Carmilla (2019)

Lara holds her finger over a candle flame as if she were going to go all G. Gordon Liddy: guess what?

I feel perpetually late to the party on just about everything these days; mirroring real life I suppose as I am always late to any party (because who wants to be first? Unless it’s a good friend and then I get there early to make sure I can talk to them before the party starts but they’re usually so busy/anxious it’s less than satisfying but enough about me). Carmilla, written and directed by Emily Harris, is of course adapted from Sheridan LeFanu’s 1871 novella, a staple of the Gothic course I taught for a while. Always good to introduce students to the vampires that come before Dracula (see also Cristabel by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, which he began writing in 1787 and which also features a female vampire.

I will point you to Angela Englert’s very fine write up over at the always delightful Cultural Gutter for matters of the narrative and adaptation because I just want to talk about lighting and cinematography mostly.

So. Lush.

Really: the light is practically a character in itself: it manages to be both diaphanous and almost tangible at the same time. Whether it’s coming from crackling fires or flickering candles, it caresses the screen and the characters, sometimes enveloping them in a protective circle of gold. The hues are amazing: Michael Wood should be more celebrated. I couldn’t help wondering if Harris cast Hannah Rae as young Lara simply because of how the light loves her profile. She manages to embody all the innocent, ripe promise of a girl bursting through adolescence carefully reined in by the loving disciplinarian governess Miss Fontaine (played with explosive containment by Jessica Raine). Oh there’s so much in the glimpses of their relationship: the casual punishments like binding her left hand to make her use the non-dominant right, snatching away the anatomy books that feed Lara’s curiosity and end up inspiring sensual but violent dreams.

Don’t you want to know what’s inside people?

The sound design is amazing, too: so many close ups of various tiny creatures and amplified sounds of them scritching, chomping, oozing along. Even before Devrim Lingnau shows up as the titular character rescued from a mysterious carriage crash, Lara seems otherworldly in that strangeness that is beaten, ridiculed or laughed out of many a solitary young girl kept ignorant of the world. Not beholden to the same strictures, Carmilla sees Lara as a person worthy of interest. Sure, it may be mostly her blood that draws that interest, but the affection that quickly blooms between them mirrors the pulsating natural world around them: to some (like the repressed governess) it may seem grotesque, yet to the two young women it is as natural as a flower opening.

Men are peripheral to the story for the most part: Lara’s father (Greg Wise) goes off searching for news of Carmilla’s family, and the local doctor (Tobias Menzies, whom I knee-jerk always assume to be evil) is mostly puzzled by the strange illnesses, lacking Miss Fontaine’s acuity for locating devilish shenanigans. Raine is so good in a role that is mostly unsympathetic, but she makes all the things running under the surface show in revealing moments. The whole cast are great and Harris gets powerful performances out of them all, leaving room for emotions to develop (even the last scene, where Rae’s face doesn’t show).

A great goth start to the day.

UPDATE: Paula Guthat from Cinema Detroit shared a link with me for a Q&A after the screening there with director Emily Harris and cinematographer Michael Wood. Hopefully watching it when I can get dad distracted long enough.

Poster for Carmilla with award nominations highlighted