Based on an 1876 lesbian Gothic French story by Fanu, Carmilla, BLOOD AND ROSES (1960) 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, quickened heartbeats, beautiful flowing 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. And even-- if like me-- you don't go in for 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, the way Fuller's films convey war, without feeling the need to overcompensate for one's secondhand vision, or to necessarily create in us the feeling of being there. Vadim succeeds in getting just right the swanky jetset masquerade party out on the lawn of the ancient Kuersten / Karnstein / 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) 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, or coming back to them, 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). No one in the USA dares stay up all night anymore. I mean my god, they have kids! They have jobs! They have to go to church, or the golf course / 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 Americans just don't know what it's like to stay up that late anymore here--it's too transgressive for them, too outside the box (NYC our one 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--is that the opaque glamor and complete lack of urgency or importance in his films is what 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 a level of feminine beauty so overwhelming that ordinary men might faint or--like me--get literally weak at the knees. But it wasn't bad enough that he knows anything about crafting suspense, or narrative drive, alas.
I don't think Americans are afraid of beauty and sex, we're afraid of losing our desire for them, for what desire can survive its fulfillment? This is humanity's curse, and Vadim is a victim to it. If as Americans we ever gave into that awful moment of surrender, which as T.S. Eliot notes, an age of prudence can never retract then 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 shoes. If we lost our rabid consumerism 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 chase after sex like zee comically stumbling Jerry Lewis. Nowadays we've stopped prizing the Cary Grant and have lionized the Ralph Bellamy.
We Americans don't like Jerry Lewis and we don't like that the French like Jerry Lewis, and that's perhaps the reason we let our rich wives drag us to the pretentious art cinema, so that we can get cultured and distance ourselves from the Lewisness inside us, the Lewisness the French recognize as distinctly, ow you say? eh... Américain? We hope the international art cinema will broaden our continental minds, exorcise the Lewis out of us, and though we're dreading all the subtitles and bad dubbing, the pretentious poverty and class friction as we stand in line at NYC's Paris Theater with our minky wives, Vadim whispers in our ear like a sly apache: "Don't worry bout being bored, 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 that can result. While unlaid 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.