*. Erotic? Director Harry Kümel: “It is the first movie where a man is shown having an orgasm.” Well, I wouldn’t go that far. But we do start in a train carriage with a pair of naked bodies, and a bold pronouncement that you are watching a “blue” movie.
*. That’s both a thematic and a tonal cue, as the flashing red from the railway signals introduces the dominant note of the film’s extravagant colour code. The three main elements are red, white, and black, chosen because they were the colours of the Nazi flag. Why a Nazi flag? Apparently because the Countess is a little dictator in the way that she controls other people. This seems like a stretch to me, but there you have it.
*. The red and black and white are there in the three outfits worn by the principals in the seduction scene. But do the colours mean anything? At different times, Stefan wears all red and all white, Valerie wears all white and all black, and Bathory wears all black, all white, and all red. So how do you interpret them? Innocence, evil, and blood?
*. Red. Blood, obviously. And it’s some of the fakest blood I’ve ever seen (Stefan’s looks as thick as paint). But then Kümel wanted fake.
*. Red is everywhere. It’s overwhelming in the bright red dissolves and the giant red lips, on the Countess’s fingernails and Stefan’s bathrobe, slippers, and red leather jacket.
*. Kümel didn’t make a lot of movies, and I’m not sure why that is. He certainly had an eye, and an ability to put out quality work quickly and on a budget. Perhaps he was too much of an artist.
*. He describes himself on the commentary as a strict formalist who despises naturalism. He wanted his films to look self-consciously fabricated, and even wanted the music in this one to be “more trashy . . . fake.” Which is kind of surprising given that I find this to be a rather artificial-sounding score.
*. Yes it’s clichéd — the leg extending out from the car door is pure Dietrich — but the Countess Elizabeth Bathory’s entry is one of the greats. And I love how those signature fire-engine red lips (which gave the film its original French and Belgian title, The Red Lips) are highlighted in such a way at to appear almost disembodied in Rocky Horror fashion. In their own way they are more threatening than fangs.
*. I’m not sure the Countess is a vampire. She’s a sadist and sensualist, but that’s something else. What she chooses to call herself is an “outmoded character and nothing more,” someone who is just playing a role.
*. There’s no need to believe in the idea that she’s immortal or a supernatural being for the film to work. Everything that happens in the movie has a rational explanation except for the mirror business, which may be subjective or imagined (why would the Countess be checking herself out in a compact mirror anyway, if she has no reflection?).
*. A very strong feminist line. There’d been lesbian vampires on screen before (it was suggested as early as Dracula’s Daughter), but here that’s not an angle that’s exploited in obvious ways. Instead, it’s more the story of Valerie’s awakening and empowerment. It’s not enough for her to simply leave Stefan; he has to be humiliated. Look at how the Countess throws his clothes at him, twice! Or makes him dig Ilona’s grave on the beach . . . with his hands! And then to have Valerie not even kiss him until she’s told to by the Countess. After all, she’s wearing the Countess’s collar.
*. And yet Bathory kisses Stefan’s corpse before they dispose of his body. What’s that all about?
*. Stefan: “I am a man and she is my . . . ” What? I can’t make out what he says.
*. As far as the homosexuality goes it just seems to be a token for decadence. Both the Countess and “Mother” are wealthy, older homosexuals who are exploiting younger lovers (it seems clear that both Ilona and Stefan want, on some level, to break away). I don’t find this very “queer positive,” as the saying goes. And I wonder what Stefan’s plan is. Mother tells him he is being unrealistic. He is only a “kept boy” (as Kümel describes him on the commentary). I doubt he’s going to be able to enjoy any more expensive holidays in Ostend.
*. The film has the texture, almost, of Visconti. And actually you could make an interesting comparison between this movie and Death in Venice, with that miasma of morbid decadence having traveled all the way to Ostend. It was intended by its producers to be a commercial project and not art house at all. Sex and blood were what they wanted. What they got was Last Year in Ostend.
