Finally seeing Roger Vadim's Blood and Roses (a.k.a. Et mourir de plaisir, 1960) in a watchable, if imperfect form, was a minor revelation. (If all you're interested in is major revelations, move along.) By plundering freely from Cocteau, and doing so with some panache, Vadim surpasses his usual standard of titillation and serves up some haunting images, with much help from regular cinematographer Claude Renoir (yes, of that family), and anticipates a whole lot of developments in the European horror field.
By borrowing both from La belle et la bête (a masked ball allows the cast to get into period costume) and Orphée (mythology goes mod) Vadim is paving the way for all those films that combine Gothic with pop, particularly those of Jean Rollin, who simply upped the kink factor while retaining the crumbling castles, vampires and costumed role-play pioneered by Vadim.
The movie would doubtless be more seen today if it starred Bardot, but by now she had moved onto other directors and Vadim had moved on to another wife, Annette Vadim, nee Stroyberg, a similar blonde type (Danish), who did not share her predecessor's starry ascent: she's OK, but she lacks the sex-kitten provocation of BB. Fortunately, she's supported by Elsa Martinelli, who does drive one mad with desire, and would continue to do so, racking up an impressive roster of directors (Hawks, Welles, De Toth, Petri, er, Fulci) and films. Less fortunately, Mel Ferrer is sandwiched between the two gals, diffusing the sapphic tension like the world's tallest gooseberry. He may have an Adam's apple like an awk egg, but he never really projects much masculine interest into a scene. He's mainly useful to bring in if things are in danger of getting too interesting.
My familiarity with Vadim was far from complete, but I thought I had a sense of him from ...And God Created Woman at one end and Barbarella at the other, both of which are kind of cool but neither of which suggests a great deal of filmmaking talent. An ability to throw fun stuff at the screen, sure, but maybe not much in terms of ability to organize it into a coherent movie.
Well, if Blood and Roses is at times a touch vulgar, it is certainly coherent. One might quibble that it heterosexualizes J. Sheridan LeFanu's tale of vampiric/lesbian lust (the oft-filmed Carmilla, also the basis for Dreyer's very different Vampyr) too much, but traces remain, and the film's innovation is to render its hereditary vampire curse in terms of character psychology and neurosis, a decade and a half before George Romero "invented" this approach in Martin (1977). Having made his approach quite clear via the visual storytelling and a certain uncharacteristic restraint in the scenes of nocturnal depredation, Vadim unfortunately spells it out via a shrink's summing up, straight out of Psycho, but then neatly twists things around with one of those by-now-familiar fade-outs on an image that suggests the supernatural cannot be so lightly dismissed. Sound of gateau being both had and eaten.
What the film lacks in characterization—and Vadim and his cast are rarely able to suggest anything resembling human behavior (Ferrer and Stroyberg relax at one point at the piano: he mimes the act of tuna fishing while she plays a silent-movie style accompaniment, and that's as naturalistic as it gets), limiting themselves to acting out the plot, the visuals are achingly beautiful, dreamy, and pop-surreal in ways that sometimes transcend the cornball faux-Magritte stuff you might expect. Renoir's lighting and framing is consistently ravishing, but Vadim's use of tracks and crane are imaginative and lush too. Jean Prodromides' score interacts with the sound design to underplay big moments with gentle harps or dead silence, another sign of Cocteau's influence. Only the editor seems asleep on the job, at one point fading up on a character standing aimlessly in the middle of a lawn, just a few frames before Vadim must have called "Action!" and sent her on her way. Maybe blame the lab.
The new German DVD offers French and German dialogue and, for once, English subtitles. It's complete (the French cut on YouTube omits nearly all of the final dream sequence—the best bit!). The image seems to have been rescued at the last moment from fading to pink completely, and the palette is still somewhat skewed to the salmon, but enough has been clawed back to strongly suggest the extreme beauty of the locations, lighting, set design and cast.
The Forgotten is a fortnightly column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.