An analysis of two film adaptions of the gothic vampire novella Carmilla by Sheridan Le Fanu.
Predating Dracula, Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (1872) has continued to provide inspiration for many vampire films and has spawned various adaptions.
It is a short story set in 19th century Styria about a young woman called Laura who becomes close friends with her mysterious houseguest Carmilla. Around this time Laura begins to have strange nightmares and her health starts to decline. Carmilla is later revealed to be the vampire Countess Millarca Karnstein by General Spielsdorf, whose niece Bertha was suffering the same symptoms. The vampire is subsequently staked by vampire expert Baron Vordenburg- yet it is implied that Laura never recovers from her encounter.
Recently, Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla has been given an interesting new reimagining in the Youtube series Carmilla (2014), which sees the action transported to a modern day university.
This two part series will analyse two very different earlier adaptions of the source material- Et Mourir de Plaisir (And to die of pleasure, 1960) and Hammer Horror’s The Vampire Lovers (1970). First, we will look at Et Mourir de Plaisir– directed by Roger Vadim (Barbarella) and starring his then wife, Annette Vadim as Carmilla.
Et Mourir de Plaisir moves the story to the present day- this is immediately evident from the opening shot from inside a plane cockpit as it is taking off. Dr Valeri (René-Jean Chauffard- taking the place of the Dr Hesselious character from the novella) tells his fellow passengers about a sad case which took place in the countryside around Rome.
Count Leopoldo (Mel Ferrer) is engaged to be married to Georgia (Elsa Martinelli), the daughter of a judge (Marc Allégret). Staying with them in their castle is Leopoldo’s cousin, Carmilla (Annette Vadim). Carmilla’s jealousy is palpable in the first scene we see of the couple together. The attractions between Carmilla and Leopoldo and Georgia and Carmilla are increasingly explored- making for an interesting love triangle. The lesbian undertones are more subtle in this version, compared with The Vampire Lovers. However, there are plenty of lingering looks between the two women, comments on Carmilla’s beauty from Georgia and a brief kiss scene.
Count Leopoldo Karstein describes the family legend to his guests- the Karsteins were once vampires until 1775 when the local peasants staked them all in their graves. All except one- Millarca- whose portrait hangs on the wall. Everyone agrees that Carmilla, the last descendant of the Austrian branch of the Karstein family, bears a striking resemblance to the woman in the grotesque painting.
In this version there is no back story with Bertha- the General’s niece who Millarca initially stays with in the novella. Instead, Millarca was in love with her cousin Ludwig who was unfaithful to her- this is given as her main motivation for biting his subsequent brides. This is mirrored in the present day with Carmilla’s jealousy of Leopoldo and Georgia’s relationship.
Instead of having Millarca and Carmilla be the same person, as in the novella, the film does something different and more intriguing. Drunk and miserable at the party, Carmilla decides to wander up to the graveyard. Brilliant use is made of both sound and lighting in this scene- which starts out with the multicoloured flashes of fireworks lighting up Carmilla’s face and flickering off the lake. Then as she climbs towards the crypts; the music cuts out and all that is left is the loud fizzing of unexploded rockets and Carmilla’s echoing footsteps. The screen darkens and the camera zooms in on Carmilla’s face as she notices Millarca’s empty coffin. When she leaves the crypt, the piano music returns as she walks slowly through the dawn. By the change in Annette Vadim’s facial expression as she leaves the crypt, the viewer can tell that we are now looking at a different woman- one that was perhaps possessed by the vampire Millarca. The changes gradually become clear to the family too. Suddenly Carmilla knows more about history, doesn’t know how to use a record player, flowers wither at her touch and horses are scared of her.
Et Mourir de Plaisir is scored with poignant, slow piano music which adds a sorrowful and haunting atmosphere. The film was shot in Technirama, creating a sharper widescreen picture than the more commonly used CinemaScope. This is used to great effect in the outdoor scenes, which really show off the beautiful Italian countryside. Doorways, arches and trees are often used to frame shots. The use of colour is wonderful- especially the bright vermillion of the blood, the rich green of the trees and the pure white of Carmilla’s dress. Thus, the quiet scenes of Carmilla wandering in her white dress are so well done that they make Claude Renoir’s cinematography worth seeing this film for alone.
Georgia’s dream sequence, in contrast, is shot in crisp black and white and presents a series of surreal images, not in the least, balcony doors that open into a lake! This short segment is the most art house part of the film, with certain aspects coloured- the red of the surgeons’ hands, the red blood on Carmilla’s dress. It does away with the dream imagery of the large cat- which is in both the novella and Hammer Horror’s adaption.
But is there a vampire? (Ending spoilers in this section)
Et Mourir de plaisir’s most interesting aspect is its questioning of the validity of the novella’s main theme- that of vampirism. The servants insist on the existence of the supernatural- Giuseppe swears that he saw a ghostly figure in white- though he is unable to describe it clearly when questioned later on. The young girls Martha and Marie garb themselves in garlic, believing that the servant girl Lisa was murdered by a vampire. It is explained earlier in the film that those who are bitten by a vampire die, unless the vampire loves them, it which case they turn into a vampire themselves.
However, Dr Valeri concludes that Carmilla’s jealousy had driven her mad, which led her to kill Lisa and to make it appear as if Georgia was bitten too. It is unclear if Carmilla was really possessed when she entered the tomb or whether the prior confrontation with a guest (Renato Speziali) at the ball, where he accuses her of being in love with Leopoldo, sent her over the edge. Likewise, Carmilla’s mental state could have caused the horses to fear her and led her to imagine the blood on her dress.
Carmilla dies when she falls and is impaled on a fence post- thus matching the vampire legend. Georgia also clutches her chest at this point- implying a deep connection between the two women (The Vampire Lovers also keeps this aspect). The final twist is in the closing frame, when the petals start to fall off the rose that Georgia holds. A coincidence- or is she now a vampire?
The decision is left to the viewer, and the film is better for it.
There is a shorter, drastically cut American version of this film (known by the film’s English title of Blood and Roses), which is badly dubbed and adds Millarca’s voiceover and stereotypical horror sound effects- ruining the ambiguity and the hypnotic atmosphere. It also significantly cuts out the attraction between Georgia and Carmilla. So be ware!
Far better are the original French and German versions- both in French language, though the German version is listed as being 9 minutes shorter than the French one.
The limited German DVD release by Media Target is currently the best available version out there- gorgeously presented in the correct theatrical ratio and featuring a French language track with English subtitles.
The soundtrack- including the gorgeous piano piece La glace brisée– was also recently made available as an MP3 download in 2014.
Stay tuned for part two: The Vampire Lovers!