Emily Harris’ 2019 retelling of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Ur-Lesbian Vampire text Carmilla (1872) comes at you with so much intelligence, emotional authenticity, and raw, molting gorgeousness, the vampire bit might be the least interesting part. I have seen reviews that question whether there is even any vampirism in this; oh, but there is, but more on that later. Harris’ choices as a filmmaker certainly minimize flashing fangs or boobs in the manner of Hammer’s Karnstein trilogy. That said, Harris’ Carmilla is still–one might argue must be–an extraordinarily horny film. From heroine Lara’s (Hannah Rae) sublimated dominant/submissive relationship with strict governess Miss Fontaine (Jessica Raine), Fontaine’s own strangled passions, past and present, and the inscrutable seduction of Devrim Lingnau’s eponymous vampire, this film drums a quickened heartbeat all the way to its tragic final act. In so doing, it makes explicit what is implicit in virtually every vampire story ever written and certainly in the original Le Fanu novella: love is love.
“I have been in love with no one, and never shall,” she whispered, “unless it should be with you.”
How beautiful she looked in the moonlight!
Shy and strange was the look with which she quickly hid her face in my neck and hair, with tumultuous sighs, that seemed almost to sob, and pressed in mine a hand that trembled.
Her soft cheek was glowing against mine. “Darling, darling,” she murmured, “I live in you; and you would die for me, I love you so.”
I started from her.
She was gazing on me with eyes from which all fire, all meaning had flown, and a face colorless and apathetic.
“Is there a chill in the air, dear?” she said drowsily. “I almost shiver; have I been dreaming? Let us come in. Come; come; come in.”— Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, Carmilla
I mean, that makes Goblin Market seem downright coy. This is a real love story. It ends badly, yeah, but you know, so did Romeo and Juliet.
So the blighted love of Le Fanu’s text is here in spirit, but not much more. Still again, as a fan of the novella, I honestly don’t mind. The spirit itself is that strong. It reminds me of the remakes of Pet Sematery and Suspiria in that way; this isn’t the story you know, but it is what the story you know was getting at. Le Fanu’s tale gives us a hushed, candlelit (possibly gaslit) wander through heroine Laura’s eyes as she falls under the spell of her entrancing visitor Carmilla, but its odd angles of plot are super easy to trip over in such low light: the sketchy agreement between Laura’s widower father and Carmilla’s mother after a convenient coach accident delivers Carmilla to their doorstep, Carmilla’s name being anagrammed not once, but twice from an infamous ancestor’s (who is not, of course, really an ancestor), the role her (not) ancestor’s portrait plays in her unmasking, the Victorian fetish for tales nested within each other like Russian dolls and righteous men massing together against the undead threat to the womenfolk. What isn’t cliched by our time is just awkward. But those elements of the story are like the ring setting of a fabulous jewel, bracing the unblushing love story of two women with the filigree of Victorian decency: It’s all right! The vampire will be discovered and destroyed; Laura’s virtue and life are saved; no homo. It’s worth noting that, however much Laura gently resists naming her love for Carmilla as romantic, Le Fanu has no such hesitance. I mean, it’s true that he does bury his gays. Carmilla is destroyed, and Laura herself never recovers fully from their relationship. It’s also true that staking Carmilla can be read as–in a Chasing Amy’s traumatizing phrase–a good deep dicking. But Le Fanu never flinches from showing genuine tenderness and passion between Laura and Carmilla in a way that the bi-curious Hammer films refuse.
So, Harris shucks off all the extraneous, implausible bits: the weird way Carmilla becomes part of Laura’s household, the game of Scrabble with Carmilla’s name, spooky ancestral portraits getting all Dorian Grey or summat. What does that leave us? Again: horniness. In the film, Laura becomes Lara, and Lara is the portrait of a teenage girl on fire. Living on her father’s remote country estate under the watchful eye of Miss Fontaine, she pines for companionship. Sneaking her father’s forbidden anatomy books, trailing her fingertips in a pond, passing her palm through a flame, Lara pines for anything. Harris makes a point throughout the film of interspersing fraught psychosexual human scenes with extreme closeups of nature around the estate: insects and flowers, worms, growing, writhing, eating, rotting things, their sound dialed all the way up with truly obnoxious foley, as if to give these normally unnoticeable, inaudible forms of life the center stage she’s giving Lara’s discouraged, silenced adolescent desire.
