Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
May 2012

The Moth Diaries

Diary of the dead

'The Moth Diaries' is a sterile attempt at probing a psychological mystery

The Moth Diaries
IFC Films
Director: Mary Harron
Screenplay: Mary Harron, based on the novel by Rachel Klein
Starring: Sarah Bolger, Lily Cole, Sarah Gadon, Scott Speedman, Valerie Tian and Melissa Farman
Rated R / 1 hour, 22 minutes
Now playing in limited release and VOD
(out of four)

A boring vampire movie makes things too easy for film critics. The adjectives practically insert themselves in our prose, with or without our consent. In every review of a bad vampire movie, you will find a variation of at least one of the following: It's toothless. It's bloodless. It's anemic. It lacks bite. It never sinks its teeth in. Or, the one I was going to use to describe The Moth Diaries, which is that it has no blood coursing through its veins.

You understand, these clichés are impossible to resist. When a description fits, it fits, however hackneyed the expression may be.

All of the above descriptions fit The Moth Diaries, a banal drama masquerading as an erotic mystery. Set at a girls' boarding school, the film centers around an enigmatic new student, Ernessa (Lily Cole), about whom the other girls whisper with scandalous gossip and conjecture. Seen through the eyes of Rebecca (Sarah Bolger), an anxious 16-year-old still mourning the recent death of her father (a renowned poet), Ernessa becomes the object of jealousy when she takes a liking to Rebecca's best friend, Lucie (Sarah Gadon).

To the movie's credit, it doesn't play quite like the adolescent daytime soap the plot synopsis might suggest. Director Mary Harron (American Psycho, I Shot Andy Warhol) is attempting a more subtle psychological profile of the principal characters, building a mystery around Ernessa - why she's as peculiar as she is, where she came from, what she is. There's deeper psychological and thematic issues at work as well - not just within the story, but relating to the film's literary and cinematic traditions and predecessors, Gothic and otherwise.

The problem is that Harron rarely figures out exactly how to dramatically address all of that. The film ends up being pinned down by its own narrative.

You see this a lot, actually (and it's one of many reasons the expectation of book-to-screen fidelity is absurd) - films that run through their plots with a sense of obligation rather than inspiration. I'm unfamiliar with Rachel Klein's novel, and in fact I wasn't initially aware The Moth Diaries was based on anything at all. And yet it became clear over the course of the film that it was mechanically marking off plot points one by one. I knew it had to be based on a novel. It seemed like the only explanation for all the half-hearted, barely developed subplots that pepper the story.

Especially in an 82-minute film, those kinds of unnecessary detours make for a pretty cluttered narrative. Like I said, I haven't read the novel, and maybe I'm wrong, but I can only assume the majority of the plot developments come directly from the source material, and that the filmmakers simply felt obligated to retain as much as possible instead of exploring what was most interesting or important to them.

With so many plot boxes to check off the list, and so little time to do so, Harron doesn't leave herself much opportunity to tackle the psychological complexities of the quiet tug-of-war that develops between Rebecca and Ernessa. What we get instead is a terribly shallow script with explanation-happy dialogue that is, frankly, embarrassing from the same filmmaker who so memorably brought Bret Easton Ellis' Patrick Bateman to life.

The Moth Diaries attempts to be a mood piece (and, to be fair, succeeds at just that in a few key scenes), but fails to consistently generate the kind of atmosphere it's going for. The film being what it is, it inherits the built-in sexuality of vampire mythology (among other things), but leaves us with a lingering absence of anything remotely sensual.

This is ostensibly a movie about obsession, which is what makes its lethargy so confounding. Obsession is visceral. Passionate. Anxious. Desperate. It's about need. Yet there is nothing needful about The Moth Diaries - instead, it is a film conspicuously apathetic about its own primal concerns.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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