Musings & Meditations

“To Die of Pleasure”: Roger Vadim’s Blood and Roses

Posted in Horror, Movies, Sexuality and Culture, Uncategorized, Vampires, Women in Horror by Pam Keesey on March 22, 2011

Blood and Roses (Vadim, 1960)Roger Vadim was a pioneer in sexually explicit filmmaking. His 1956 film And God Created Woman (starring Brigitte Bardot, to whom he was then married) pushed the boundaries of acceptable on-screen sexuality in mainstream cinema. At the same time, his style, tastes, and sensibilities transcended what had been previously classified as pornography. By combining an erotic sensibility with a talent for visual storytelling, Vadim paved the way for more sexually explicit imagery in mainstream cinema not only in France and in the rest of Europe, but also, eventually, in the United States.

Et Mourir de Plaisir, the French title of Roger Vadim’s erotic vampire film Blood and Roses (1960), translates as “And to Die of Pleasure,” a title that hints at the pleasures—and the deaths—that we are about to witness.

Blood and Roses is Vadim’s retelling of Sheridan Le Fanu’s (credited as Le Vanu in Vadim’s opening credits) lesbian vampire tale “Carmilla.” Set in Italy rather than Le Fanu’s Styria, Vadim’s Carmilla is not the barely remembered figure of a remote past, but a modern woman with a modern tale to tell. In an opening sequence, we are introduced to Carmilla through a voiceover in which she begins the story of her most recent incarnation.

The story is told as a flasback. A marriage is about to take place, and the festivities are being arranged. Leopoldo is about to marry Georgia, much to his cousin’s (Carmilla) chagrin. Leopoldo is of the family Von Karnstein, and Carmilla is his “first cousin and childhood playmate, last descendant of the Austrian branch” of the family von Karnstein.

When a family servant reveals that it will be difficult to find villagers to help set up the fireworks display—which, as it turns out, is to be based in the old abbey, the site of the family cemetery—Leopoldo and Carmilla reveal that the von Karnsteins were known vampires. Vampires, that is, until 1765, when the peasants revolted and staked the members of the Karnstein family whose bodies resided in the abbey. All of the members were put to rest, and the bodies exhumed, except for Carmilla’s distant relative, Mircalla, to whom Carmilla bears more than a passing resemblance. Her body was moved, and her eternal life saved, by her fiancé, Ludwig, to whom, it just so happens, Leopoldo also bears a more than passing resemblance.

Ludwig, it seems, was unfaithful to Millarca’s memory. On the eve of three subsequent marriages, Ludwig’s fiancee died. “Millarca’s doing, I suppose,” Georgia says.

Pointing to the rose resting in the hand of the long-dead Millarca in the family’s heirloom, a protrait, Georgia asks Carmilla, “The rose is faded. Why?”

“Flowers always fade when a vampire touches them,” Carmilla responds. And, of course, the roses in the film wilt and fade at Carmilla’s slightest touch.

And thus, we are introduced to the love triangle that will form the rest of the story: Carmilla, Georgia, and Leopoldo.

Vadim takes quite a few liberties with the original story as penned by Le Fanu. By introducing Leopoldo (and Ludwig before him), Vadim transforms Le Fanu’s tale from one of love and affection between two young women to one of a jealous woman’s efforts to keep her man, even if that means seducing the woman he loves.

While rather tame by today’s standards, Blood and Roses raised more than a few eyebrows in its day. Georgia is clearly quite taken with Carmilla’s brooding sensuality. And Carmilla, although she embarks on her flirtation with Georgia with Leopoldo in mind, seems more than a little intrigued by the beautiful innocence and heartfelt naiveté of the friendly and gregarious Georgia.

Alone with Georgia in the greenhouse where they’ve taken shelter from the rain, Georgia tells Carmilla that she knows that Carmilla is in love with Leopoldo. In that moment, Carmilla notices a drop of blood on Georgia’s lower lip. She moves slowly toward Georgia, while Georgia stands transfixed, and kisses Georgia lightly, gently sucking the drop of blood from her mouth.

Carmilla’s attraction to Georgia is explained away by Giuseppe, the groundskeeper and one of the more superstitious among the castle’s inhabitants. “Do they only kill women?” the girls ask Giuseppe.

“If it’s a female vampire,” he responds. He goes on to warn, “The worst thing is when a vampire identifies her life with her victim. Then, when she kills her, she becomes a vampire, too.”

The continuing appeal of Blood and Roses is in its evocative style and tone. Gothic romanticism permeates the film, with its remote location and crumbling façade (the movie was filmed at Hadrian’s Villa in Tivoli, Italy). The music (an original score composed by Jean Prodromidès) is beautiful and the melodies, haunting, especially the Irish harp as played by Elene Polonska.

The gothic sensibility of Blood and Roses is brought into the (1960s) present with the occasional touch of realism: Carmilla’s love of the current Latin dance tunes; the legacy of World War II, and air travel. And the dream-like quality of the film is added a certain luster with the surrealistic dream sequences that pepper the film.

The film shares an air with other films of the era; Mario Bava’s Black Sunday comes immediately to mind. Like Vadim’s Carmilla, Bava’s Katia is a young woman possessed by Princess Asa (both played by Barbara Steele), the long-dead spirit of a deceased, supernatural ancestor. It’s hard to say whether one film influenced the other, as they were both made in 1960. But Bava and Vadim certainly shared influences, and both were to influence the filmmakers—and the entire film industry—that followed in their wake.

And what is the fate of our beloved Carmilla? Is she, as she believes, possessed by the long dead spirit of her ancestor, the vampire Millarca? Or is she, as the “modernists” claim, a victim of her own fantasy, brought about by her desire for her cousin, Leopoldo?

