Written and Directed by: Xan Cassavetes
Starring: Joséphine de La Baume, Milo Ventimiglia, and Roxane Mesquida
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
Her love will never die.
If you’re going to gift the world with yet another vampire movie, you might as well make a film that faintly echoes the genre’s glory years. For Xan Cassavetes (and this reviewer), that era would apparently be the 60s and 70s, particularly when Europe took hold of the bloodsuckers. While her Kiss of the Damned isn’t as quite as delirious and dreamy as many of the films from that heyday, it’s a damn stylish and sexy effort that reminds us that a vampire’s greatest struggle is transcending their human foibles.
Along with many of her acquaintances, Djuna (Joséphine de La Baume) has managed to assimilate among humanity. Secluded in her vast mansion, she spends her days watching old films via videotape; only a particularly fateful trip to the video store breaks up the monotony, as she eyes fellow patron Paolo (Milo Ventimiglia), a screenwriter who is similarly holed up in a house working on a screenplay. Initially, she recoils from the thought of allowing a mere mortal into her life, but he proves to be remarkably open to joining the ranks of the undead. Together, they become the newest “it” couple among the vampiric social circles—at least until Djuna’s impetuous sister Mimi (Roxane Mesquida) pays a visit and promptly ends the honeymoon period.
Djuna and Paolo’s relationship seems ill-fated from start, when the two watch Viridiana on their first date. While the film isn’t as high-minded or bleak as Bunel’s film, Cassavetes is lightly treading around similar thematic territory, particularly the notion that idealism will eventually crumble under the weight of reality. Only, in this case, the proceedings aren’t couched in crises of faith, but rather in the milieu of soap operas and erotic thrillers. Where Viridiana had to contend with a lecherous uncle and ungrateful, godless beggars, Djuna only has to deal with an especially bratty little sister who’s committed to completely wrecking her shit.
There’s a delightful sort of trashiness to Kiss of the Damned that’s well-disguised by the film’s sleekness and its somewhat ponderous air, but make no mistake: this is a film that reveals how even centuries-old immortals can fall prey to jealousy, lust, and other destructive impulses. It’s train-wreck theatre in many respects—once Mimi arrives on the scene and is obviously intent on raising hell, there’s little doubt where the film’s headed. More surprising, perhaps, is the fallout, which actually takes the film to some unexpectedly dark places and proves that even the most refined vampires aren’t above their primal urges.
Cassavetes’s decision to cloak the film in such a retro-chic aesthetic is an intriguing instance of form mimicking function. Expectedly, the bursts of homage are most forceful during the intense sexual encounters and the sudden fits of violence; such sequences are often scored by something that might have been conjured up by Fabio Frizzi or Goblin a few decades ago, while Cassavetes’s camera elegantly swoops and peers to capture it all. Just as its characters struggle to suppress their impulses, so too is the film unable to contain the sexy, violent vampire movie lurking at its core. Djuna and Paolo’s feedings in the nearby woods are particularly intense, frenzied episodes that reflect the duo’s uncaging of the beast, as it were (compare this to their first kiss, which is captured via an overhead camera finds the two lovers separated by a door—after this point, the barriers separating them fall quickly).
The central duo make for fascinating enough subjects, though it’s not a stretch to admit de La Baume does much of the legwork. Ventimiglia is a vacuous collection of artsy clichés as the tortured screenwriter but works well enough as an object of affection (that it’s the man serving in this passive role is refreshing as hell, honestly). Contrastingly, de La Baume makes for a deeply interesting presence—aloof, ethereal, but also vaguely melancholy, as if she’s spent some time mourning her previous, now-lost love. On one level, Kiss of the Damned is about learning to live through love again—it’s a universal theme that’s hardly exclusive to vampires, though it takes on a particularly heavy weight considering the eternal stakes here.
Of course, the film is also about those forces that conspire against you. In this case, it’s Mimi, the reckless agitator who seemingly just wants to watch the world burn. Not content to simply destroy her sister’s well-mannered existence, she also targets unwitting humans and even Xenia (Anna Mouglalis), the vampires’ respected matriarch who has gone blood-sober for forty years (she’s instead subsisted on synthetic and animal blood). Mesquida’s multi-faceted turn infuses Mimi with several layers—on the surface, she’s merely the wanton villain in erotic pulp, but there’s a feint hint of sympathy in her eyes. Much like any addict, Mimi can’t help herself, and Mesquida carefully buries a tinge of regret and terror beneath Mimi’s delight.
Due to their close release dates and similar subject matter, Kiss of the Damned and Only Lovers Left Alive naturally beg for a comparison, but it’s more apt to consider them to be fascinating companion pieces. If Jarmuch’s film captures enlightened vampires in a state of eternal, above-it-all-bliss who only frequently encounter the reality of mortality, then Cassavettes’s is more concerned with exploring just how juvenile these creatures are. When you have all the time left in the world, it only follows that you’ll be haunted by the turmoil and drama of youth for an unnaturally long time—growing up is hard, especially for the damned. Buy it!
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