Film Queer

Sapphic Cinema: The Carmilla Movie

Hello and welcome to a special Halloween installment of Sapphic Cinema. Today we’ll be discussing The Carmilla Movie, which is newly available on demand! As you may know, I generally only use this column to review queer films that have been released for at least five years, but since Carmilla itself has broken nearly every rule of media merely by existing, it seems like an ideal movie to break my own rules for.

The Carmilla Movie, for those not in the know, is very loosely based on Carmilla, the 1872 lesbian vampire novel by Sheridan Le Fanu. This modern version began its life as a webseries, which became a sleeper hit so successful that it graduated all the way to cinema. The series is framed as the vlog of Laura Hollis (Elise Bauman) who arrives at her elite Austrian college only to discover that her roommate, Carmilla (Natasha Negovanlis) is a 300 year-old vampire in service to her “mother,” the school’s evil Dean. Over the course of three seasons, Laura and Carmilla fall in love, defeat (and re-defeat and re-re-defeat) evil, with the help of their beloved and deeply queer group of friends. At the end of the series, Carmilla’s noble sacrifices earn her the chance to be freed from vampirism and live as a human with Laura.

OH BRAVE NEW WORLD, THAT HAS EXTERIOR SHOTS IN IT!

First of all, it goes without saying that anyone who loved the Carmilla webseries will enjoy this movie. The higher praise is that you will enjoy this movie even if the original webseries was not your absolute, all-time, most favorite thing. I will confess at the outset that I belong to the latter category of viewer. Don’t get me wrong: I liked the original—it did a lot with a little, possessed a dense comedic style that often struck gold, and its two leads had a palpable chemistry (when critics say “palpable chemistry,” they mean “they looked like they wanted to kiss each other real bad and then when they did kiss each other, they did it good, with hands stuff”).

I also deeply respect what the webseries did by improbably amassing a huge following and proving that fans will show up, hearts and wallets in hand, for queer media. However, I often lost patience with Carmilla’s hyper-serialized format, which suffered from uneven pacing, deeply convoluted plots, and the fact that there was a mere one (ONE) camera angle per season, the sight of which I quickly grew deeply sick of.

SEASON TWO’S SHOT FTW THOUGH.

The Carmilla Movie, however, builds on the strengths of the original, while overcoming many of its flaws. The pacing is excellent without being formulaic, the camera work is gorgeous by any standard, and the chemistry is as exciting as it was for the first kiss. (The plot is still impossible to follow, but it’s relegated to tertiary importance behind humor, character development, and the erotic possibilities of corsets.)

So, as the film’s opening voiceover quickly establishes, it’s been five years since Carmilla and Laura left school and started living as a (relatively) normal couple. In that time, the gang has all transitioned into adulthood with varying degrees of success. LaFontaine and Perry own a successful business, though their division of labor is the source of some significant friction. Kirsch and Mel have nebulously-defined jobs on a a news crew. And Laura has made huge strides in completing her five-year plan, which she has neatly outlined on a poster board the size of a Brooklyn apartment.

I FEEL PERSONALLY DRAGGED BY “WRITE AN ARTICLE EVERY DAY.”

Laura has become a local newscaster, though she still feels professionally dissatisfied (which: you’re on TV and have socialized healthcare, so cry me a river, kid). She’s still the same indomitable woodland creature as ever when she’s filming her vlog, but the second the camera stops rolling, her face collapses into exhaustion. (The way the movie uses and then discards the vlog format is one of the film’s nicest touches.)

Most seriously, Laura is worried about Carmilla, who is a bit stalled-out, with no interest in pursuing a career, or in anything really, beyond sex, tanning, and sampling various breakfast pastries.

SO AN IDEAL LIFE, THEN.

Carmilla is the literal personification of “old money,” so it’s not that her aimlessness is causing any financial strain, but Laura worries that Carm still doesn’t understand that now that she’s a human, her time is precious. And finite. This thread—Laura terrified of being a second-rate mediocrity, Carmilla terrified to consider what life might be like post-everlasting youth—is the most thematically ambitious thing Carmilla has ever tried, and it pays off beautifully. Catching up with characters you loved as youths while they stumble through adulthood is fraught with difficulty (Hey there, Skins: Fire) but the gang’s quarter-life crises feel believable and familiar.

And then the dreams start. Laura begins having a recurring dream that she is in an old manor, attired in gorgeous Victorian finery, and Carmilla is there. Only it’s not the deadpan, punk rock Carmilla we know, but an earlier, more dangerous version. (The way she tailors her performance to the time period is one of Natasha Negovanlis’ greatest achievements in this movie.)

What’s more, when Laura looks in the mirror, she sees the face of another woman (Wynonna Earp‘s Dominique Provost-Chalkley), which means the dreams aren’t just the manifestation of Laura’s fears about Carmilla’s past and persistently vampiric nature, but actual memories.