Perhaps we will never know for certain.


February was a busy month, and Women in Horror month completely passed me by. But when I saw that the Final Girl Film Club pick of the month was the lesbian vampire classic Blood and Roses, it was like getting a second chance. Blood and Roses is a favorite of mine, and it’s a delight to be a part of Final Girl’s Film Club!

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The Self, Unplugged

Posted in Philosophy, Spirituality by Pam Keesey on September 1, 2010

Robert Wright reflects on Buddhism and the power of silent meditation in his article in The New York Times. I was particularly taken by this passage:

So there you go: covetousness, schadenfreude, anxiety, dread, and on and on. It’s the frequent fruitlessness of such feelings that the Buddha is said to have pondered after he unplugged from the social grid of his day — that is, the people he lived around — and wandered off to reckon with the human predicament. Maybe his time off the grid gave him enough critical distance from these emotions to discover his formula for liberation from them. In any event, it’s because the underlying emotions haven’t changed, and because the grid conveys and elicits them with such power, that his formula holds appeal for many people even, and perhaps especially, today.

It echoes my own experience with Vipassana meditation. I’m thinking it’s been too long since I’ve made meditation a regular part of my daily life. Time to unplug, even if only for a little while each day.

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Prejudice

Posted in Quotes by Pam Keesey on September 1, 2010

“The worst aspect of our time is prejudice. In almost everything I’ve written, there is a thread of this—man’s seemingly palpable need to dislike someone other than himself.” ~ Rod Serling

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The Tyranny of Sexy: Female Werewolves in Pop Culture‏

Over at Jezebel, they’ve been discussing “The Tyranny of Sexy: Female Werewolves in Pop Culture‏.”

I’m delighted to see so much enthusiasm for women werewolves! When Women Who Run with the Werewolves was published in 1995, women werewolves were hardly on the radar, let alone generating so much excitement. I guess I’ve got the Underworld series and Twilight to thank for that.

The article uses Elizabeth Clark’s thesis “Hairy Thuggish Women: Female Werewolves, Gender, and the Hoped-for Monster” as its starting point. In her thesis, she makes the argument that werewolves are specifically coded as masculine, and one of the reasons we don’t see more female werewolves is because of the transgressive nature of such “masculine femininity.” She argues that the sexualized nature of women werewolves is designed to “neutralize the jarring effect” of such “masculine” women.

I stumbled upon Clark’s thesis several weeks ago, and read it with great interest. So much of what she has to say is so very true. In my own writing, I draw upon popular culture as well, but focus more on the historical and mythological underpinnings of the archetype. (I’ve been a horror fan since I was a child, and the classic monsters—those who are featured among the Universal classic films—are among my very favorites: Dracula, Frankenstein, the Bride of Frankenstein, the Mummy, and the Wolf Man.)

It’s important to note that sexuality is at the core of female monsters, whether vampire, werewolf, mummy, or (significantly) witch. Many of the monstrous aspects of women in horror are taken directly from the Malleus Maleficarum, a book published in 1486 describing how to identify, prosecute, and convict witches. It’s full of—ahem—charming quotes such as:

All witchcraft comes from carnal lust which in women is insatiable.

The descriptions of witches are not only still widespread in much hate speech today, but also central to the theme of female monstrosity. For example, back in 1986, Pat Robertson said:

[The] feminist agenda is not about equal rights for women. It is about a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians.

(You can always count on Pat Robertson for colorful hate speech.)

Interestingly, many of the descriptions of the evil of witches in the Malleus Maleficarum have also been applied along racial and ethnic divisions, particularly (at the time) gypsys and Jews.

In my opinion, it’s these persistent beliefs, and how they manifest in mythology and archetypal imagery, that inform our pop culture notions of monstrosity.

In tracing the history and mythology of women werewolves back to the demonization of ancient goddesses and the (much later) demonization of women as witches during the witch trials, what I’ve found is that there may be historical, cultural, and mythological reasons why men are more likely to be werewolves than women:

Early images of the Goddess also included the wolf-god as her male consort. Males who were dedicated to the worship of the Goddess in her wolf form are often associated with early man-wolf imagery. As Christianity made inroads into pagan and Goddess-worshiping cultures, wolves and their man-wolf images became associated with the Devil. In the years between 1520 and 1630, an estimated thirty thousand cases of werewolves were recorded in France alone. Werewolves, the Devil’s creatures, were believed to aid and abet witches in their “evil deeds.” Many women were accused of “riding a wolf,” the implication being that they were on their way to a witch’s sabbat. Although some women were accused of being werewolves, the majority of women condemned during this time were accused of being witches. Mostly men were accused of being werewolves. The persistence of the archetypal image of the Goddess and her wolf consort may explain, at least in part, why werewolves are, more often than not, men.

Introduction,” Women Who Run with the Werewolves

Not that there isn’t room for more women werewolves in the world. I, for one, would love to see them.

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Chinese Hopping Vampires

Posted in Horror, Movies, Vampires by Pam Keesey on February 17, 2010

I’ve just discovered Squidoo, and have started posting lenses. A lens is like an article, a focus on a single topic, but with lots of nifty modules to help add interactivity. It’s been a great exercise in writing for the web.

One of my first lenses is based on “What I Know About Chinese Vampires,” a background piece I wrote several years ago for Rob Fitz for his film, God of Vampires. It’s shorter than the piece I wrote way back then, and includes information about and links to Chinese vampire movies.

If you’re interested in reading more, check out “Chinese Hopping Vampires” on Squidoo.

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