7 November 2010

The Pleasure Principle: Daughters of Darkness (Harry Kümel/1971)

“What are you thinking about?” – “The same thing you are.”

The lower half of Delphine Seyrig's face can be a deadly place. She's introduced in Harry Kümel’s uncommon and otherworldly 1971 vampire flick Daughters of Darkness (AKA Les lèvres rouges) getting out of a car in the dead of night as a veiled and lipsticked shadow. She’s almost a disembodied mouth: hunger itself floating through the night. Kümel knows how to entice us into asking just who this woman of the night is. She’s the Hungarian Countess Elizabeth Bathory, passing through Bruges, staying at a bleak, near-empty Ostend hotel with only eternal cohort Andrea Rau for company. But bright-eyed newlyweds Stefan and Valerie (John Karlen, Danielle Ouimet), travelling from Switzerland to England to see Stefan's "mother", stop off at the hotel, too; introductions commence, the foursome hit it off in a very strange way; Bathory looks longingly at Valerie...

It’s Seyrig’s Show. And I like it fine that way. It’s the way it plays. That’s not to say the three others don’t sear their own marks, but Seyrig commands any and every space she enters – both psychological and physical. The others have piecemeal moments to savour, but all characters orbit Bathory – so, too, does Kümel’s camera, which is so under her spell that it dissolves certain scenes to a blood red sheen when it’s done with them. Kümel is clearly enamoured with Seyrig. But he outwardly channels his adoration so we feel it too. It’s her smoky-purr voice. With sing-song insincerity she promises illicit, eternal bad deeds through those half-parted red lips of hers. She makes little sense – "Deep in my bones, I feel the night is dying!" – but she makes every word resound with feverish passion anyway. She could even make the instructions in an IKEA flat-pack shelving unit sound like sex talk.

I thought Seyrig in Resnais’ Muriel ou Le temps d'un retour and Last Year in Marienbad was the very picture of elegant sensuality, but in Daughters she’s something else. I did wonder, among other things, if she boosted sales for black candles and silver-sequined figure-hugging gowns in the early ‘70s, too. She’s cold though. And it's in that where the crux of Seyrig’s splendid performance fully takes hold. Watching her do her thing, acting how she does – the way she goes about her witchy business, whatever it truly is (we're in partial darkness ourselves here) – is chief of all joys in watching Daughters. You wouldn't want to gett too close to her, but you want to watch her for as long as possible.

The manner in which Seyrig books a mere room reservation at the hotel is enough to instill cold fear into an ageing bellhop. She makes laying knackered, in a purple-feather-trimmed gown, on a chaise longue look seductive. And she conducts the comings and goings of a hotel lobby with little but a pair of knitting needles and a wry smirk. (What does vampiric nobility knit exactly? A long black scarf to cover her victim’s neck bites?) There’s a weird moment when she inspects her face in an ornate hand mirror. True to vampire lore, her face casts no reflection, yet her hand is visible. Is this a continuity mistake, a gaffe? Or some beguiling detail left for us to ponder?

There aren't too many films like Daughters. It occupies an odd, disquieting place between a Hammer horror and a Jean Rollin film: it extends the former to reach outwards, but reigns in the excessive longueurs of the latter. It will likely continue to be seen as some kind of missing link in vampire movie chronology. But isn’t it better viewed as the spiky, sexed-up one-off it truly is? It’s 1970s Vampire filmmaking’s cheap one-night stand in luxurious surroundings.

The photography, editing, locations (the inky European night scenes are reminiscent of the same year’s Il conformista) and set design are all splendid. But, instead of flagging the usual filmmaking components for special merit, it’s the embellishments to Seyrig which deserve to be singled out for high praise. All the other aspects work together to enhance her personal styling as much as they conjure up Kümel's dark world. The hair, gowns, furs, shoes and make-up – by Alexandre, Bernard Perris, Benoit, Lautrec and Ulli Ullrich, respectively – are the very things that hold Seyrig’s enigmatic presence together. Whoever said that all style (and no substance) is a bad thing needs to watch just what she does with acres of it here. And she gives it sublime substance.

Both the music and Kümel’s direction are terrific, too. François de Roubaix’s score is one of the best 1970’s soundtracks to a film I’ve heard in quite a while. And it’s influential, too. Pulp’s This Is Hardcore and Lady Gaga’s Telephone discernibly echo two different and distinct pieces de Roubaix creates here. And a more explicit reference (with the dialogue as well as the music) can be heard on Rob Zombie’s Hellbilly Deluxe album – (“Don’t lie to yourself... it gave you pleasure,” being the opening sample of his song Demonoid Phenomenon; another exchange (mentioned above) is spliced into his song The Living Dead Girl). But de Roubaix makes eternal damnation sound playful, mysterious and seriously sexy.

Kümel pitches his direction to make everything seem a notch grander than it is. But that’s part of the beauty of what he does. The bruised and Belgian half-light covers up what may very well have been rather commonplace exterior locations, but the way Kümel frames every locale – hotel rooms, roads, sandy dunes – adds a layer of mystery that seeps down to the heart of the film. And he may very well have instinctively soaked up some of the influence of the then-recently-released sci-fi hit, 2001: A Space Odyssey. (There’s a definite Kubrickian hint to the framing of the hotel lobby.)

It’s all about basking in forbidden joy though. Undenied pleasure is what Daughters is selling. The Countess and Ilona (Rau) exist to scour Europe for new lovers to introduce the delights of the undead to. Bathory instigates lovemaking between Valerie and Stefan, as she does the narrative-altering sex scenes between Ilona and Stefan, albeit at a distance; and she steals small kisses and mini lip bites with any one of the above for her own demented desires whenever she can. It’s a film that celebrates pleasure – female pleasure especially. Bathory was, after all, intoxicated by Valerie; and it’s she who takes the Countess’ erotic shenanigans to another level in the film’s strange coda. I wish more films nowadays would dwell upon baffling, intoxicating images that convey the tactile nature of flesh. I wish at least some contemporary films could take the same kind of pleasure in evocatively exhibiting sensuousness as this film did. This is bewitching cinema – in every possible way.

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