The dreams get worse until one night, Laura awakes to find Carmilla feasting on her blood, having briefly become a vampire again, a thing that shouldn’t even be possible. In no time, Perry and LaFontaine are running a series of tests, which determine that the spell that makes Carmilla human is flickering on and off (this is the last point at which the plot makes sense, so enjoy it.)

DON’T GET ME WRONG, I LOVE A GOOD ESTABLISHING SHOT. I JUST DON’T WANT TO LIVE IN IT FOR MONTHS AT A TIME.

Soon, the gang connects Carmilla’s symptoms to Laura’s dreams, and decide to journey to the creepy manor in search of clues. It’s most of the original core team: Science genius LaFontaine (Kaitlyn Alexander, who has probably done more for nonbinary representation than any one single person I can think of), Perry (Annie Briggs) whose tightly-wound wit lands some of the movie’s best zingers, Mel (Nicole Stamp) packing serious heat and eyebrow, and Kirsch (Matt O’Connor) the dim bulb dude who gamely agrees to be the butt of a lot of jokes.

The manor—which is in curiously pristine condition, given that it was supposedly abandoned in the 1800’s—is the former home of Elle, Carmilla’s first love. Alone among Carmilla’s long list of victims, Elle was the only one Carmilla tried to save, but when Elle learned that her lover was feasting on her blood, she ran headlong into the arms of Carm’s mother, who killed her. And what of all the other innocent girls Carmilla drained of life? Well, turns out they’re here!

TALK ABOUT THE GHOSTS OF GIRLFRIENDS PAST.

There is a Vagina Monologues’ cast worth of ghost girls camped out at the manor, where they reveal they have been awaiting Carmilla’s arrival. Every girl she ever sacrificed to her mother, with the notable exception of Elle. It seems Carmilla may have accidentally summoned them while trying to deal with her guilt in therapy (these things happen). Prior to being summoned, they were all trapped in a hell dimension, where their worst nightmares played forever on an endless loop (a torture not easily distinguishable from the real world in 2017!). But they’re remarkably forgiving of Carmilla, considering she seduced, murdered, and condemned them to eternal damnation. Like, too forgiving. Suspiciously forgiving.

SERVING ME A MIDDLING MERLOT IS A PRETTY WEAK REVENGE, IMO.

According to the ghosts, Carmilla needs to participate in a ceremony which will allow their souls to move on to the proper afterlife (which again, they are very chill about). Carm reluctantly agrees, hopeful that the ceremony will stop her former nature from taking over and allow her to move on.

And that, the work Carmilla is trying to do to banish her guilt, is a theme even more ambitious than Laura’s fears about theri future. Because, even though we’ve known from the beginning of this story that Carm has done unforgivable things, we’ve never been directly confronted with them until now. Laura’s dream sequences take Carmilla’s monstrousness from theoretical to concrete, as we finally see the old Carmilla in action: seducing, betraying, and murdering.

The way those scenes flash back and forth between Bauman and Provost-Chalkley is particularly effective, as Laura watches another girl filled with the same love and trust and hope in the same woman, both jealous of and identifying with her and her cruel fate.

Honestly I think it’s a shame that the dream flashbacks don’t shake Laura’s trust in Carmilla even more, but they do make it clear that Carmilla isn’t moving forward with her human life because she is still so deeply caught up in her past, crushed by the unfathomable burden of her guilt. So yeah, a magical ceremony that releases the souls of her victims would be an awesome quick fix. Way less time-consuming than therapy.

But first: a party! The ghosts insist that everyone dress up in period attire and get drunk before disappearing forever into the void of non-existence!

Y’ALL HAVE WEIRD PRIORITIES!

So, ahem. Then some stuff happens. Some sex stuff. I had read there was a sex scene in this movie, and that it went farther than the frantic desk-scrabbling of the webseries, but I was not prepared. How it goes down is: Laura gets all dressed up in her corset, and Carmilla gives her that “oh shit I did not even realize it but this is my exact kink” look.

And then they pretty much go at it, in a scene that is not only good, it’s unique in its shot selection. Most lesbian sex scenes typically hit the same three tried-and-true angles, but this actually adds a couple new ones to the repertoire. Normally I would go on further about the ways in which the sex scene is good, but here’s the thing: Natasha Negovanlis and I both used to write for the same website (whose name I shall not taint this review with by mentioning), so I have been on email chains with her, and once you know someone even just a little, it’s hard not feel a bit prudish when discussing their orgasm face. So let’s just leave it at “excellent shot selection” and feel however we feel about the rest of it in the privacy of our own hearts.

When they finally make it down to the party, there’s a delightful interlude in which Perry and LoFontaine dance, and Mel strikes up an extremely ill-advised flirtation with one of the ghost girls (I mean, there’s “one-night stand” and then there’s “my soul departs for oblivion at midnight”).

