematographer Claude Renoir composed each shot with the utmost attention to detail; everything is framed and lit perfectly. It’s so aesthetically-pleasing that it almost becomes its sole raison d’être, like an overwhelming feast for the senses.
The story itself is fairly good and so are the performances, but what could have merely been a Gothic horror story akin to many of Hammer Films’ own productions, rises well above its peers out of sheer ambition and scope. It’s essentially an entertainment.
That was probably Vadim’s intention.
One gets the impression that, despite its then-shocking suggestiveness, Vadim wanted to impress his audience, tried to make a big draw picture: he mixed mystery, suspense, romantic tension, light comedy, horror and sex in his 80-minute extravaganza.
Some of my favourite scenes were the grandiose ones, like the masked ball that Leopoldo holds at the mansion prior to his wedding: countless dozens of costumed people celebrated all over the property and it culminated in a large-scale fireworks display.
Meanwhile, Carmilla wandered off to the crypt; the fireworks were set up by the cemetery, so Annette Vadim (then Roger Vadim’s spouse) wandered about darkly lit, smoky tombs and ruins only to be all lit up by the fireworks display as she inched towards it.
Vadim had fun showing off in other ways: for instance, there’s a bit when Leopoldo follows the sound of Carmilla’s piano playing and, as he arrives, she’s reflected cleanly in the glass door in front of him. And then there’s the surrealistic horror sequence.
I’ve never before seen a vampire film that shows us what victims feel as they’re bitten. Vadim does this when Carmilla sinks her teeth in Georgia, suddenly shifting to black and white and taking us in an alternate reality before waking her up in a scream.
Critics were very harsh on him for this sequence, which is apparently uninspired and reeking of Jean Cocteau’s ‘Le sang d’un poète’. But I haven’t seen that picture or enough avant-garde cinema to know better; I just know that I appreciated it.
It impressed me.
(Of course, I like trippy, abstract stuff.)
The sex in this picture is quite subdued by any standard, but perhaps the sight of two women kissing amorously was shocking at the time. Beyond that, the heat simmers under the surface and the only nudity comes from Carmilla tearing her dress open once.
Sadly, the majesty and splendour of ‘Et mourir de plaisir’ wasn’t the success that he’d hoped it might be. I don’t know if the critical response was enough to kill it commercially, but it looks like it didn’t even crack the top 50 at the French box office at the time.
However, given the fact that it isn’t available on DVD, not even in Vadim’s own country, twenty years after the format went mainstream, is pretty telling. In fact, it was actually only ever made available in Germany in 2014, and as a limited edition.
In North America, the picture was re-edited, overdubbed, retitled ‘Blood and Lace’ and distributed by Paramount Pictures. That bastardized version, which trims five minutes of footage and changes the picture’s bookends, is also unavailable to this day.
It’s a darned shame that it’s so hard to find. Aside for its contrived and abrupt ending, which is a bit unsatisfying (and which, admittedly, affected my rating), ‘Et mourir de plaisir’ is infinitely more enjoyable than other vampire picture from that era.
With its painterly compositions, lush colours and grandiosity, it’s a visual feast that simply cannot fail to make an impression. I would be the first to pick up a blu-ray of this film if ever an original French print is cleaned up and properly mastered.
This has replay value.
Date of viewing: July 22, 2017