Emily Harris’s Carmilla proceeds unmistakably from the blueprint of Sheridan le Fanu’s 1871 gothic novel of the same name, but where Le Fanu’s story trades heavily in mystery and action, Harris’s reinterpretation delves deeply into the emotional and sensual context of the Bauer home before and after Carmilla’s arrival. On a remote Sussex estate, baby-faced Lara (Hannah Rae) endures the strict attentions of her governess Ms. Fontaine (Jessica Raine), with the repressed homoerotic tension between the two women — watch Lara’s face while Fontaine brushes her hair, or Fontaine’s when Lara runs on ahead across the grounds — finding expression through Fontaine’s controlling fastidiousness and Lara’s experimentation with self-harm. When Carmilla herself arrives at the estate after an apparent carriage crash, both women find a new and disturbing focus for their sublimated sexualities.
Played with mischievous, catlike remove by newcomer Devrim Lingnau, Carmilla’s exact nature is left ambiguous. Is she a spirit of the night and responsible for the mysterious wasting death of the unseen Charlotte and three other women, or a girl whose taboo sexual orientation leaves her vulnerable to alarmist violence and conspiracy? We never see her feed, unless you count her blood oath with Lara, and she displays no supernatural powers. In spite of her distaste for crosses and the Christian faith they represent, we see her handle one without incident near the end of the film. When seized by Fontaine and the doctor and subjected to an impromptu exorcism, she screams in childlike pain at being struck with a leather strap. Most of the film’s unsettling imagery revolves around gorgeous close-ups of insects, grubs seething in the soil, ladybugs chasing one another over the petals of flowers in bloom — it’s a pupal, burgeoning symbolic language, a way to render alien the sexual awakening Lara undergoes in her relationship with Carmilla.
Fontaine, meanwhile, is disturbed by the budding connection between Carmilla and her charge. The role walks the edge of priggish stiffness, but moments of self-censored admission as when Fontaine tells Lara evasively of her own youthful lesbian dalliances and Raine’s masterfully expressive features render the character just sympathetic enough to make her panicked actions at the film’s climax truly heart-rending. Every one of the film’s women reads as wholly human and believable, a complex person driven by motivations apparent and obscure. The men, by contrast, are largely absent and out of focus, appearing only as dimly-lit shapes at the dinner table or muscle to back up Fontaine’s will.
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The film’s intimate camera heightens this sense of feminine interiority, whether through force as in its wrenching silent close-up of Lara’s screams or through precise metaphorical constructions as when Fontaine’s stilted lecture about flowers as a stand-in for women’s sexuality overlays shots of mindless insects crawling over fleshy pink rose petals. Carmilla’s commentary on the same subject when she tells Lara a rose “doesn’t want to be picked” is one of the film’s more interesting pieces of gender politics, positioning normative heterosexual culture as inherently violent and lesbianism as more fundamentally connected to the natural cycle of birth and death.
The romance between the two girls is at once childish and freighted with a very adult sense of heartbreak and absence. Carmilla has no past, no memories. Lara has no mother, and only a lonely, isolated life under Fontaine’s rigid rules to occupy her time. They must be multiple things to one another, occupying complex roles the world around them is in no way prepared to accept. The scene in which Fontaine walks in on an intimate moment is crushing in its brittle failure as the older woman’s own repressed sexuality and fear at seeing her own “sins” repeated by her ward boils over into strangled, shivering rage.
Everything that follows is equal parts daydream and nightmare, an utterly unsentimental depiction of adult hysterics pulverizing the boundaries of the fragile world in which children live. Lara is dragged screaming into adulthood through a trauma far worse than anything in one of her violent, sexualized dreams, her symbolic left-handedness finally bound and corrected in a way Fontaine’s canvas straps never achieved. More than mysterious killings, more than hazy occultism or suspicions of possession, for young women to find what they need in each other is the ultimate abomination.