Roger Vadim is really remembered today for one movie, Barbarella. He is generally dismissed as a pretentious purveyor of softcore teasings masquerading as Art, and as a director who owed most of his success to the succession of extraordinary women with whom he both cohabited and made movies - Brigitte Bardot, Jane Fonda and Catherine Deneuve being the best-known.
This critical dismissal is actually a little unfair. Vadim made some genuinely interesting and off-best films, a personal favourite of mine being his 1973 offering Don Juan, or If Don Juan Were a Woman, which happened to be Bardot’s last movie. It’s not a complete success, but it’s odd and intriguing. It’s particularly unfortunate that Vadim’s masterpiece Blood and Roses (Et mourir de plaisir) is still not available on DVD, and is not available at all in an uncut version.
Made in 1960, it’s one of the countless movie adaptations of Sheridan le Fanu’s classic lesbian vampire novella Carmilla. The story is updated to a contemporary setting, which works perfectly well since Carmilla (or Mircalla), the last of the notorious Karnstein vampires, has gone through many incarnations and had many names since she began her undead existence. The idea that she would take possession of the body and soul of a recent female descendent of this infamous clan doesn’t really do any great violence to the spirit of le Fanu’s tale. The present-day Carmilla is in love with her cousin Leopold, who is about to marry. Her emotional turmoil, combined with an explosion in the family cemetery caused by a fireworks demonstration gone awry, gives the vampire Mircalla her chance to take over Carmilla’s life.
The movie has a lush dream-like and very romantic ambience. There are no orgies of blood-letting. Compared to Hammer's celebrated 1970 version of the story, The Vampire Lovers, Blood and Roses may seem slow, lacking in action and generally rather tame (although of course it’s likely that the uncut version is a lot sexier than the butchered version I saw) It relies on atmosphere, and the atmopsphere is conveyed effectively enough that it succeeds. It’s all repressed sexuality, thwarted desires and unspoken obsessions.
Any vampire movie has to have a scene involving a mirror, and this on actually manages to do something original and disturbing with the idea. There’s interesting use of colour, with scenes in which every hue but blood-red disappears from the movie’s colour palette. It’s a bit gimmicky, but it works. And the scene in which Carmilla kisses a spot of blood from the lip of her cousin’s bride-to-be is undeniably effective and subtly erotic. Annette Vadim (the director’s then-current wife) looks right for the part of Carmilla, and her performance is competent. Mel Ferrer and Elsa Martinelli are reasonably good in the roles of Carmilla’s cousin and his intended bride.
Whether you like this movie or not depends entirely on how much tolerance you have for arty European erotic horror. I have a lot of patience for this type of film, so I thoroughly enjoyed it. I still wish someone would release a proper uncut DVD version though. It deserves the sort of treatment that companies like Blue Underground and Mondo Macabro have given to so many neglected classics of Eurohorror.