Vampyros Lesbos (1971)
- Also known as
- Lesbian Vampires, The Heiress of Dracula, The Sign of the Vampire
- Jaime Chávarri, Jess Franco
- Jess Franco
- Soledad Miranda, Ewa Strömberg, Andrés Monales, Dennis Price, Paul Müller
Linda Westinghouse (Ewa Strömberg) is a lawyer who has a recurring dream about a mysterious brunette (Soledad Miranda, credited as Susann Korda) whom she later, on a date with her boyfriend, Omar (Andrés Monales), sees dancing in a nightclub. The dance involves Miranda taking off her clothes and putting them on a mannequin, which brings the doll to life. “You are very excited,” says Omar to Linda. Linda denies it, but in a session with her therapist, Dr. Steiner (Paul Müller) — who doodles distractedly in his notebook, which quite subtly sets up a recurring theme of masculine disregard for women’s experiences — we learn otherwise; Linda confesses that her dreams of Miranda have more than once brought her to orgasm
Miss Westinghouse is sent to the island of Countess Nadine Carody to discuss the Countess’s inheritance — the estate of a certain Count Dracula. On her way there, she meets Memmet (Jess Franco), who warns her against going to meet Carody, and keeps a woman (Beni Cardoso) prisoner in a cellar. As you do.
Carody is, as you might have guessed, none other than the dancer from the nightclub and a vampire. After bathing naked and having a candle-light dinner, they consummate their relationship (or relationships, really) in a beautiful sex/blood-drinking scene. Franco has in Strömberg and Miranda found two actors who are more than capable of imbuing their sex scenes with a fascinating and ambiguous mixture of sensuality and barely-contained menace. Afterwards, Linda finds herself alone in the Countess’s bedroom. When she discovers Nadine apparently dead in the swimming pool, she faints.
She wakes in a hospital, where a Dr. Seward (Dennis Price) is caring for Agra (Heidrun Kussin), one of Nadine Carody’s previous victims. Dr. Seward is, like Dr. Steiner, another agent of patriarchy, patronising to Linda and Agra both, but who, as we learn later, wants Carody to turn him into a vampire. He thus also represents the combination of lust and fear that overt, independent female sexuality arouses in the stereotypical heterosexual man. The scene where Seward begs Nadine to turn him is interesting: she says that her magic formula is useless in his mouth and he cannot cross the threshold to her empire; her power is inaccessible, she says, to those that hate her — normals can never grasp it. It’s an interesting paradox, and one that recurs in Western mythology, this image of women’s sexuality as both alluring and terrifying.
Franco shows also that he has a sense of humour: Seward prays in Latin, which holds the Countess at bay, but she, being genre savvy, just has her mortal thrall, Morpho (José Martínez Blanco), strangle him. In another scene, rather than stay and fight Omar and Dr. Steiner, she has Morpho hold them off with a pistol and flees in a car. She’s a very practical creature of the night, Nadine Carody. I’m not sure whether Franco meant it as a subversion or if it was just an expedient way to keep the plot moving, but I found it an unexpected and welcome bit of humour.
The heart of Vampyros Lesbos is Soledad Miranda’s performance; she has an air of refined melancholy over her, like a Roy Orbison chorus, and there’s an interesting contrast between her and Strömberg’s jittery, nervous performance. The juxtaposition of candles and the Mediterranean sun in the dinner on the island echoes Carody’s paradoxical nature: she is a creature of darkness that delights in sunlight, a beautiful monster, a murderer who delights in life. It’s tempting to read her dance, which the second time we see it leads to the “mannequin’s” death, as meta-commentary: it is a vampiric murder turned into ritualised entertainment, much like Franco’s own films are formulaic representations of the darker undercurrents of humanity. The dance scene is, like the Silencio scene in Mulholland Dr, central to Vampyros Lesbos‘ mythology: it represents both the sexual nature of Nadine’s power, and the central role of transference in her relationship to her victims/lovers: she becomes them and they become her; she’s under Linda’s thrall as much as Linda is under hers.
Franco himself portrays the extreme of condescending misogyny; Mammet, we learn, tortures and murders women to “free” them from Nadine’s thrall. Taken together with the two doctors, it’s a surprisingly subversive message from someone with Franco’s track record. However, this subversion is contradicted by the ending: Linda kills the Countess and returns to her conventional, heterosexual life. Franco does at least have Linda be ambivalent about Nadine’s death, but I was still disappointed.
The first thirty minutes of Vampyros Lesbos are quite possibly Franco’s best work — relentlessly creative and full of strange, sensual, and vaguely disconcerting imagery, with an inspired montage editing concerned more with emotional connotation than narrative continuity. There’s something raw and unformed about Franco’s artistry; it’s sometimes technically inept, but it’s also full of interesting images and, with its use of recurring sequences — a scorpion, a butterfly, a kite, et c. — similar to repeated musical phrases, it has the feeling of jazz improvisation, which is echoed in Manfred Hübler and Siegfried Schwab’s fitfully brilliant soundtrack. Ultimately its message is predictably hetero-normative — homosexuality is coded not only as dangerous and unnatural, but as a result of external force: Nadine, we’re told, “turned” lesbian after being raped by a soldier and Linda is turned by supernatural means — but Vampyros Lesbos is still a visually and conceptually exciting film, and certainly one of the best Franco’s made.