*. Ostend seems so beautiful, but why? I think because it’s almost entirely depopulated. There is an aesthetic of emptiness that I think we all respond to. Emptiness represents freedom, purity, and order. If hell is other people, then that hotel in Ostend is heaven.
*. It must be hard to maintain such a place with a 98% vacancy rate, even if it is the offseason. On the other hand, it seems to be run with a staff of one, which no doubt helps with the labour costs. Kümel has an explanation for this, saying it was done (a) to save money; and (b) to show that it was not a realistic film, that films are not reality but the stuff of dreams.
*. Kümel was a film historian and there are plenty of nods here to the greats. Seyrig and Rau are Marlene Dietrich and Louise Brooks. The shower scene that ends with the close-up on Ilona’s eye is from Psycho. The point of view of the corpse being removed from the house was an homage to the premature burial scene in Dreyer’s Vampyr. (Even though it doesn’t make sense because the victim has a (red!) blanket over her face.)
*. Oh I just adore Andrea Rau in this movie. She steals my heart. But what is that rash or blemish on her throat? It’s not a bite, and looks like something make-up could have easily concealed, but it’s left quite noticeable. Oh well.
*. Ilona: “I wish I could die.” But she dies rather easily, doesn’t she? I mean, how do you die, instantly, by falling on a razor? Kümel: “It’s impossible, but still people believe.” I didn’t.
*. “Believe me, nothing in life is ever that serious.” Is it vampire angst? Or just Euro ennui? I love Elizabeth’s reaction to Valerie’s scream (“What was that?” “It sounded like a scream”), or the way she finds the detective’s conversation “almost distasteful.” Seyrig deliberately wanted to play the part deadpan. Nothing phases the Countess or takes the wan smile off her face.
*. In Sexual Personae Camille Paglia calls this a “high gothic” sensibility: “High gothic is abstract and ceremonious. Evil has become world-weary, hierarchical glamour. There is no bestiality. The theme is eroticized western power, the burden of history.”
*. The burden is tiring. It seems that everyone in this movie is so weary. They are constantly slumping in their seats and leaning into one another. Even the Countess is a tired vampire, collapsing into doorframes. Nobody is getting enough sleep.
*. Costumes. What year is this? It seems to be set in the present day (that is, the ’70s). But the Countess seems to have saved her wardrobe from her earlier visit to Ostend forty years ago. But why wouldn’t she be wearing clothes from three hundred years ago? I think because it’s just her sense of style.
*. It’s a sense of style that Mother seems to share. His telephone is not something that would have been in use in the ’70s. He seems caught in the same time warp.
*. What is that Cruella de Vil car? A vintage Bristol. I couldn’t imagine them actually wrecking it in the final smash up, and so wasn’t surprised they fudged that part. It still looks pretty good though.
*. Speaking of the crash scene, Elizabeth seems to have a pretty shaky sense of when the sun is due to come up for someone who’s survived for hundreds of years hiding from it. This is another thing that makes me think that this part of the story is bullshit. She’s just a depraved sensualist, not a vampire.
*. The detective riding about on his trusty bicycle is kind of a throwaway character. And indeed he is thrown away. I kept expecting him to show up again, but I guess he was killed when the Countess hit his bike. It didn’t seem like it at the time. I just thought he was being run off the road. Kümel: “I should have shown a shot close-up of him dead.”
*. Is Valerie speaking with Delphine Seyrig’s voice at the end? It sounds like it.
*. It’s a point that’s often made, but John Karlen makes it again on the DVD commentary and it’s worth repeating: “All good movies are an accident, and they come together for no reason. Casablanca comes together for no reason. I’m not comparing anything to Casablanca, I’m just saying that good movies happen accidentally, all good movies, there is no formula.”
*. This is one of those sui generis movies, a cult film that plays out almost like a fairy tale (Kümel called it “a fairy tale for full-grown adults”), with its conflicting and ambiguous schemes of evil and innocence. It’s not a movie I return to a lot, but I do find it a rich and rewarding experience every time I see it. It has something magical and haunting about it.