‘And die of pleasure’: Blood and Roses (1960)

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My mother was the best video-recorder-er. No matter what time of the day or night the movie was on, Mrs Thompson sure knew what buttons to press to make sure it was recorded on VHS.

(Hi, Mum, ‘cos I *know* that you’re reading this J).

Anyhoos, Blood and Roses was recorded off midday TV, circa November 1994. So this is quite an appropriate Video Shop Daze choice for the first day of November, twenty-two years later.

Carmilla (Annette Stroyberg) spends much of her time lying around in her room (in an Italian castle, no less …), wearing black and sulking. She’s fixated on her cousin Leopoldo (Mel Ferrer); and on her ancestress, the vampiric Mircalla, who lies (un)dead in the family tomb.

Fortunately for Carmilla, Mircalla also has a thing for Our Man Leopoldo. The vampire’s spirit is unleashed by fireworks, and enters Carmilla’s body (this proves surprisingly easy). Unfortunately, there’s only one thing standing in Carmilla/Mircalla’s (anagram – geddit?) way of the prize: Leopoldo’s fiancée, Georgia (Elsa Martinelli).

The film is loosely based on J.S. Le Fanu’s novella Carmilla (1872). I say ‘loosely’ because the film jettisons many of that novella’s characters and themes, most notably the overt desire between the two female protagonists. Le Fanu’s text was the forerunner of the perpetually provocative ‘lesbian vampire’ sub-genre. I’ve written about that sub-genre here and here.

(Okay, there are hints of sapphic desire in this here movie, but … we’ll get to those … Be patient, my queer cinephile fellow travellers!).

Perversely, Vadim’s movie opts for an arguably more controversial subtext— that is, incestuous desire (Leopoldo is, let’s not forget, Carmilla’s cousin – and he’s Mircalla’s great-grandson!)

Equally perversely, Leopoldo is boring. I mean, this bloke has about as much sex appeal as Count Orlock’s coffin. Only in a male filmmaker’s fantasy would two (actually, three) beautiful women throw themselves at this bloke so willingly (in fact, one of them rises from a centuries-long slumber to do so).

But then, Blood and Roses doesn’t try to make sense. The abysmal dubbing is an example of this. So, too, is the acting, much of which can most charitably be described as ‘wooden’.

Let’s be clear, this isn’t a film about substance; it’s a film about surfaces. And what stunning surfaces they are. The gothic interiors and green, sundrenched exteriors are captured in the kind of colour cinematography you just don’t see anymore.

And then there’s the imagery. Two examples will suffice. The first is the shot of Carmilla/Mircalla kissing blood off Georgia’s lips. Poor Georgia cut herself on a thorn (hence the ‘roses’), and Carmilla/Mircalla just had to help out. Titillation for an assumed male viewer, perhaps, and much coyer than Le Fanu’s novella, but it’s still a striking shot.

Then there’s the dream sequence. I actually hate dream sequences, but this one’s just so … oddball. Deliriously try-hard oddball. There are wax dolls, male doctors and listless female patients, an implicit critique of heteropatriarchy (and Big Pharma; can’t forget Big Pharma), and a splash of red to top things off.

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In case you haven’t guessed, this is a film without tension. Or at least, tension as we know it. Even the two ‘chase scenes’ are unsettlingly tranquil. The soundtrack adds to the movie’s languid, lullaby-like feel.

Blood and Roses was also released the title ‘Et mourir de plaisir’, which translates to ‘And die of pleasure’. So apt. Close the curtains, switch your brain off, and enjoy your little death.

Oh, and thanks, Mum, for your kick-arse video recorder-ing skills, which helped make Video Shop Daze possible.

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