Gaspar Noé dials down his typical cinematic spectacle to bring us a slow and moving exploration of dementia and how it drives a loving couple apart. He still has one visual trick up his sleeve, however: Vortex uses splitscreen to show us two lives lived in close proximity but not shared. His cameras follow their subjects individually, sometimes observing them go about separate activities, sometimes occupying almost the same perspective as the characters sit together and engage in conversation, nearly giving us a unified widescreen shot that captures both husband and wife in the same frame – but never being able to. But while Vortex is given structure by its visual design, what it depicts is as crucial as how it depicts it. It’s not a sentimental film, but neither is it harsh – and it’s well worth your time.
We explore Dario Argento’s Suspiria, his 1977 horror classic, and its loose remake by Luca Guadagnino, from 2018. We’ve never seen either, although Argento’s film casts a long shadow – those who’ve seen it never forget it, and it’s easy to see why. Its visual design is bold, imaginative and beautiful, the images it creates extraordinary, its violence heightened and wild. José loves it, literally wowed by it, captivated by its cinematic flair and interesting casting. But, Mike argues, it’s a film that offers nothing beyond the aesthetic, uninterested in its own characters or story, which leaves him cold.
Our responses to Guadagnino’s remake are reversed entirely. For Mike, it’s superior: ambitious, keen to mine the threadbare original for thematic depth, and laudably attempting to weave together generational guilt, dance, institutional corruption and women’s bodies into a complex tapestry, although one which requires too much audience participation to complete. José thinks he’s giving a pretentious work of ego far too much credit, is turned off by the dance scenes, annoyed at the lack of connection he finds between its wider themes and central coven, angered by its grey, wintry colour palette and dry cinematography… in fact, he’s angered by all of it! Now he knows how his friends felt as he valiantly tried to argue them into appreciating Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name, which he loved, but which many of them greeted with similar hostility.
The original a cult classic, its remake a very different take on the core premise – both are worth watching. But if our responses are anything to go by, your mileage may vary considerably.
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A film buff’s delight, and not only because of the director’s parentage (John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands for those of you who might not yet know). The film begins with some of the narration from Vittorio De Sica’s Indescretion of an American Wife (a.k.a. Terminal Station, USA/ Italy, 1953) with Jennifer Jones expressing her loneliness and her need whilst visually we’re introduced to a handsomel house in Connecticut and a lovely woman, Djuna (Joséphine de la Baume) who evokes some of the beautiful porcelain vacuity of an Ursula Andress or a Sharon Stone.
Djuna meets Paolo (Milo Ventimiglio) in a video store showing Algiers (John Cromwell, USA, 1938) with Hedy Lamarr. He drinks scotch and writes arty screenplays that don’t sell. At a bar, they fall for each other but she can’t see him: she’s got an ‘illness’. He pursues her, wants her; he longs for the danger and excitement he knows she can provide. He follows her to her house and there’s a brilliant scene where she keeps the door chain on, they kiss, the kiss is filmed from above in a striking composition made up of a rectangle of light formed by the partly opened door, but then he recoils in pain, looks through the side of the door and sees her fangs reflected in the mirror (this is a vampire film that does not respect all vampire lore).
He doesn’t quite believe that she can really be a vampire so she gets him to tie her to the bed with enormous silver chains, turn her on and wait for the fangs to come out. The chains ensure his safety but he doesn’t want to be safe and removes them. The scene is delirious and ludicrous and sexy and something else too: one gets a sense that sex can be bloody and dangerous and all the more desirable for that. This is rendered even more perverse by the insertion of the wonderful scene from Luis Buñuel’s Viridiana where Don Jaime (Fernando Rey) drugs his niece Viridiana (Silvia Pinal) and plans to rape her whilst a little girl climbs a tree to get a better view.
Needless to say Djuna and Paolo fall in love. She ‘turns’ him and introduces him to her coterie of chic vampires led by Xenia (Anna Mouglalis), the queen of the ‘international clan’ who is a star actress longing for human applause and whose house they are staying at. The vampires talk about human blood substitutes, the beluga of ethically sourced platelets and True Blood whilst listening to Chopin. She’s clearly introduced him to a glamorous witty world he’d never have had access to and everything seems to be going swimmingly until Djuna’s sister Mimi (Roxane Mesquida, she of the frank, gritty, somewhat coarse, rather wonderful Catherine Breillat films) arrives. Mimi is hungry, rapacious, amoral: there’s a wonderful scene where she tries to manipulate Xenia by presenting her with a fan, a virgin, and making sure her water glass is nicked so as to draw blood. Can Xenia resist? Can Paolo resist Mimi?
All of this is filmed as a kind of homage to Hammer Horror and Italian giallo, with particular reference to Dario Argento. Everything about the film seems slightly off, other-worldly, consciously fake and slightly stilted; a feeling exacerbated by everyone except Ventimiglio and Michael Rapaport (wonderful as a sweaty, rapacious agent) seeming to speak their lines phonetically. The music too, though evidently composed for the film, also evokes the cinema Kiss of the Damned renders homage to. It’s nice to see a vampire film that’s once more about romance, loneliness, violence and the polymorphousness and mutability of desire.
In Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, a Professor of Greek tells his students, ‘Beauty is terror. Whatever we call beautiful, we quiver before it. And what could be more terrifying and beautiful, to souls like the Greeks or our own, than to lose control completely? To throw off the chains of being for an instants, to shatter the accident of our mortal selves…If we are strong enough in our souls we can rip away the veil and look that naked, terrible beauty right in the face: let God consume us, devour us, unstring our bones. Then spit us out reborn’ (pp.44-45).
The characters in Kiss of the Damned feel as the professor does even as they try to take control of themselves. However, the film itself suffers from also reining itself in by genre, convention, allusion and quotation. It sometimes seems more concerned with expressing its particular themes through an evocation of a period and a genre, to exist tightly locked into a matrix of allusion, than to elicit the raw pleasures audiences that go to genre films expect. Kiss of the Damned has sex, gore, desire and romance; and it does thrill – just not enough: not enough terror, not enough beauty.