Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Daughters of Darkness - 1971

Director:                                Harry Kümel
Scenario:                             Pierre Drouot and Harry Kümel
Dialogue:                            Jean Ferry
Original Music:                    Franҫois de Roubaix
Cinematography:               Eduard van der Enden

Countess Bathory               Delphine Seyrig
Stefan                                  John Karlen
Valerie                               Danielle Ouimet
Ilona Harczy                       Andrea Rau
Hotel Clerk                          Paul Esser
Retired Policeman            Georges Jamin
Butler                                  Joris Collet
Mother                                Fons Rademakers

"Daughters of Darkness” can be many things to many people.  It is best known as a lesbian vampire tale and over the last forty years has become a cult film.  It contains sadism, masochism, eroticism, perversity, and almost more style than one movie normally holds.  It can be seen as a parable of female empowerment, a fairy tale, a bloody and sexy piece of midnight movie schlock, an art house classic, or just a good old gothic horror.

It begins with a steamy love scene between newlyweds Stefan Chilton and Valerie.  They are traveling from Switzerland to Stefan’s home in England.  When their train stalls they decide to spend the night at a luxury hotel in Ostend, Belgium.  The two apparently have known each other for a very short period of time, probably only a few days, because each seems to know very little about the other.  Strangely, Stefan is very reluctant to notify his mother back in England about his hasty marriage.  He tells Valerie that Lady Chilton will disapprove of his new bride.  Mother will disapprove all right, but more about that later.  Stefan is keeping quite a few secrets from his wife.
John Karlen as Stefan and Danielle Ouimet as Valerie

The hotel is completely empty due to the off-season.  (How can they keep the place open with no customers?  Maybe by not having any employees other than the concierge.  The poor man must do absolutely EVERYTHING.)  The couple settle into the royal suite. 

Not long after this, the Countess Báthory arrives with her secretary/companion Ilona.  The first glimpse we get of the Countess is a shiny black-booted leg emerging from the back seat of her dark red vintage auto.  When she finally stands in front of us, all we see is a close up of a figure in black, the upper half of her veiled face in shadow, ivory skin and blood red lips.  As she enters the lobby of the grand hotel we see that with her chic wardrobe and carefully coiffed blond hair she is a dead ringer for Marlene Dietrich.  Director Kümel has stated that this was a deliberate homage to the iconic actress, as well as to her Pygmalion, Josef von Sternberg. 

Delphine Seyrig
Marlene Dietrich
The elderly concierge is stunned by the vision in front of him.  He tells her he is sure that she is the same lady who stayed at the hotel forty years ago, but how is it possible that she doesn’t look a day older?  She demurs gently that it must have been her mother.
Báthory Erzsébet or Elizabeth Bathory as we know her in English, was a real historical character; a 16th century Hungarian noblewoman who was convicted of the murder of 80 young women, although the actual number possibly is closer to 800.  She has entered the folklore for allegedly bathing in the blood of her victims in order to remain young; or if you prefer, drinking their blood.  Whichever one floats your boat.

Delphine Seyrig, the intelligent and stunningly beautiful French actress who became an international sensation when she starred in Alan Resnais’ 1961 film “Last Year at Marienbad”, plays the mysterious Countess.  Her nuanced performance is the best thing about this movie.  There is just the tiniest spark of the huntress visible behind those limpid, guileless eyes and her world-weary elegance.  She is simply magnificent in every scene.

Watch her in the following two video clips.  In the first note her reaction to the concierge and his confusion about her.  She disarms him with an arched eyebrow, a flickering smile, a wide eyed look, and a sultry voice.   

Seyrig gives us a complicated and layered character.  On the surface she is all stylish sheen and charm.  Slightly underneath that are innocence and needy vulnerability.  Going deeper, we see a cold, rapacious, and manipulative creature who can react to the death of her faithful lover with a shrug.  Underneath all is another level of vulnerability; perhaps it is finally the weakness of the vampire - the deadly fear of daylight and the dependence on others for protection and love.   The last is a vulnerability we all share (no, not the fear of daylight.  I do however recommend a good sunscreen for everyone, regardless of the state of their mortality).

