Reviews | Written by Andrew Marshall 25/07/2019

CARMILLA [Edinburgh Film Festival]


Lara is a lonely teenage girl on a country estate, living every day taught how she should behave in society with her stern governess keeping her on the path expected of young ladies of the time - mainly to do as she is told and sit around doing needlepoint. When a carriage accident in the nearby countryside results in the mysterious Carmilla recuperating at the estate, her presence awakens desires in Lara she was unaware she had, while the nature of the new girl becomes ever harder to pin down.

Carmilla is based on a vampire novella of the same name published in the early 1870s, predating Dracula by over 25 years. However, the film removes aspects of the story that explicitly deal with the eponymous character’s nature and history, and instead allows it to remain ambiguous. It’s entirely possible that it’s mere chance Lara’s decline in health coincides with Carmilla’s arrival, but equally possible is that the girl is some kind of vampire or succubus slowly draining Lara’s life and soul to maintain her youth and beauty.

It feels a little uneasy that a teenage girl is portrayed as a paragon of desirable femininity, but since almost the entire story is told from Lara’s perspective, Carmilla’s exotic beauty is how the young woman perceives her new obsession, a personification of the desire and excitement she has been taught to suppress and a reflection of the sensuality she now feels able to express. Lara’s dreams manifesting her morbid curiosity of the natural world become merged with her fledgling desires of burgeoning sexuality, resulting in lurid depictions of lust and gore that terrify and excite her in equal measure, while the gothic ambience of the setting keeps the atmosphere suitably sinister.

The story is largely an emotional affair, driven by Lara and Carmilla’s fledgling romance which, for the most part, consists of longing glances by flickering candlelight, heavy breathing as new and exciting feelings take over, and shots of each girl filling the frame as if there is nothing else existing in the world than each other. Although the physical aspect of their relationship and the development towards it is important – and when it comes is tentative rather than exploitative – it isn’t as significant as Lara simply having someone to whom she can relate and talk to as an equal who won’t judge her for thinking or speaking about things a young lady is not supposed to. The film also inevitably deals with the period setting holding any kind of same sex relationship as even more unnatural and unacceptable than they’re viewed now by modern day bigots in their eternal ignorance.

Carmilla is a different sort of lesbian vampire film than the subgenre’s more notorious entries conjure images of. It portrays its central relationship as playful, sensual and exciting rather than driven by plain lust and is all the more an affecting tale as a result, while the performances from its young leads are mesmerising in their raw empathy.