Daughters of Darkness (Les Levres Rouges) Harry Kumel (Fr 1971) Delphine Seyrig
Viewed Star and Shadow Cinema Newcastle upon Tyne, 3 March 2013; Ticket: £5
retrocrit: Reading the runes in the dunes or Marienbad transposed…
The seaside hotel by the sea on the sands at Ostend, that is the location of Daughters of Darkness, is an architectural statement that resonates along a parallel frequency to that of the chateau at Marienbad. Harry Kumel (HK) in visualising Daughters of Darkness (DD) must have had the notion that in having successfully contracted Delphine Seyrig as his lead actress, DD could take on in some of its formal aspects, the form of a subtle parody of Last Year in Marienbad (LYM)
The interiors of both LYM and DD both allude to the taste spectrum and formal aspirations of particular social castes. The Ostend hotel built for a burgeoning bourgeois market seems to consciously replicate the pretensions of an earlier aristocracy. The resort hotel at Ostend is laid out as a palace, and its opulent geometrical reception and public spaces will have been planned as a sop to the aspirations of the European bourgeoisie and lesser aristocracy that in a more public sphere they could by imitation equal the taste of a foreclosed aristocratic age that defined itself by private opulence and conspicuous consumption. Whereas Marienbad was situate in grounds where nature was made subservient to an ornamental geometry imposed by the hand of man; the Hotel in Ostend is positioned by the sea. Its geometric lines with regular columns and serried windows seems built to oppose the force of the sea, but is doomed to fail, to be rendered insignificant by the elements of darkening nature. Within their settings, their variegated encompassings both LYM and DD share a metaphysical core, which revolves about ideas of time. LYM with its infinite tracking across surfaces and through mirror worlds, creates a metaphysic of time that is presided over by the unnamed woman (Delphine Seyrig). Time becomes a function of space, a function of a Nietzschian eternal recurrence. More crudely perhaps DD, with its vampire and human blood theme also has an underlying temporal motif, the notion of eternal life, life eternally relived and renewed through the medium of human blood. It may be thought that LYM is much subtler in its insinuation of the time motif, but there is attaching to Resnais and Robbe-Grillet's mis-en-scene, something of the form of a religious sacrificial ceremony.
Appropriate then that Delphine Seyrig (DS) should play a key role in both movies. But whilst her role in LYM is pivotal, in DD is central. With her performance as the Comptess de Bathony in DD, her persona dominates the film from the moment she enters frame poised like a spider at the centre of her web waiting to enmesh and devour her victims. In her poise, DS effortlessly assumes the high status of her queen spider/ high priestess and whilst on screen she spins our in her delivery of her dialogue, a spell of enchantment, effortlessly without over determination or crass exaggeration. The delivery of her lines, pulled from the silky depths of her throat, is perfectly synchronised with her breath and the vowels shaped delectably by the reddest of red lips. The voice engages at once both with a knowing entrapment, but also with an ironic distancing that allows us to see she is having fun with her arachnoid role in a vampire movie. She knows how to wear the frocks with an architectonic nuance as she has been here before in another incarnation albeit with a different haircut. In LYM the dresses were breathtaking, all white and feathery, DS a priestess cold with erotic indifferent to imprecation. In DD, HK encases DS's body in a series of unceasingly stunning power frocks, blacks and golds enabling DS to move through the scenario beguilingly and effortlessly with increasing power as the personification of the hunger for death. In both DD and LYM, DS embodies the dark side of the anima, the feminine bringer of death; both movies are built upon her abilities to bring onto the screen this idea of a lethal anima.
In filming DD HK was assured and confident in the understanding of how to use signs. Signs are of course what make horror movie genre work. Contradictory signs relating to roles, and the directional signs that point without ambiguity to the path the script will follow in pursuance of its narrative. The signs that point are critical of course for arousing anticipation, and anticipation either of pain or fear is what powers states of arousal. Many contemporary horror films, such as the Cabin in the Woods often archly overplay signs, making them very blatant; intended it would seem, not to arouse but rather set up the viewer for an ensuing voyeuristic gore/ slash fest; satiation of violence, rather than fear, being the purpose. So some 'horror' movies made today almost do away with the use of psychological signs preferring to cut straight to the chase, the final blood sequence, either played for laughs or whatever. Movies of this era, such as DD, rely on signs to prime the audience ( which is not to say that many of the films are not tongue in cheek and capable of ironic self comment – DD often is.) But the viewer is given work to do in interpretation of signs and allowed to build their own anticipation of outcome. Movies shot using such formal scripted methods enlist more viewer involvement and the occasional moments of dread. There is no voyeurism rather it is anticipation of outcome that holds us, the sign pointing the way. The play on our minds.
Haircuts play a important part in the filming of DD as of course they do in many movies – in particular film noir. But in DD, and horror genre they have a particular use as signs.
The hair of the those representing the forces of darkness, in this case Comptess Bathony, is usually rigidly styled, like a wig (baldness can have a similar effect), DS's hair permed in frozen locks that frame her face like a judge's periwig and suggest the idea of judgement, judicial authority. DS under her periwig becomes she who must be obeyed. It also functions as a counter sign to her voice which teases and bewitches, paralysing her victims in the interplay of contradictory signage.
Victims hair for a woman is usually long, often blond and hanging long. In DD, Valerie's hair covers her face like a death shroud, wrapping about her face, exaggerating and heightening the expressive affects of her eyes and mouth and throat. Like a lamb for the slaughter, the sign points as soon as she appears. DD is a woman's movie in the sense that the only players are the women. It is woman's business that comprises its subject matter; it is about the dark force of the female anima, In movies of this kind the men really have no role and therefore usually have nondescript haircuts. In DD Mark's longish neatly cut hair marks him our from the beginning as a non player. Although he has a role, he is a pawn, not central to the forces at work and expendable.
As a horror movie DD is old school, It does exactly what it sets out to do. It sets up what is going to happen allows the audience to anticipate it (understand the inevitable) and for the signed events to come to pass, and then it tells you they have happened. Managed through superb acting and excellent pacing, the tension and humour are balanced, and deliver to the audience a film that works as planned.