Based on an 1876 lesbian Gothic French story by Fanu, Carmilla, BLOOD AND ROSES is a film that's been mostly unseen since the early days of VHS in this country (it's now on netflix streaming), but even on the faded and duped on the DVD-R I saw it on recently, Vadim's ease with the jet set world of expensive balls, crumbling ancestral villas, heavy breathing, heartbeats, beautiful gowns, incest, casual sex and acceptance of inter-dimensional weirdness shows through.
I mention Vadim because to me--and I assume at least a few other Americans-- his is the ideal of what we would want our lives to be like, were we French. And even-- if like me-- you can't stand many of Vadim's other films, like Barbarella or ...And God Created Woman, you might find something cool hovering in the margins of Blood and Roses.
As an ex-libertine myself, I recognize that Vadim's conveying an atmosphere of socially sanctioned decadence with the relaxed confidence of someone who's been there. Vadim succeeds here in getting details just right, such as a swanky jetset masquerade party out on the lawn of the ancient Karstein estate, with fireworks and the emotionally vacant Carmilla (Annette Stroyberg, i.e. Anette Vadim) wandering off to the family crypt on her brother's wedding night, her dress trailing off behind her, into a the tomb of her ancient (female) Karstein relative; heart beating like mad on the soundtrack...eyes widening in terror!! Ah... but then fadeout and in the next scene it's dawn and she's taking a long stroll across the estate back to the party, where the guests are just now leaving!
You just don't see people leaving parties at dawn in American movies, at least not very often (I can think of only a few offhand: Dazed and Confused, The Anniversary Party, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, The Warriors). Nowadays no one in the USA dares stay up all night, they have kids! They have jobs! They have to go to church, or the firing range. Besides, in the post-Goodfellas world, filmmakers seldom bother to hang around anyone place long enough to make it to the dawn, or maybe because of our ban on smoking and bad behavior American just don't know what it's like to stay up that late anymore here, now, it's too transgressive for them, too outside the box ( NYC of course, never sleeps, but is an exception). In America we've even dubbed such a walking home at dawn journey 'the walk of 'shame,' as if we should be ashamed of living like a vampire lesbian in a Vadim film!
The key thing with Vadim--both his power and his impotence as a director--is that the opaque glamor and complete lack of urgency or importance in his films is what the jet set languor is really all about. An easygoing member of Parisian cafe society, Vadim's films are notoriously inert, and it's clear why: he's just too satisfied. As I wrote in AJFM #5's Pimps: The Devil's Subjects: "You can't create tension if you've never been tense." Vadim's got no obsession because he already has or has had everything, including at least three of the most beautiful women who ever graced a movie screen (four if you count Annette, and you should). His amiable social butterfly nature has allowed him to enjoy life without excess drama. He was a Jew who had to hide from the Nazis, but it wasn't too bad (he hid in Switzerland, with the cows). It was just bad enough, it would seem, to lend him a steely courage in the face of beauty so overwhelming that ordinary men might faint. Not bad enough that he knows anything about crafting suspense, or narrative drive.
I don't think Americans are afraid of beauty and sex, we're afraid of losing our desire for beauty and sex, for what obsession can survive its fulfillment? If we gave into that awful moment of surrender, which (as T.S. Eliot notes) an age of prudence can never retract, we'd have nothing to get us out of bed in the morning, nothing to make us run to the airport at the very last minute to catch Drew Barrymore before her flight takes off, nothing to keep us buying DVDs and sublimating, nothing to bring us urgency. We'd in effect cease to be Americans. Everyone would tell us "you have a very European attitude." This is because America hinges on the command to enjoy, and the one essential commodity that can legally have no price tag is sex, and so it has us hypnotized. Yes, we may have sex in 'real life' but I'm talking mainly about real life mirrored in movies, wherein we go running after sex and dollars like the stumbling Jerry Lewis or, nowadays, the coveted nuclear family. Nowadays we've stopped prizing the Cary Grant and have lionized the Ralph Bellamy.
Americans don't like that the French like Jerry Lewis and that's perhaps the reason our rich wives drag us to the bourgeoisie 'naughty sex comedies at the Paris Theater, so that we can get cultured and distance ourselves from the Lewisness inside us. And though we're dreading all the subtitles or bad dubbing, Vadim whispers in our ear like a sly apache as we stand in the ticket line: "Don't worry, monsieur, the girl in this film... she is ...so beautiful."
Sometimes, beauty can not only be enough, it can drain the soul faster than any vampire ever could, and BLOOD AND ROSES is emblematic of this dissolute, drained, beauty-saturated ennui. While sleaze merchants around the world try to capture sex in an orgasmic blend of flesh and music, Vadim captures post-orgasmic depression, the feeling someone's siphoned off your precious... bodily fluids.
Some of this entry originally appeared in Acidemic Journal of Film and Media #6, August 2010
Read my take on Vadim as a pimp alongside Sport in Taxi Driver and John Derek, here.