Carmilla is a retelling of the classic novella of the same name, showing the longing of a girl who wants to grow up, explore her own interests, and find someone to love. It’s described as an atmospheric coming-of-age tale, and it is… but it also lets down both Lara and the viewer.
I was provided a free screener of Carmilla for review. The opinions I have shared are my own. This review contains major spoilers for the end of the film.
I’ll admit I didn’t know the whole Carmilla story going into this movie. I knew it was a vampire story that predates Dracula, and I knew it had been retold a few times in different formats (like the YouTube series and other books), but I’d never managed to set aside the time to enjoy the story from start to finish. If I had, maybe I would have been prepared for Emily Harris’ rendition.
Carmilla is described as a coming-of-age tale, but it strikes me as being more about longing: a longing for freedom, longing for love, longing to be treated like an adult.
Lara is trapped inside her home with only her father (Tobias Menzies from “Outlander” and “Game of Thrones”) and her strict governess, Miss Fontaine (Jessica Raine from “Patrick Melrose” and “Jericho”). She doesn’t even have the freedom to be herself or pursue her own interests; Miss Fontaine starts her days by binding Lara’s left hand behind her back so she’ll be forced to use her right hand for everything and apparently ends them by confiscating “inappropriate” reading material from Lara that just seems to be her father’s medical texts.
Lara can’t even be with her friend Lady Charlotte, because Charlotte’s come down with a mysterious illness. It’s obvious to me, even if not to Lara’s family, that Lara’s heartbreak is because of more than just disappointment over not being able to see a friend. Lara’s in love, and she was looking forward to seeing her dearest friend again.
When there’s a carriage wreck outside their estate, Lara’s father brings an injured young woman in to nurse her back to health. Once more, Lara’s prevented from doing what she wants; she’s not allowed to visit the girl at all. They finally meet when Lara’s sneaking back into her father’s library (and, honestly, good for her) and the girl is also sneaking around by candlelight.
The girl doesn’t remember anything about herself. She’s young and beautiful, smiling at Lara over their shared candle, telling Lara to choose a name to call her. This scene sets the stage for the rest of Lara and Carmilla’s relationship: Carmilla is offering Lara power she’s never had before, but no one else can know the depths of their friendship.
I love women breaking societal conventions, sharing longing glances over dinners one of them can’t eat because she’s (probably) a vampire, and running off to share their desires with each other.
I can’t find anything to complain about when it comes to the acting, which is always understated and believable, or the cinematography, which lends itself almost too well to the general oppressiveness and suppressed longing of the story. There is an abundance of up-close shots of insects crawling on plants that reflect Lara’s mental state.
As the movie goes on, Carmilla gets healthier and Lara gets sicker and Miss Fontaine gets angrier about everything. As Lara gets sicker, the close-ups of insects get grosser too — at the beginning of the film, we were shown ladybugs on a flower, but as Lara begins to fade, we’re shown flies on a rotting potato and a spider crawling across the ground.
We don’t need a degree in film to understand what Emily Harris is trying to show us, but a little more subtlety might actually have been nice. I’m not even uncomfortable with insects in a general way, but the sound effects chosen for those scenes just pushed them over the edge.
Although Miss Fontaine didn’t like Carmilla anyway, and wouldn’t have liked her even if she was a regular human, her suspicions are backed up by a book about vampires that she found in Carmilla’s crashed carriage.
Here’s where the movie lost me.
After Miss Fontaine tells Lara’s father about her suspicions and presents the book to him, he says he has to leave, Miss Fontaine begs him not to leave her… and then they have sex right there in his office. Have they been having an affair that wasn’t hinted at strongly enough? Was I so distracted by all the bugs that I didn’t notice the adults sharing longing glances like the girls were? It felt awkward and uncomfortable to me primarily because it felt like it came out of nowhere.
I don’t know if it was in the original text, but it seems like a weird thing to add to the story.
The next morning, Lara wakes up to find her father and Miss Fontaine beating Carmilla. He’s holding her down and praying over her in Latin, and Miss Fontaine is hitting her as Carmilla screams. The screams draw Lara in and she helps Carmilla escape, but Lara is weakened by her illness. They find somewhere in the countryside to hide, and they both fall asleep.
This was also incredibly uncomfortable to watch, but it’s only made worse by the ending: Lara’s father and Miss Fontaine find the girls asleep and rip them apart. They use a wooden stake to kill Carmilla and carry Lara back to the house.
Lara’s attempts to be her own person and find her own love are punished almost as harshly as possible. She falls victim to a vampire and doesn’t even get to become one herself; her lover is murdered in front of her, and she can’t do anything about it.
Carmilla is a beautiful film and a heartbreaking tale, but removing some of the more supernatural elements to show Carmilla more as a person subject to Miss Fontaine’s religious suspicion almost takes something away from the story. It left me with a movie about a young girl unable to choose her own future and blocked from finding love because it’s not what her society says is okay. It might be the story Emily Harris wanted to tell, but it’s not a story I want to hear.
Emily Harris’ Carmilla will premiere on July 17, 2020, via Film Movement’s virtual screening room.
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