In the next clip she is talking to the young couple in the lounge.  We are introduced to Ilona also - watch her slink into the room.  Ilona makes an impression, especially on Stefan.

The director wanted Ilona's look to be an homage to another iconic actress, this one from the silent era –  Louise Brooks.
Andrea Rau as Ilona

Louise Brooks
The Countess has selected the two attractive young people as her next prey.  Ilona is aware of this and instinctively knows that soon she will be replaced by Valerie in the Countess’ affections.  The rest of the story is a cat and mouse game as the Countess manipulates and tantalizes both Stefan and Valerie.

After Valerie's constant urging, Stefan finally telephones Mother to give her the wonderful news of his marriage.  On the other end of the line we see that Mother is actually an older, stereotypically effeminate man.  He is not named, but he and Stefan obviously have a very close relationship.  The news is a bit of a shock at first, but Mother recovers quickly.  He asks Stefan with amusement, "But whatever shall we do with her?"  We see much deeper into Stefan's character with this phone call.  He is impulsive; he doesn't think things through before acting.  What does he think he will do with poor Valerie in England?  Not to mention the fact that he is deeply in denial about who he is. 

John Karlen as Desmond Collins in "Dark Shadows"
John Karlen, who plays Stefan, is best known to most of us from television.  He portrayed Willie the caretaker of Collinwood and several other characters on the series "Dark Shadows" as well as the two movies based on it.  He also played Harvey Lacey, the husband of Tyne Daly’s character on the series “Cagney and Lacey”.  Evidently he was not the director’s first choice for the role of Stefan but Kümel was satisfied with his performance ultimately.

With a pause before speaking, or a subtle dark look Karlen gives us quiet hints of Stefan’s instability.  He projects a dominating, cool macho on the outside which masks his sadistic streak and his sexual ambiguity.  His perversity is revealed more and more as the story continues. 

The couple take a side trip to the nearby city of Bruges, which has been the site of several ghoulish murders of young girls.  All the victims have been drained of blood, and by sheer coincidence the Countess and Ilona were recently in Bruges.  Stefan is fascinated by the murders and literally knocks Valerie down in order to get a glimpse of a corpse being put into an ambulance.  

Stefan knows quite a bit about the historical Countess Bathory and her peculiar skin regimen.  Much to Valerie's horror, the Countess and Stefan get each other pretty worked up relishing the details of the tortures.

"Mother" is played by Fons Rademacher, the respected Dutch director, whose films were nominated for the Best Foreign Language Picture Oscar in 1958 and again in 1986.  He won the second time for his film, "The Assault".  His character performs the function of shocking us (although this shock, like many of the other scenes meant to shock may seem pretty mild these days.)  The big reveal of Stefan's bi-sexuality must have been flabbergasting in 1970.
Fons Rademacher as "Mother"
Danielle Ouimet who plays Valerie was a popular soft-core Canadian actress.  Her character appears to have a streak of masochism as she puts up with Stefan’s explosive temper and brutality.  For example, he seems to think that whipping her with his belt is an acceptable form of foreplay.  Again, whatever floats your particular boat.  Ouimet also was not a choice of the director and her acting is, for the most part, wooden.  On the other hand, it would take a pretty extraordinary actress just to be noticed next to Seyrig. 

Before playing Ilona, Andrea Rau had worked as a model and soft-core actress in her native Germany.  She has a definite presence in her scenes.  Ilona is sent by the Countess to seduce Stefan and keep him busy while the Countess pursues Valerie.  Stefan proves to be supremely seduce-able.  The love/nude scene which enfolds ends with a tragic accident which leads to the last act.  

