There are times where you attend film festivals and enter a screening totally unprepared for the film that you end up watching. Only to stumble onto an absolute masterpiece. This was the case for Emily Harris’ “Carmilla”, a film that took my breath away and left me awestruck by what I had seen on the big screen.
“Carmilla” has been criminally overlooked by many critics, which is a crying shame. It is a film that is so beautiful to look at that, you wonder whether you have become hypnotized by the small spell that the film’s main character succumbs to.
The film’s slow, brooding atmosphere leaves the viewer on tenterhooks, as we wait for the horror to unfold. The terror that occurs isn’t quite what we would expect. And as a result, the film is far more unsettling once we have had time to contemplate the film’s ending.
“Carmilla” is a film that is very much like the character it is named after; a complex, enchanting mystery that draws you in and leaves you obsessing over every last detail. Harris is certainly a very visual director who understands the power of the visual image. And there are certain shots in the film that leave a haunting impression, like a rich oil painting full of life and soul.
The film follows Lara (Hannah Rae), the only child of a landed father (Greg Wise), who spends a considerable amount of time away from the family home. Lara is an incredibly lonely creature, who spends most of her days exploring the countryside that surrounds her. Her only real source of company is her governess, Miss Fontaine (Jessica Raine).
Miss Fontaine is strict and can be quite cold towards Lara (perhaps regarding her more of a nuisance than anything else). Fontaine enforces strict rules, which include tying Lara’s left hand behind her back for hours at a time in a bid to cure her of using it. Left-handed people were regarded as being prone to falling under the will of the devil, and Fontaine is determined to help keep Lare’s soul pure.
Lara holds onto hope that a girl from a nearby town will come to visit her but receives news that her would-be-friend is on death’s door. Then, one night a mysterious accident on the road nearby brings a mysterious, injured young woman (Devrim Lingnau) into Lara’s life. She is stricken with amnesia, so Lara names her Carmilla, and the two become friends.
Carmilla’s visit brings strange, supernatural happenings. Girls in the local town start to die from a plague, dogs act manic around Carmilla’s presence and Lara suffers disturbing violent dreams. Miss Fontaine attempts to separate the girls, but this only brings them closer together. A local doctor (Tobias Menzies) is suspicious of Carmilla and believes she may be a vampire. Lara’s life might be in danger, but is it possible to tear the two girls apart from each other?
A compelling aspect of “Carmilla” is that it very much a female-centric story told through the lens of a female gaze. With women’s sexuality being explored and addressed in the film’s narrative during a time where women’s sexuality was often suppressed. While a male director may have approached the subject matter of lesbian vampires in a more sexual and erotic manner, Harris shows restraint. And the character of Lara isn’t necessarily driven by lust, but rather a need for companionship.
There’s something universal about this need to be wanted by someone else. And as a result, “Carmilla” is a film that feels like a classic waiting to be studied and analyzed in film schools for years to come.
Harris also taps into how prejudice and hate towards outsiders are deeply ingrained into our culture and makes up a part of our human nature whether we want to admit this dark truth or not. There is still such hatred felt towards those considered different to the ‘norm’, and the ambiguity that hangs over Carmilla’s true nature is a reflection on how individuals are far more complex than we would first assume. There’s a deep sense of tragedy to “Carmilla”, which plays out like a tale of young star-crossed lovers doomed from the very start. And it’s a timeless story that Harris still somehow presents as fresh and original.
The film is shot by Michael Wood, who uses the camera as if its own character, seemingly moving on its own accord as it captures the natural beauty of this world. The use of natural light from the eerie glow of candles to the bright, golden summer sun helps to build on the film’s atmosphere. Each shot feels like it is worthy of being hung in an art gallery.
There are often extreme close-ups of insects in the dirt, whether these be worms wriggling around or ants scurrying across the ground. Coupled with the sound design, these shots help add a layer of discomfort and remind us that this is very much a horror story. The horror isn’t in the form of Carmilla, but rather the misguided actions of frightened adults who should know better.
The film’s leading performances from the likes of Rae, Lingnau, and Raine are all superb, and each actress manages to capture the sense of repressed hysteria that consumed the women of this era. Lara’s story is one of self-discovery and coming of age, and Rae manages to portray this sense of wonder and curiosity that her character feels.
Lingnau’s Carmilla has an otherworldly quality to her, her eyes containing so much expression. Raine’s Miss Fontaine is a woman with her own dark, hidden past and stifled sexual hunger which in turn gets awakened in the film. Each one of these female characters is well developed, and we are fully invested in their own narratives. We pray for a happy ending for each woman, but alas this isn’t the case.
“Carmilla” is a boldly beautiful and thought-provoking film. It may be slow and melodramatic in places, but you can’t help but become fully invested in this world. Emily Harris has done a fine job adapting Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1871 novel Carmilla. With three very strong leading performances, a sweeping score by Philip Selway and exquisite cinematography, “Carmilla” is a film that you won’t forget in a hurry. Please do seek it out.
Rating: 5 Out of 5 Stars
Please note that this review was originally posted on http://www.filmotomy.com