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No Slave to Man: Delphine Seyrig and Daughters of Darkness

Delphine Seyrig as The Countess in Daughters of Darkness
Delphine Seyrig as The Countess in Daughters of Darkness

Harry Kümel’s Daughters of Darkness (1971) — starring Lebanese-born French actress, director and feminist Delphine Seyrig — is arguably the best of several early nineteen seventies’ revisionist vampire films that either subtly suggest or outwardly depict unabashed lesbianisn. Along with films like Roy Ward Baker’s Vampire Lovers (a 1970 Hammer film with the amazing Ingrid Pitt) and José Ramón Larraz’s Vampyres (a joint Fox / Rank production from 1974), Daughters of Darkness has been dissected by critics and scholars alike that see in the vampire myth evidence of both misogyny and female empowerment. But the strength of this particular film is, without question, the magnetism of its star.

THE ACTRESS

Growing up in an intellectual environment (her father was director of Beirut’s Archaeological Institute and later became France’s cultural attaché in New York during WWII), Delphine Seyrig was an actress of some reknown in Europe. After attending the famed Actor’s Studio in 1958, she went on to work with directors like François Truffaut and Luis Buñuel in the 1960’s. In her late thirties when she appeared in Daughters of Darkness, Seyrig was ideal for the part of the Countess — a character requiring beauty, mystery, culture, and maturity. But Seyrig brought to the role one additional, essential element: her political attitudes toward’s women and what it means to be feminine. “I think when my happiness depends on a man, I am a slave and I am not not free,” Seyrig said in an interview with the Institut National de l’Audiovisuel in 1972 (my translation). Such a view was necessary to successfully embody the strong, independent character of Daughter’s Elizabeth Bathory.

THE FILM
Delphine Seyrig as Countess Elizabeth Bathory in glorious silver lamé
Delphine Seyrig as Countess Elizabeth Bathory in glorious silver lamé

An aristocrat in furs and silver lamé gowns, Seyrig’s Elizabeth Báthory (based, at least in name, on the historical late 16th century countess of whom I have written about before) is a mysterious Hungarian countess who — as we learn early in the film — has lived a long life and traveled extensively (leaving bodies in her wake!).  She arrives at a seaside resort, the hotel Ostend in Belgium, accompanied by her “secretary” Ilona (Andrea Rau). There, she immediately becomes enamoured with newlyweds who themselves have just checked into the hotel. The Countess is instantly taken with buxom blonde Valerie (Danielle Ouimet); much of the film builds to the seduction, ruin and ultimately, the empowerment, of this all too innocent bride.

Daughters of Darkness (Belgian poster)
Daughters of Darkness (Belgian poster)

“One must never be afraid to look deep down into the darkest depths of oneself. Where the light never reaches,” Bathory tells Valerie as the girl begins to free herself from her abusive husband and form a bond with the Countess. Their journey together into the darkness of vampirism is at the very heart of the movie. (SPOILER ALERT!) By film’s end, Valerie becomes a substitue for Ilona, and ultimately, an heiress to the metaphorical throne of the Countess herself. A husband is not needed. And no man, ultimately, is a threat. It is the hand of fate, and not a vampire killer, that does the Countess in.

Its story and feminist overtones aside, Daughters of Darkness is just a beautiful movie to watch. Its sets and character design are a mix of old world and new — very European, yet oddly enough old Hollywood at the same time. Kumel, interviewed for the BBC documentary Horror Europa has said that he intentionally styled Delphine Seyrig’s character after Marlene Dietrich, and Andrea Rau’s after Louise Brooks. The two are gorgeously “made up,” and a sense of yesteryear in their characters plays brilliantly to their mysterious (and deadly) intentions.

THE LEGACY
Lady Gaga as The Countess in American Horror Story: Hotel
Lady Gaga as The Countess in American Horror Story: Hotel

Both cult classic and artistic achievement, the film is one of the few of its kind to eschew exploitation in favor of atmosphere and style. It has been praised by Camille Paglia in her landmark work of scholarship Sexual Personaeand has influenced many vampires on screen since — most recently (and notably) Lady Gaga’s turn as “The Countess” in television’s American Horror Story: Hotel (2015).

In the end, it is Seyrig’s performance that pulls everything together — style and substance. Often overlooked among those films that should be considered the best of the vampire genre, Daughters of Darkness is currently streaming free for subscribers to Amazon Prime Video.

