Sunday, January 03, 2021

Christabel – review

Director: Alex Levy-Heller

Release date: 2018

Contains spoilers

The Samuel Taylor Coleridge poem Christabel is sometimes cited as a vampire piece. As far as I can tell this goes back to an interpretation by Arthur H. Nethercot (that he suggests was a theory that he espoused in 1939, though 1949 saw him publish the supposition) – though we must note that James B Twitchell also subscribes to this reading. I disagree.

In no place in Christabel do we get the sucking of blood (accepting that such is not the only tell). Indeed, Nethercot calls it a subtle portrayal, and it certainly is too subtle for me. Nethercot goes on to suggest that due to the thematic similarities between Christabel and Carmilla that Le Fanu conceivably made the same connection. Now the similarities are scant – a young mystery woman becomes cuckoo in the nest in a household of father and daughter and there are relations implied between the young women – but when examined in detail these are different beasts and if Le Fanu was inspired in part (as we know Calmet definitely influenced his folklore) by Christabel it does not automatically follow that he considered it a vampire tale.

with her fiancé 

With that background out of the way, my friend Leila suggested I needed to see this Brazilian film that reinterpreted the poem and was, she mentioned, a vampire film. However, I will say that the vampirism is almost a spoiler as it happens in the last five-or-so minutes of the film. The film itself starts with a woman, later revealed as Geraldine (Lorena Castanheira), running through the woods and then cuts to Christabel (Milla Fernandez) sleeping in her farmhouse home. She dreams of her fiancé (Alexandre Rodrigues) and their parting as he went on a cattle drive. She awakens and decides to go for a lamp-lit walk into the woods. She hears a strange mewling noise…

finding Geraldine

Exploring she finds Geraldine led on the floor. She pleads for help as she weaves a tale of men coming to her home, of them looting it, beating her and raping her. Of her escape whilst they were drunk, fleeing in the night and her fear that they will find her. Christabel helps her to her home and puts her in bed. She goes to get water but, by the time she returns, Geraldine is fast asleep – exhausted by her ordeal.

in the water

In the morning (after the camera has watched a small bat in the rafters – this is a motif and each time the camera looks at roosting bats their numbers have increased) at breakfast Christabel and her father, Seu Leonel (Julio Adrião), talk about the visitor. During the conversation he suggests that she, as he looked in on her, looked dead. That day he tends his veggie patch as Christabel washes clothes in the lake and Geraldine sleeps. There is a moment where Christabel seems to see Geraldine come out of the water but it is likely a daydream or vision. The shot (Probably accidentally) reminded me of Let’s Scare Jessica to Death and I will return to the odd moments such as this, which occur through the film.

reminiscing about Tião

Story short, Leonel is unimpressed until the woman tells him she is the daughter of Tião, who was his best friend – though not for many years as Tião betrayed him romantically (by being with a woman he thought he loved) and he retaliated, managing to get Tião’s father sacked – they have not spoken since. This was before he met Christabel’s mother (who died in childbirth). He dances with Geraldine drunkenly – upsetting Christabel. In the meantime, Christabel and Geraldine grow close with Geraldine’s outlook and philosophy both shocking and exciting Christabel. Geraldine espouses freedom (of gender and sexuality), guessing that Christabel’s fiancé was chosen for her and that her goals had amounted to little more than being tied to hearth and home swapping one patriarchal figure for another.

Christabel and Geraldine

I mentioned the moment with Geraldine appearing in the lake and the film had occasional moments (dreams and daydreams/visions often) where we moved from the mundane. It was way too little. Because I had been told that this was a vampire film, I may have been looking too hard but we had very little of the uncanny and that is what the director should have put in the film in spades. Let’s Scare Jessica is actually a good example of where this should have gone, building an atmosphere. Geraldine sends Leonel away to see Tião (after he tries to be sexual with her) and he meets an accordion player (Nill Marcondes) on the road who is clearly more than he seems but the film has failed to build the necessary atmosphere and the weirdness is too little, too late.

finding her ecstacy

You see the underlying feel to the majority of the film is what I can only describe as “Hallmark”, we are in a soap-lite world of character study, but the characters are thin. Ironically, some explorations are too much – when we see the fiancé cheating on Christabel it is ultimately pointless; the woman knows Christabel but we never know how, Christabel does not hear of the tryst so it has no story impact, and it does not aid the viewer to forgive her character growth because she shouldn’t need her man to betray her for her to grow and develop her own hopes, dreams and ecstasy away from the imposed patriarchy. In short – less Hallmark please; more of the uncanny and loads more atmosphere desperately needed.


As for vampire – Geraldine reveals herself as such in the last five minutes. I will suggest that it isn’t just a vision of Christabel’s, it isn’t an allegorical moment, as another character also sees Geraldine with fangs in those final moments. But it does skew the messaging the film seems to have given us – equating gender self-determination (and queerness) with something perceived as bad and unnatural could undermine the message that patriarchal dominance of the feminine is bad. Too much? Honestly, I am probably reading more in than the director intended.

father and daughter

The film itself had fair photography and the performances were fair also. But it is a long film for doing very little through a lot of the running time, the characters aren’t nuanced enough to warrant the film being character driven, and it needed a whole dose of the uncanny to keep the viewer off-kilter and a massive amount of atmosphere adding (which is what that uncanny element would have done). Not the worst film in the world by a long-stretch, the poem is recognisable within the story but it could have been so much more. 4 out of 10.

The imdb page is here.

On DVD @ Amazon US

On DVD @ Amazon UK

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