Bloody Fantastic, by David Bax
Kiss of the Damned’s title and poster give exactly the right impression of what the film contains. Director Xan Cassavetes’ erotic, gory cinema fantastique is perfectly – and intentionally – reminiscent of the early 1970s French art/trash films of Jean Rollin, all of which had similarly exciting but meaningless names (Shiver of the Vampires?) and lush, neo-gothic affectations. For those unfamiliar with these works, know that when you buy a ticket to Kiss of the Damned, you’re entering a world that’s as deadly serious as it is campy and as pretentious as it is pulpy. It’s a world of shimmery dressing gowns giving way to heaving, exposed breasts; of gorgeous European women with blood dripping from their lips; of intense, droning music and solemn stares; of cloistered, timeless luxury brushing up against the urban “modernity” of 40 years ago. In short, it’s fucking preposterous and it’s a total blast.
We are introduced to Djuna (Joséphine de la Baume), a pale, French woman living in a secluded Connecticut estate watching DVDs of old movies. In an early clue to the film’s retro sensibility, she makes a trip into town one evening to return these discs to a brick and mortar video store. It’s there she encounters Paolo (Milo Ventimiglia), a Hollywood screenwriter with the soul of a tortured artist who’s rented a nearby house to focus on his work. The two have dinner and return to the estate where – just as things are getting physical – something overcomes Djuna and she begs Paolo to leave. So consumed is the young man, though, that he continues to hound her for days until she, equally concupiscent, relents. They spend an amorous evening together. She tells him she is a vampire. By morning, so is he. However, their undead honeymoon is interrupted when Djuna’s sister, Mimi (Roxane Mesquida) – also a vampire – comes to visit unannounced. Mimi’s lustful, impulsive, scheming sociopathy is the trigger for the rest of the film to luridly unfurl.
It’s not until Mimi’s arrival that Kiss of the Damned takes root in the viewer’s brain. Cassavetes doesn’t bother much with convincing the audience of Djuna and Paolo’s mutual magnetism, often telling more than showing. At this point in the proceedings, the bizarre tone and pace are more distancing than enchanting. It’s as if the film is under its own trance before we are. It’s likely, however, that these scenes will play better on repeat viewings when it’s already understood that Djuna and Mimi, not Djuna and Paolo, make up the central duo of the story.
The appearance of Mimi is the first glimpse – both to us and to our surrogate, Paolo – that there is an ancient, worldwide parallel community of vampires. Cassavetes has great fun, palpably so, fleshing out this society. It’s a mix of old world aristocracy and a more contemporary, cosmopolitan strain of ineffectual liberal elitism, the latter of which the director gently mocks while entertaining, if not exploring, grand ideas of humanity and morality.
As much as the film is enjoying itself, however, it never places its tongue in its cheek. Were this merely a hyper-specific genre gag, it would be tawdry and disposable. Cassavetes displays such a competent grasp of tone that the amateur elements become a part of the tapestry. There’s a meticulous lack of subtlety in her bold, symmetrical framing and in her screenplay, which reads sometimes like a hasty translation of something written in another language. The film is so thoroughly, brilliantly opaque that it begins to seem as if something surely must be happening under the surface. Perhaps there is.
Just as much a part of the fabric as the aesthetics are the performances. Ventimiglia has been playing cardboard archetypes at least since Gilmore Girls but his imperviousness to nuance is in line with the film’s intentions for him as a cypher. De la Baume, our default protagonist, has more depth but is charmingly stunted by the English language. Mesquida is in some ways also linguistically hamstrung but, when necessary, she nonetheless manages to devour the scenery like it’s the exposed throat of a virgin. In the third major role by a stunning Frenchwoman, Anna Mouglalis rises above the rest as Xenia, a nurturing matriarch of sorts in the local vampire scene.
As I hope I’ve already demonstrated, Kiss of the Damned is a film of dichotomies. It’s high-minded and low-brow. It’s dour and exuberant. It’s cheap and luscious. It’s paper-thin and overstuffed. Yet when the end titles begin – accompanied by a soundless, idyllic scene – it has achieved what a work of art should: an emotional and somatic catharsis. It may be fleeting but, as the film eagerly and bloodily demonstrates again and again, so is life.