Sunday, June 26, 2011

Vamp or Not? La Maison Nucingen

Back when I looked at la Belle Captive I received comments about this Raoul Ruiz film from 2008. Edna Sweetlove firmly put the film on my radar by suggesting that it was an avante-garde film that had Carmilla inspired vampiric ghosts.

It is also a film that has defied viewing by not appearing on DVD. As I type this it has now, at long last, appeared on DVD in France. Judicious searching can find English fan-subs on the net and the film is now viewable! And what a film; confusing, beautiful, thought-provoking and lyrical. It is based on Balzac, but whilst I haven’t read the source work I suspect it is only loosely based on it and I could certainly see traces of both Le Fanu and Poe peeking from behind the curtain.

It begins with a meal; William Henry James III (Jean-Marc Barr) eats a meal with his companion and listens in to a conversation, though we never see the speakers as they are in another area of the restaurant, separated by a curtain. They are actually telling the story of his life – though it is more fiction than fact. The film, then, is his story… as he remembers it, as they tell it? It isn’t explained and, in reality, it doesn’t matter.

Whilst still in Paris
It is 1925 and William, or Billy as his wife Anne-Marie (Elsa Zylberstein) calls him, is a writer. He is also a gambler. He goes to his wife, laid in bed and not well, and tells her that he has been gambling again, despite his promise not to, and he has won. He takes her to the house he has acquired in Patagonia as a rest cure for her, a belated honeymoon and so that he can complete his novel.

Léonore's reflection
As they move through the countryside in a carriage, the vehicle slows and stops as the driver announces that there is a swarm of bees. We see the couple looking out of the window and the reflection of a woman, Léonore (Audrey Marnay). As the carriage moves away William mentions the woman but Anne-Marie did not see her. She wonders why there would be a swarm of bees in winter.

when they have first arrived
They are greeted at the house by the maid, Ully (Miriam Heard), and slowly meet the strange inhabitants of the house and discover its unusual house rules. The inhabitants are of Austrian descent but speak only in French – you must go to the yard or the toilet to speak other languages. Religion is also banned. Ully is an insomniac who sometimes is asleep and awake at the same time. There is a doctor (Luis Mora) who visits and is prone to falling asleep for spells.

Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre as Lotte
Living in the house is Bastien (Laurent Malet), the head of the house and whilst apparently the most normal he is full of odd habits. There is Lotte (Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre), who is apparently eighteen but with a mental age of eight and also Dieter (Thomas Durand) who is always busy and is also, according to Lotte, heartbroken following the death of Léonore.

the skeletal leg
The house is full of ghosts, we never know if someone we see is real or not. Workers in ponchos observe the inhabitants from vantage points in other rooms, a child called Angel – because he sees angels – hides under a bed. Léonore follows people around and is sometimes interacted with and sometimes not seen – they say you cannot see and hear a ghost at the same time. At one point she lifts her dress to William in order to reveal that one leg is skeletal – he takes the bone and beats her with it. Weird, yes, but not very vampiric at this point.

Léonore with Anne-Marie
She does, however, seem to haunt Anne-Marie, whose behaviour becomes stranger and whose health deteriorates. Early on William enters the bathroom to find the toilet, sink and bath filled with blood as Léonore stands by an insensible Ann-Marie – he is ushered away by Ully who, off camera, cleans the room. The doctor is called to look in on Anne-Marie and Léonore won’t leave her side.

vampiric feeding?
It is Lotte who has insisted that Léonore is dead, even suggesting where she she is buried. However, later in the film, William is taken to the catatonic Léonore, who lies in the basement – her temperature low and her heartbeat barely registering. They say she projects herself, or materialises – so she is more like a living ghost or spirit, moving through the house without actually moving in or from her room. At this point the doctor suggest that whether she kills stray travellers is legend as is her stealing children for their blood. The idea that she foretells earthquakes is dismissed as nonsense. William sees her, at one point, through a keyhole and it appears she is feeding on Anne-Marie, in a vampiric way.

attacking Lotte
At another point she attacks Lotte and we are told that she eats her – this is discussed over what might be the remnants of Lotte’s brain or simply a lamb’s brain. Another victim seems to simply die peacefully in their sleep. William tells us that in his novel (he writes crime thrillers) the murderer isn’t a vampire rather the murderer is actually him. However, as well as the idea of spirits and the consumption of life in order to live (and remain young, the final scenes would suggest), I felt there were overtones of faery, of that otherworld hidden from the eyes of most but interfacing with the world within the house Nucingen.

a view of the Andes
I have spoiled enough, I think, within my quest to look at the vampiric aspects of the film. The film is an astounding piece of avante-garde cinema, multi-layered with excellent acting teasing out remarkable, if strange, characters. The cinematography is breath-taking and the framing of many of the shots is exceptional. The story itself keeps you pondering its strange twists and turns long after the film has ended but, of course, our question is, "Is it Vamp?"

the bone flute
Certainly, the fact William mentions the word vampire is designed to lead us in that direction. The house is full of voices and visions, ghosts who are as much inhabitants as the living are – of not more so. Léonore is the projection of a spirit, the body lying sleeping-beauty-like, feeding off the living in the house. I would say there is enough to count this as vampire – however there is also the health warning that this is not a horror film; it is an astounding piece of cinema but if you approach it expecting standard ghost or vampire fare then you will be disappointed. I loved it.

The IMDb page is here.


Zahir Blue said...

I think this looks like a movie I need to see!

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Hi Zahir, absolutely and the shame is the loops to be gone through to do so... buy the French DVD (that has only just gone on the market) find the fan-subs etc... lets hope for a subtitled US or UK release soon :)