One of the my favorite vampire films is Roger Vadim’s haunting and surreal Blood and Roses (Et mourir de plaisir, 1960), which recently made my list of “31 films that give me the willies.” Vadim’s impressive horror film is equal to other revered classics made at the same time such as Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face (1960) and Mario Bava’s Black Sunday (1960), which have both had a lot of ink spilled on their behalves and can easily be found available in high-quality DVD presentations at the moment. Unfortunately, Vadim’s Blood and Roses is often forgotten even though it definitely deserves a wider audience.
Like many of Vadim’s films, Blood and Roses has suffered from unusually harsh reviews over the years, which often seem written by critics who have a personal vendetta against Vadim or they just aren’t capable of appreciating the film’s incredible cinematography, gothic atmosphere and thoughtful script. I personally find Blood and Roses to be one of the most influential and important horror films ever made, and possibly Roger Vadim’s best movie.
Blood and Roses was Vadim’s creative attempt to retell the classic Sheridan Le Fanu vampire tale Carmilla (1871-72). The story had previously been adapted by Carl Dreyer for his film Vampyr – Der Traum des Allan Grey (1932), but Vadim was the first director to attempt to make a somewhat more literal adaptation of the story. The film’s impressive cinematography by Claude Renoir and creative directing by Vadim are years ahead of their time, and have undoubtedly inspired many other filmmakers. While I hesitate to name names, I’ve always had the impression that directors like Mario Bava, Roger Corman, Jean Rollin and even Alain Resnais may have all been influenced by Roger Vadim’s Blood and Roses.
Vadim infused Blood and Roses with a high-level of eroticism that had rarely, if ever, been present in previous horror films made earlier and his personal retelling of Le Fanu’s Carmilla would go on to spawn a legion of similar films such as Hammer’s wonderful Karnstein Trilogy, Harry Kümel’s Daughters of Darkness (1971), Jess Franco’s Vampyros Lesbos (1971), José Ramón Larraz’s Vampyres (1974), etc. As much as I love all of the films that followed in the footsteps of Blood and Roses, Vadim’s original movie remains one of my favorites and it’s a film that I love to return to again and again due to the incredibly intoxicating atmosphere and the beautiful imagery conjured up by Roger Vadim and Claude Renoir. The film also benefits from a beautiful score composed by Jean Prodromidès.
Blood and Roses opens with a plane rising into the sky and the audience is offered a birds-eye (or bat’s eye) view of the European countryside as seen from a plane window. A female narrator named Mircalla tells us that she is part of the past and the present. She is a spirit, but she has form. As the story progresses you discover how and why Mircalla is flying in a plane and telling us her story.
The film stars Annette Vadim (or Annette Stroyberg) as the beautiful Carmilla Karnstein, who is obsessed with her family’s history of vampirism and suffering from extreme melancholy after discovering that her beloved cousin Leopoldo (Mel Ferrer) is going to marry another woman named Georgia (Elsa Martinelli). Carmilla is inconsolable, and during an engagement party for the two lovers she wanders off into the family cemetery, while firework explode overhead and light up the night sky with a rainbow of colors in one of the films most visually stunning moments. The fireworks also mange to ignite some explosives left over from the war that are hidden in the graveyard. All this activity seems to wake the sleeping dead and when Carmilla ventures into the family tomb she becomes the victim of the vampire Mircalla (or Millarca).
Afterward Carmilla roams the family estate as Mircalla wearing a beautiful white wedding dress that belonged to her dead relative, while surviving on the innocent blood of servant girls. Carmilla appears extremely ghost-like and her passions now seem somewhat torn between her cousin and the woman he loves. Is Carmilla truly a vampire or just a victim of her own selfish desires and depression? Vadim lets his audience decide.
Top: Annette Vadim, Bottom: Elsa Martinelli
Annette Vadim is a stunning woman, but she’s also a talented actress who is often overlooked due to being Vadim’s second wife between his marriages to the much better-known and celebrated beauties Brigitte Bardot and Jane Fonda. Before starring in Blood and Roses Annette appeared in Vadim’s Dangerous Liaisons (1960) and Jean Cocteau’s surreal masterpiece The Testament of Orpheus (1960). She brings a vulnerability and sadness to her role of Carmilla that is hard to forget. She also shares a fascinating chemistry with her lovely co-star Elsa Martinelli. Unfortunately Annette Vadim only made a few more films after Blood and Roses before retiring from acting in 1965. Elsa Martinelli on the other hand went on to become a mildly popular international star after appearing in films such as Hatari! (1962), The V.I.P.s (1963), etc. and she later had roles in lots of interesting films including The 10th Victim (1965), Candy (1968) and Perversion Story (1969).
Much like Le Fanu’s original tale, Roger Vadim’s Blood and Roses is slow-moving and it contains very little blood. Most of the action takes place off-screen and is only suggested. The film has often been criticized for this, which I personally find rather absurd. If you’re familiar with the original story as well as other classic gothic literature, you’re well aware that the original stories were often very suggestive and that left many of the events they portrayed open to interpretation. Writers expected their readers to use their imaginations and become a part of the story instead of just passive readers. Oddly enough, Blood and Roses has also been criticized for being too “exploitive,” but nothing could be further from the truth. Vadim smartly hints at the erotic lesbian undercurrent running throughout Le Fanu’s Carmilla, but there is nothing exploitive in the subtle nudity and romanticized eroticism found within his film.
My favorite moment in Blood and Roses is the amazing dream sequence that’s reminiscent of Jean Cocteau’s best work. As I mentioned above, Vadim’s wife Annette had worked with Cocteau earlier on his film The Testament of Orpheus and I’m sure that Vadim and cinematographer Claude Renoir probably found inspiration within Cocteau’s films while making Blood and Roses. This memorable sequence begins when Carmilla (as Mircalla) seduces Georgia while she slumbers, and both women are suddenly plunged into the dark dream world of Georgia’s unconscious that is inhabited by ghosts, shadows and untapped desires. Vadim’s directorial skills are on full display here and have rarely, if ever, been surpassed. The director shows a clear mastery of the fantastique in Blood and Roses that always manages to impress me.
Vadim’s horror masterpiece Blood and Roses is currently only available on video in a lackluster presentation from Paramount. The film’s original running time is supposedly 87 minutes, but the Paramount video is only 74 minutes long and dubbed. I really hope that some DVD company like Criterion, Blue Underground or Mondo Macabro will get their hands on the rights to this film and restore it to its original Technicolor splendor. If there is one neglected horror film that really deserves a nice widescreen, subtitled DVD release, Blood and Roses is it.
Right: Roger Vadim and Annette Vadim