Carmilla | QFest St. Louis 2020

It’s summer in St. Louis, which means oppressive heat and humidity, and this year is even worse—thanks to the pandemic, your choices for recreation outside your own four walls are more limited than usual. On the plus side, assuming you have a good Internet connection, it’s a great time to stream some movies that might have otherwise passed under your radar.

One such movie is Carmilla, which has made a surprisingly small amount of noise in movie-land, given how well it is made and the fact that it is based on the popular lesbian vampire novel of the same name by Sheridan Le Fanu (who beat Bram Stoker to the punch by almost 30 years). Well, “based on” might be overstating the case—“inspired by” is a better description of how screenwriter/director Emily Harris uses Le Fanu’s source material, but the result is an original and interesting spin on this familiar material.

Lara (Hannah Rae) is a 15-year-old girl living in a remote castle in Styria (southern Austria). Her father (Greg Wise) is present but rarely seen, and her only regular companion is her governess, Miss Fontaine (Jessica Raine), who manages to radiate lusciousness despite her severe black dress and hairstyle, and her more severe teaching methods (which include tying her charge’s left arm behind her back when she persists in using it). A carriage crash brings an unexpected visitor to the castle—the lovely Carmilla (Devrim Lingnau), who is allowed to stay while she recovers from her injuries. Carmilla is a bit older than Lara (who is a very young 15), but not so much as to prevent them from becoming the closest of companions. In fact, Lara develops a crush on Carmilla, which raises the ire of Miss Fontaine; that Carmilla is suspected of being a vampire (local girls have been falling sick with mysterious illnesses) provides her with  justification for what may in fact be jealousy, homophobia, or some combination of the two.

The Gothic romantic elements are there in Carmilla—beautiful women with long flowing hair, wearing white nightgowns, in an isolated castle illuminated by candlelight—but the modern era is also present, in the form of an intense focus on the natural world and the contrast between nature and what passes for nurture in the backwoods of Styria. There are also some hot scenes between Lara and Carmilla, and some body horror, although probably not enough to satisfy people who were expecting male fanservice or hardcore horror (maybe that’s why this film hasn’t quite caught on with the general population). Even the horror scenes are aestheticized to a remarkable degree, and the single most violent single act in the film takes place off camera, providing an excellent example of how hearing something happen can make a greater impact than if you actually saw it.

Above all, Carmilla is a stunningly beautiful film—in fact, the first comparison that comes to mind is Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire—and the look perfectly matches Harris’ approach to the story. Filmmaking is always a team effort, but cinematographer Michael Wood, costume designer John Bright, art director Isobel Dunhill, and production designer Alexandra Walker deserve special shout outs for their roles in creating the look of Carmilla. | Sarah Boslaugh

Carmilla is available for streaming as part of QFest St. Louis 2020, which runs from June 19 through June 28. Individual film tickets are $10 ($8 for Cinema St. Louis members and students), and all-access festival passes are $75 ($60 for Cinema St. Louis members). Further information is available from the festival web site.


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