Tuesday 23 September 2014

Kiss of the Damned (2012)

Director: Xan Cassavetes
Stars: Josephine de la Baume, Roxane Mesquida, Milo Ventimiglia, Anna Mouglalis, Michael Rapaport and Riley Keough
This film was an official selection at the 9th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Phoenix in 2013. Here's an index to my reviews of 2013 films.
When you're the daughter of pioneering American indie filmmaker John Cassavetes and his wife, actress Gena Rowlands, anything you do in film is going to bring up that connection. Surely one reason why Xan Cassavetes wrote and directed Kiss of the Damned as her feature debut is because it's as far away from anything her father made as could be imagined. John made exceptionally personal pictures, usually in a cinéma vérité style, that were often uncomfortably realistic, constructed out of grit and sweat and sheer acting ability. This is nothing of the sort, instead being a throwback to the sort of arthouse horror movies that only the Europeans made, auteurs like Jean Rollin, Dario Argento or Jess Franco. Like so many of the films Rollin made, this is mostly style over substance, telling its simple story mostly through visual style, building a dreamy atmosphere out of blood, sex and architecture. Casting mostly European actors helps ensure that it sounds authentic to that approach too.

That's not to say that this would be mistaken for a Rollin picture. While a great deal of care and attention is given to make the film feel older than it is, not through artificial aging but through stylistic choices, the anomalies can't be accidental. The very first shot of Djuna has her firmly occupying two eras, watching a Vittorio de Sica movie from 1953 while working on a modern Apple laptop. Before long, she visits a video rental store apparently entirely stocked with VHS tapes, but she's returning DVDs. Clearly, the message is that the movie is contemporary but consciously made in an old fashioned style. This style is everywhere as the film begins, immediately and deliberately setting down its goalposts. The font used for the title is one borrowed from Rollin's 1979 feature, Fascination, in decadent purple. We're shown still shots of the countryside, as we listen to a calmly pulsing soundtrack that quickly gives way to some Italian prog rock beats, a soft flute and soon just the wind. Whatever else this is, there's no false advertising to be found.

It's also notably sparse on dialogue, as Rollin's movies usually were, like a silent movie with speech, if that apparent contradiction makes sense. When Djuna catches sight of Paolo in the video store, she says nothing but runs outside as if to escape his charm; of course he follows. Forced to a stop as it's pouring with rain, they swap names and we leap forward to a bar. In a rare talky scene, they swap more in depth introductions: he's in isolation to write a script, while she's staying at a friend's house, translating poetry and literature into different languages, as quintessentially European as her French accent suggests. She also explains that she has a skin condition that prevents her from experiencing sunlight. Then it's to her house, where they watch Viridiana silently and get close. This unfolds without a word until she says 'no'. She makes him leave, even though she clearly doesn't want him to go, then cries in the huge bathtub as the camera backs away to leave her be. All the dialogue could have been told in intertitles.
The biggest problem the movie has is the way that we're supposed to buy into pretty much any aspect of Paolo's character. Initially it was his naïveté which annoyed me but soon it became his motivation. All the poor moments early on tie to the characters, who are poorly written, while all the great ones are visual. I loved the look of the piece: the very deliberate lighting choices, whether they're to make a scene lush or stark; the composition of frame, some shots looking rather like old paintings; the fluid camera motion, such as when Djuna floats down the stairs; the choice of camera angles, like when we look down on the pair of prospective lovers devouring themselves through a chained door. Yet I hated the characters: the way that Djuna and Paolo fall both in love and lust with each other at literally first glance; her weakness and his one track mind; the way he refuses to leave, even when every fibre of his being must have been telling him to get the hell away from this lunatic woman.

She even tells him that she's a vampire fifteen minutes into the picture; he doesn't believe her, of course, so she lets him chain her onto the bed so she can't hurt him. We're enjoying the choice of camera angles and motion even as we completely fail to buy into either character's motivations. Naturally, she changes, fangs and bright contacts betraying who she really is. Yet he doesn't leave; he unchains her instead and walks around in slow motion, exuding alpha male power even as he sets himself up completely to be her victim. He pretty clearly bares his throat for her too as they're reaching the moment. 'I would have done anything to be with you,' he tells her, 'however insane.' I presume we're supposed to be feeling the love and the fantasy and the romance of it all, but we're really just trying to figure out why he'd be so foolish. There's thinking with your pecker and there's not walking away from an admittedly gorgeous young lady when you've known her five minutes and she's shedding tears over how she's going to kill you.

What follows is as clichéd as it is stylish. To underline Paolo's naïveté, he apparently has no clue what a vampire is, so Djuna explains it all with not a single surprise on our part. I can appreciate that they don't sparkle, but everything is so utterly traditional that we wonder what Cassavetes is going to bring to the table. Even here, everything we appreciate is visual, like the way we're given scenes so colour saturated that they could be hand tinted black and white. I actually wondered here if none of this was real and we were watching a visualisation of Paolo's writing process, all extrapolated from that one glimpse of Djuna in the video store. Maybe he's writing a vampire movie but doesn't have the imagination for it. I do like the idea that a vampire and a human can fall in love, but you know, maybe there should be a little more build to it than, 'You're cute, please bite me.' There must be a way for them to do lunch first, maybe out under the stars with her conspicuously only drinking a rare vintage of red wine.
Given how cloying and clichéd it had already become, I found myself aching for something new and not just the abstract blur of Paolo's first kill. I wondered if it was finally going to arrive when a new character drives up to the house 27 minutes into the picture. She's Mimi, another French vampire all dressed up in the Sunglasses After Dark aesthetic, in from Amsterdam to stay for a week on her way to a sort of rehab ranch for vampires in Phoenix. 'She's a disturbed creature,' Djuna tells Paolo, 'a crazy freak'. We're ready for the cutesy stuff to get completely shaken up, because if Djuna is the epitome of a romantic vampire, Mimi is clearly the animalistic flipside of the race and there's no chance that they'll peacefully share the same roof for long. While Djuna is elegance, poise and control, Mimi is wild, emotionless and nihilistic. It does bode well for improvement, but sadly, we're only inflicted with an acute bout of bitchy vampire self loathing, which doesn't help the story in the slightest.

There are good moments to come, but bizarrely none of them are tied to any of the characters to which we've been introduced thus far. We've spent half an hour, almost a third of the running time, watching a pair of characters we don't care about wonder if another character we care about even less will cause a problem for them. At this point, I was mostly wondering if I could ask the projectionist to switch to French language and English subtitles. Most of the good moments revolve around Xenia, a vampire actress who owns the house that everyone else is staying in. At least with her we get something new, a neat vampire take on Alcoholics Anonymous because Xenia, like Djuna, feeds on animals rather than people. It's been forty years without a taste of human blood for Xenia and Mimi's 'a disturbed creature', remember? I like that whole sequence, which is as capably and enticingly written as the rest is cheap and clichéd. Up to then, the best part is that Irene, the housekeeper, is safe because she has a rare blood disorder.

The reason I keep harping on about the writing is that it quickly jeopardises the film and eventually sinks it, the ending proving even more dissatisfying than the beginning. What's so frustrating about the writing is that everything else around it is strong, especially the visual aesthetic which nails its goal to replicate the old Rollin feel. It's telling that even the vampire threesome is boring, not because it isn't shot well but because we have so little connection to anything except the camerawork at this point that we just don't care. Mimi is apparently a centuries old creature of the night, a talented predator, but she acts more like a pouty little thirteen year old girl. At points I seriously wondered if I'd blinked during her sparkling scene. If the primary goal Xan Cassavetes had with this film was to make something so utterly unlike her father's work, so as to establish herself as a filmmaker of her own, she succeeded magnificently. He avoided style and delivered substance; here, with Kiss of the Damned, she did the exact opposite.

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