WHY DO YOU MAKE US SHIP THINGS WE CAN’T HAVE?

Then it’s time for the actual ritual which—and I know this is going to come as a shock—goes horribly wrong. That’s because Carmilla’s ex finally makes an appearance in the flesh.

I can offer no higher praise for Dominique Provost-Chalkley’s performance than to say that I have never watched Wynonna Earp, but I am GOING. TO. START. The entire cast of Carmilla is appealing and engaging, but when Dominique appears on screen, you just want to say “I THINK WE HAD ALL BETTER SHUT UP, BECAUSE THIS PERSON MIGHT RAISE AN EYEBROW AND WE WOULDN’T WANT TO MISS IT.”

THIS IS THE FACE OF SOMEONE WHO IS IN THE RIGHT LINE OF WORK.

While all Carmilla’s other exes are ready to move on, Elle is still in the “posting an itemized of all your mistakes on your Instagram feed” phase of the breakup. She wants her life back, and she doesn’t really care how many other lives she has to take to get it. (When Carmilla tries to point out the selfishness of this outlook, Elle quite fairly observes that Carmilla subsisted on the blood of the living for 300 years, so she’s not in much of a position to judge.)

What follows is a climax that combines psychological horror, intimacy issues (so, another type of psychological horror), and Carmilla‘s trademark campy humor. Since the film is so new, I’m not going to spoil the ending, except to say that it manages to be both open-ended and satisfying. In fact, its great lesson is that Laura has to learn to find satisfaction despite knowing that life is, by definition, unresolvable, and constantly ricocheting between bliss and doubt and tedium.

By way of closing, I want to echo a request I’ve seen all over social media, which is: please pay for, rather than pirate this movie. The Carmilla Movie was shot in fourteen days on a shoestring budget, which makes its overall success that much more amazing. And the few threadbare spots–where the editing feels unnatural, or some dialogue was clearly added in post-production—are the result of the extremely limited resources this film had to work with. So please, help reward the passion and the enormous investment of time and talent that went into this film. (And if you’d like to support other queer media, consider subscribing to THIS VERY WEBSITE.)

If that earnest plea isn’t enough to hook you, I’d recommend sticking around for the post-credits teaser, which features the return of a fan-favorite character and ends with “to be continued?” If there’s any fandom capable of turning that question mark into an exclamation point, it’s this one, and with this film added to the canon, the number of Carmilla devotees is bound to grow.

The Breakdown

Number of Sex Scenes: One and a half, because that strawberry business at the beginning is, if not a new base, then at least an in-between area between bases. Like where the shortstop stands.

Quality of Sex Scenes: As I’ve said, I find it awkward to talk about Natasha in this context, but I have never been in an email chain with Elise Bauman, so I feel slightly more comfortable in saying that while Laura may be a chipmunk in the streets, she is a clearly goddamn minx in the sheets, which is just as I suspected.

Moral of the Story: The moral is that no story is neat enough to be wrapped up in a bow, because relationships require constant work, and forgiving yourself for your past is a continually unfinished labor!

Eventual Fate of Central Couple: Maybe if enough of us buy the movie, they’ll make a sequel and let us find out.

If you enjoyed this review, please check out our other installments of Sapphic Cinema!

2 Comments

  1. Loved this review, as always you say a lot of what I am thinking, only far more eloquently, and with screencaps. Thankfully I have no email history with any of our heroines so I feel I can expand a bit on why I consider this scene was so well done. Firstly, the camera focussing on the skin-on-skin, the smiles, eye contact, and the connection without it being rose-coloured soft-focus and cheesy. Good sex is fun, right? And it’s a personal connection and I feel that this was portrayed really well. No schmaltzy tender music but a soundtrack that communicated they were having a damn good time together. Then seeing a scene like this between established lovers is something you rarely see. It’s always the first encounter that is portrayed, not the 200th, which let’s face it, the sex is so much better by then. Then lastly that part at the end when they drop the music to that raw electronical end note and you can just hear them breathing. Hot and sweaty and right in each others’ faces. Incredible. I think about how much I prefer this to something full of flesh and over the top theatrics. I dunno, maybe I’m a prude but this is 100 times sexier because we saw nothing gratuitous but we’re left under no illusions as to what had happened. I believed it and it felt real. The actresses completely sold it to me with their level of commitment and comfort with each other. Then not forgetting the lighting and costumes which just add another richness on top of that.

    As for the rest of the movie, I really enjoyed it as a bit of escapist fun, and more than happy to pay to support what they do. Much respect for this production breaking ground and having their own creative control. It clearly works well for them!

    Lastly, I loved your Dominique P-C comment too! She played that part well, and from what I’ve seen of her in real life, she seems like the kind of big-hearted goof that is rare these days.

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