Emily Harris’s adaption of Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla is a harrowing exploration of female sexuality through the retelling of a classic work of horror. She approaches the Gothic with a delicate, modern minimalism. Replacing the drama, hysteria and intoxicating sublime with heavily contrasted light, airy music and slow, atmospheric detail makes for an eerily romanticised vision.
The film is utterly reliant on atmosphere. Long shots with little action or speech and concentrated on everyday actions, symbolic in their simplicity, evoke a certain silence, made all the more powerful by the accentuated, microscopic noises of a scraping knife, an ant walking along a branch. Images of decay punctuate the brooding plot. Sometimes the film is a little too caught up in symbolic images, and the script, or absence of, lets the storytelling down a little bit. But with such atmosphere to build, how can one transition from dark, brooding worms to eloquent speech smoothly?
The film is rich with an underlying sensuality. Its sensory aestheticism compliments the protagonist’s grotesque fascination with violence and complex, physical coming of age. Ultimately, the film conjures a looming forbidden desire, the protagonist’s discovery of which unfolds as we become more and more wrapped up in sensory exploration.
The setting is successfully claustrophobic, never straying far from the central house and its grounds, centring mostly on the three female characters. When they are close, they are very close, physical proximity almost violating the boundaries of the screen.
It is refreshing to see an actress of convincing youth portray the young teenage protagonist, as this detail is too often ignored in period dramas. However, this made the sexual nature of the film much more uncomfortable. Indeed, it is hard to find the fantastical Gothic tone seductive. Instead, it becomes graphic, raw and a little unnerving. But Hannah Rae and Devrim Lignau give very convincing performances as the young protagonists, the chemistry between them captivating and fresh.
Dealing with the supernatural can sometimes spoil a carefully crafted Gothic picture. But Harris successfully glosses over the fantastical, never being too explicit yet successfully evoking superstition. However, this subtlety makes the final, brutal exorcism mildly jarring. Overall, this is an interesting, carefully crafted dive into female sexual desire.
Carmilla is released in select cinemas on 16th October 2020.
Watch the trailer for Carmilla here: