Monday, 4 October 2010

A review of Daughters of Darkness

From the sheer oddness of seeing the words "Cine Vog" before the credits sequence, from the squat black font of the titles played out against the blood red back-drop, from the oscillating progishness of the music, you know that "Daughters of Darkness" is going to be a wild ride. And it doesn't disappoint. There is something cruel and kinky at bottom here; this is a world (well a Belgium) where relationships are marked by violence and betrayal, where nothing is tender or kind, and words when spoken are not used to mollify and placate but to wound. That's when words are used - the Francois de Roubaix' furious player-piano soundtrack does a lot of the talking here.

Daughters of Darkness is the story of newlyweds Valerie (Danielle Ouimet) and Stefan (John Karlen - Harvey from "Cagney and Lacey" unrecognisable here as a kind of evil Bjorn from Abba!) who arrive at the amazing Hotel des Thermes in Ostend as a stop-gap before taking the ferry to England to meet Stefan's mother. It's at the hotel that they meet Countess Elizabeth Bathory (the sublime Delphine Seyrig) and her secretary Ilona ( an astonishingly foxy Andrea Rau.) A rash of bloody murders anticipate both of their arrivals and all is not what it seems: Stefan is in no hurry to get back to England, and the Concierge recognises the Countess from 40 years before and though he is in in late middle age she hasn't aged a day.

There is a lot going on in Daughters of Darkness. It's an exercise in glorious style which never-the-less has a coherent narrative. It has a truly international cast but this only adds to the starkness and oddness of the circumstances: the two couples wander around the enormous, Art deco hotel haggling over who will get the Royal Suite to the only member of staff! The food is delicious but there is no one to cook it! The film should be a picture postcard from Belgium, in the same way "In Bruges" was, but Ostend pictured here is unremittingly bleak, the sea view from the hotel window turbulent and dotted with ferries. The retired detective who investigates the murders "as a hobby" spends much of the film standing on the grey sand-flats outside in almost comically torrential rain.

There are old and new horror tropes here; when Stefan cuts himself shaving, a la Jonathan Harker, he is wearing a modish shorty dressing gown. The Countess clearly models her style on Marlene Dietrich but Ilona is a dead-ringer for Guido Crepax's "Valentina" comics, themselves a a reference to Louise Brook's timelessly chic bob. (Crepax's creation was filmed as "Baba Yaga" in 1973 but I maintain Andrea Rau's creation is he more impressive).

It's Delphine Seyrig's film, from the first time we see her; her brilliant teeth framed by blood-red lips, framed by the darkness of her veil, like a 40s key-light was trained upon her. She is seductive, mesmerising and controlled, perfectly presented and precise. Her fluttering hands, the way her inner life moves like changing weather across her bone white face. And then suddenly she is ruthless and pragmatic. The masks slips to reveal another mask.

I love this film. Beautifully shot, wonderfully realised, stinking of decadance and amorality like three day old lillies. And this is a rare bloom, director Harry Kumel made hardly any other films of note ( barring 1973's little seem "Malpertuis") his last outing being almost 20 years ago. This is a timely realease and while it's difficult not feel short-changed by the complete lack of extras ( a travelogue around Ostend from the time would have worked !) it's good to see this amazing film released for a wider audience.

Fresh blood for the "Daughters of Darkness"

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