Speaking of metaphors, we meet Lara as her left hand is being bound behind her back by Miss Fontaine. It could be foreplay to some, but in this case, Miss Fontaine is forcing Lara to learn to use her right hand instead of her naturally dominant left hand. Because the left hand is the devil’s. So from the very start, Miss Fontaine is forcing Lara to become something she’s not, something that isn’t in her nature, ostensibly for her own good. Later in the evening, when she discovers Lara with one of those wicked anatomy textbooks, Miss Fontaine will make her look her in the eyes as she strikes her hand with a ruler. Love and pain, the willful suppression of natural instincts and intelligence in obeisance to a paternal authority represented by a disapproving woman who is, we shall see, repressing her own desires, too. It ain’t subtle. But neither was Le Fanu.
There is a carriage crash in the movie, as in the novella and other adaptations, that brings Carmilla into the household, but again, no weird cover story or ancient lineage obliging us to hoist disbelief. Carmilla is discovered, along with her dead coachman, and brought to the house, apparently an amnesiac. We’re introduced to the local doctor (Tobias Menzies), who clearly is sparking for a very shielded Miss Fontaine. At the site of the accident, Lara finds a silver cross necklace; Miss Fontaine will discover a lurid grimoire. If she didn’t like anatomy books, you know she’s not happy about that. And so she scrutinizes Carmilla like a hawk and tries to keep Carmilla and Lara apart. It doesn’t work. The pair find each other by candlelight in the small hours, and soon Lara’s dreams of a young traveling salesman become dreams of Carmilla, and dreams of Carmilla become idylls with Carmilla become tasting blood with Carmilla become rolling around in front of the fireplace with Carmilla. Miss Fontaine knows what’s up and tries to intervene, even confessing to Lara her regrets about an attraction she had when she was younger–very careful to avoid pronouns in this conversation, she is–but it’s no use. The girl is in love.
The vampiric bond between Lara and Carmilla becomes explicit as Carmilla blossoms and Lara takes to her bed, pale and listless. Distraught, with Lara’s father away from the estate, Miss Fontaine enlists the doctor’s help, showing him the grimoire she discovered and appealing to him in desperation. For the first time, Miss Fontaine’s iron facade slips and she shows real vulnerability, vulnerability enough to snuggle the doctor right then and there. It’s telling that Miss Fontaine bristled at the doctor’s interest until she needed his loyalty; her sex, literally and figuratively, becomes the price she pays to be protected and, in her view, to protect Lara. Whether it’s a cold manipulation on her part or more of a rationalization with benefits, the doctor is her man for sure after that, and she’s going to need someone big and strong and totally loyal, because Miss Fontaine is now in Vampire Hunter mode. The next scenes are harrowing and bleak, but they affirm the bond between Lara and Carmilla in a way the Lauras of the world have been waiting to see since 1873. Chalk white and failing, Lara will protect Carmilla to the last. And Carmilla could flee much more easily without Lara, but she won’t leave her behind. Who’s the vampire? Well, Carmilla. But who’s the monster? Who is truly unnatural here?
Horror, particularly the Gothic, has always offered a secret safe place for the marginalized, whatever sexual orientation or gender or ethnicity or race might qualify as marginalized at the time. With its…flexible approach to bodies and relationships, horror allows an open exploration of subjects respectable or more broadly commercial arts might reject. Is it an accident that Gothic villains are so good at being bad? Or so sexy? It is not. In Carmilla, Le Fanu wrote a beautiful love story. The horror framing makes it palatable for the Miss Fontaines of the world, but there are also an awful lot of Lauras who will resonate with the depiction of women sharing intimate feelings. Harris’ Carmilla simply makes explicit what Gothic and vampire fiction have always explored in a sneaky, multivalent way, unifying vampiric love with Other love, here homosexual love, modeling it as tempting, attractive, empowering. The villain here isn’t Carmilla. It’s Miss Fontaine, who we suspect has harbored similar passions in her life, but chooses to weaponize her sex in ways that will never make her happy and will always leave her, vampire-like, hungry.
I might be doing Le Fanu a disservice, or giving him too much credit depending on your point of view, in privileging the earnest quality of the Carmilla/Laura relationship as the main idea of his Carmilla. There is a long, adventuresome vampire hunt in the back half of the novella after all, and Carmilla ends up just like every other named vampire of fiction must end up until the rise of Anne Rice: quite dead. But it’s also remarkable, and not a little romantic, that in his telling, Laura never recovers from her affair with the vampire. We have a lot of adventuresome vampire chases from Le Fanu’s contemporaries; Le Fanu was the first I’m aware of to pin a wistful end on one. To that end, I’m glad that Harris fixed her retelling the part of Le Fanu’s story that is truly unique, but never quite makes it into film adaptations. A girl’s first love can’t be told through the male gaze. Purists may eschew Harris’ faithlessness to plot points, but to my way of thinking, her Carmilla is the purest version we’ve gotten yet.
If loving Carmilla (2019) is wrong, Angela doesn’t want to be right.