The Countess has little difficulty seducing Valerie completely.  Stefan's brutality has terrified his new bride and she attempts to run away.  The Countess stops her at the train station and wins her affection and loyalty with her gentleness and warm understanding.  The Countess seems to be the perfect combination of tender lover, wise mother, and sister/confidante.  

After a frightening night of burying Ilona's body and evading the detective who had appeared earlier at the hotel and is pursuing the vampires, Stefan and the Countess have a final showdown over who will possess Valerie.  After Stefan states, "She is a woman, and she is mine!" Valerie rejects Stefan once and for all and clings to the Countess for protection.
The violent accident which follows the battle climaxes with Stefan's bloody death.  The Countess and Valerie run away to exist happily ever after; but another accident (these people are very unlucky) establishes Valerie in the role of the new Countess preying on a new young couple. 

It's interesting to look at "Daughters of Darkness" as a basic feminist fable sheathed in art-house skin.  Valerie is a very young woman - naive, trusting and somewhat sheltered.  Stefan is in charge of their lives, her opinion is never sought and she accepts this.  She is easily controlled, first by her husband and later by the Countess.   His violent behavior turns her world view upside down.  How can the man she loves treat her like this?  The Countess frees her from her abusive relationship with Stefan, telling her that men only want women to be their slaves - an argument not without merit given the circumstances.

That is acceptable as far as it goes, but in the movie everything is boiled down to the most basic and easily digested ingredients.  Yes, Valerie is saved from Stefan, but she becomes the new companion/possession of the Countess; and we saw how coldly the Countess dispensed with Ilona when something new came along.  Valerie never really develops as her own person in the story and is never really "liberated".  Sexual roles and expectations are displayed, examined superficially and in the end, reinforced.

Stefan has his own set of problems with sex roles.  His penchant for perversity reaches a climax, so to speak, when he is beating the living daylights out of Valerie.  This beating occurs immediately after Stefan has his telephone conversation with Mother.  His rage appears to be caused by having to face the reality of his homosexual relationship.  Valerie is more than just the convenient outlet for his violence, she is the living evidence of his dilemma.    

The year 1970 was still early days in the era of the second wave of 20th century feminism.   The notion that women could be/should be empowered creatures not dependent on men was pretty controversial at the time, believe it or not.  It was also still early days for acceptance of gays/lesbians.  The movie is a little time capsule of sexual mores of the era.  If you want it to be, that is.   

Visually the movie has some stunning moments.  The director uses the colors red, white and black extensively.  Each scene has some touch of red, and the color fills the screen several times in dissolves from one scene to the next.  The color red reminds us of what is on the minds of Ilona and the Countess, as well as Stefan's unhealthy interest in violence and murder. 

The gigantic hotel, which is actually in Brussels, is magnficent but devoid of warmth in spite of the luxurious furnishings.

It reminds me of the Overlook Hotel used in the movie version of "The Shining", although the hotel itself does not have any supernatural qualities.   Cinematographer van der Enden frames the exterior shot in such a way that the building appears isolated in its environment - imposing and forbidding.

The next still looks like a painting.  Black, white and grey, shown in shadows and light are used for interesting effects.  At the very back you can see the Countess and Valerie.  The shapes made by the shadows and the tiles may represent the trap that the girl is walking toward, or the complex puzzle of the new existence which awaits her.  Or, maybe it is just a really cool shot.

I enjoyed "Daughters of Darkness" for it's visual beauty and imagination, and for the performances of Delphine Seyrig and John Karlen.  Some aspects of the story are slightly politically incorrect for our times.  However, if you can accept it on its own terms as a slightly campy, fun, sexy, stylish thriller, then it is nothing more - but nothing less.  Perhaps the best description is the one from director Harry Kümel.  He said it was "an adult fairy tale."  

Have a comment about this post?  Please, be my guest.  Indulge yourself below.  I would love to hear from you.  Thanks!  


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