Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
June 2013

Kiss of the Damned

Kiss of life

Xan Cassavetes classes up this vampire joint

Kiss of the Damned
Magnet Releasing
Director: Xan Cassavetes
Screenplay: Xan Cassavetes
Starring: Joséphine de La Baume, Milo Ventimiglia, Roxane Mesquida, Michael Rapaport and Anna Mouglalis
Rated R / 1 hour, 37 minutes
Now playing in limited release
(out of four)

I'm not sure Kiss of the Damned entirely works, but what it does do well is certainly impressive. A moody vampire romance in the style of '70s Euro-horror, Kiss is concerned not with angst but with the power (and danger) of desire; not with plotting but with atmosphere.

It is the elegant vampire movie. The gentleman's vampire movie. Which makes it all the more amusing when writer/director Xan Cassavetes trashes things up with the spurting of blood on white tile walls and the ripping of skin from the unsuspecting neck.

Cassavetes - which of course every reviewer must be obligated to mention is the daughter of John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands - has a playful way she handles the violent sexuality of her vampires. She's patient in building up to it, restrained in what she shows us and when, and, finally, beautifully graphic in brief, isolated moments that puncture the film's austere aesthetic like teeth into unspoiled flesh.

On the whole, she's actually more concerned with faces than with flesh. In her carefully blocked sex scenes, we notice faces writhing more than bodies, mouths opening, teeth sharpening, closed eyes opening wide. Her approach to the vampire mythos is to emphasize the carnality of it, linking it not just symbolically but explicitly. In many vampire films, the biting is the sexual act (and for good reason); but in this case the two acts go hand in hand - the vampire way and the old-fashioned way. (Note: I'm not saying Kiss is the first or only vampire film to do this - far from it. I'm just trying to distinguish between various films' differing approaches to vampires' hunger.)

And there are other pleasures as well. We see them relishing a finely cooked meal*, sitting spellbound in front of Luis Buñuel's Viridiana, going for a stroll on the town.

* Seeing the main vampire characters enjoy a meal is one of many ways the film reminded me of NBC's outstanding series, Hannibal. The meals in this case are not human-based, but there is the same overt suggestion of the pleasure derived from tearing into meat. The production design of the two (first-rate in both cases) also comes from similar impulses - rich, dark colors, affluent culture, fine taste.

Last year Martin Scorsese was asked whether he preferred zombies or vampires. "I happen to like vampires more than zombies," he answered. "A vampire, quite honestly, you could have a conversation with. He has a sexuality." That's certainly true of every vampire in Kiss of the Damned, both those with noble intentions and those without. One sardonically enjoyable scene (if a little too on-the-nose in the dialogue) is at a dinner party hosted by a well-known actress (Anna Mouglalis), who happens to be a vampire herself, and likes to hold get-togethers exclusively for those in her limited community. They talk about politics, about their place in society, about whether, were their existence to be discovered, the government would allow them to survive on synthetic blood.

It's all a bit silly, but I think Cassavetes knows it, and revels in the camp value of it, using her well-cultivated arthouse stylings as a direct contrast.

Each of the main characters - despite some questionable acting - has his or her own distinct personality, and his or her own thirst. The main thrust of the film is centered around Djuna (Joséphine de La Baume), a neurotic redhead (something of a cross between Eva Green and a young Catherine Keener) living in an upscale home in rural Connecticut. On the town one night, an overwhelming attraction blooms between her and Paolo (Milo Ventimiglia), a screenwriter staying in town for a few months. She resists the urge to sleep with him but he persists, until finally she has to explain who, and what, she is.

Paolo is unfazed, and willingly becomes her new "recruit," despite her reluctance. (She's got a guilty conscience, it seems.) But their new life together isn't without its entanglements - Djuna's sister Mimi (Roxane Mesquida) shows up at the door one night. And Mimi has no such guilt - nor any compunction about feasting on human blood every night, typically by inviting someone (or multiple people) into her bed and having her way with them before ultimately sinking her teeth in. Djuna, on the other hand, feels she and most of her fellow vampires are (or should be) beyond such savagery.

The Djuna/Mimi relationship is meant to be the central conflict of the film - one sister trying to take a moral stand against the other - but that doesn't really ever take flight. The two work as individual characters, but the film's attempt to heighten the drama out of their lifestyle differences never really goes anywhere. Similarly, the key sexual relationship between Djuna and Paolo would be a lot more interesting if Ventimiglia's performance weren't so flat and innocuous. While de La Baume, despite her acting limitations, is surging with sexual energy (which is what gives the performance weight), Ventimiglia has no edge whatsoever.

Still, Kiss of the Damned, with all its imperfections, is a finely tuned excursion into the carnal desires of your average upper-class vampire. Cassavetes' take on vampires presents them simultaneously at their most sophisticated, and their most primal.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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