 

Consumption, Cholera, and Creativity: How a Pandemic Can Inspire Art

As much of the world is behind closed doors, and practicing social distancing, one wonders how COVID-19 will affect 21st century culture. Beyond, perhaps, the permanent cessation of the needless handshake, how will artists come to describe and illustrate the fear, isolation, the heroism — and, yes, even the boredom — of this terrible time? Over two hundred years ago, cholera and consumption were similarly on the minds of many. Outbreaks in the nineteenth century were constant reminders of the frailty of life, and the ever-present threat of death. While a consideration of how writers of that period dealt with disease may not necessarily shed light on what’s to come from us (in this quite different, digital age), it’s undeniable that creativity can come from all kinds of calamity. Even a pandemic.

By the dawn of the 19th century, tuberculosis, or consumption, had killed one in seven people. And severe outbreaks of cholera occured seven times over that span of one-hundred years. John Keats died from tuberculosis in 1820. Tchaikovsky, of cholera, in 1893 (though some say suicide). Poets, musicians, painters, sculptors. The lists of famous people who have died from tuberculosis, and those who succumbed to cholera, are lengthy. The Brontë sisters. Anton Chekhov, and many others. Pandemics kill artists, but a pandemic can inspire art.

Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale” (1819) was written as the poet became increasingly aware that he was afflicted with consumption. Key symptoms of it, like “the weariness, the fever and the fret” has only one outcome:

Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,
Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies

Henry Kirke White painted by Thomas Barber
Henry Kirke White painted by Thomas Barber

Even more direct, a lesser known poet of the Romantic period, Henry Kirke White (1785 –1806), who suffered the same fate as Keats years earlier, went so far as to come out and directly dedicate a poem “To Consumption.” There, he addresses the disease, accepting its embrace as he realizes he soon will succumb to the affliction.

Gently, most gently, on thy victim’s head
Consumption, lay thine hand! Let me decay
Like the expiring lamp, unseen away,
And softly go to slumber with the dead.

Which he did. On October 19, 1806.

Edward Munch's "The Sick Child"
Edvard Munch’s “The Sick Child”

One scholar, Clark Lawlor, has written a whole treatise on the subject of “Consumption and Literature.” Then there’s Roger Platizky’s journal article on “Tennyson and Cholera.” It would seem there’s no shortage of critical essays on ways both consumption and cholera affected artists of the nineteenth century.

And beyond poetry, one need only look at Edvard Munch’s series of works begun in 1885 marking the death of his sister from tuberculosis to understand that the only way some people can deal with grief following great affliction is to capture those feelings in art.

Need all feelings in times of disease, however, be those of sadness and grief? Those who lost their lives, or lost family and friends to consumption and cholera, certainly felt terrible sorrow. Yet even among those who lost, like Edgar Allan Poe, death (of his wife Virginia to consuption in 1847) inspired beauty; with Poe, it’s in the form of his Annabel Lee (written in 1849). An idealized woman. Beauty personified. Verdi, in his La traviata (1853), sees beauty in the death of its heroine, Violetta, who — in the final stages of TB — sacrifices all for love. And the aforementioned Keats, with his brother Tom dying of the disease in 1817, writes  “On Seeing the Elgin Marbles.” There, the poet celebrates the permanence of beauty and art in the face of frail humanity.  Upon seeing the classical Greek marble sculptures, Keats is inspired that their wonder…

…mingles Grecian grandeur with the rude
Wasting of old time—with a billowy main—
A sun—a shadow of a magnitude.

Something great, like art, can be celebrate beauty, even in the “wasting” of life.

What will artists of this third decade of the twenty-first century produce during — and after — this coronoavirus pandemic? Will we see great art, music, and literature addressing our planet’s collective hopes and fears? Are there those stuck at home, in self-quarantine or practicing social distancing right now that will turn their experience — our experience — into something special? Will it be sad, or hopeful?

Some artists, like former R.E.M. frontman Michael Stipe, have already begun to address our pandemic. In “No Time for Love Like Now,” Stipe sings:

Where did this all begin to change?
the lockdown memories can’t sustain

lyrics that make us consider our situation and question if our memories of what was normal can survive the lockdown of our own self-isolation.

To our artists, we ask for help in figuring out what will be the new normal. Within their work, perhaps we can find release from — even make our peace with — anxiety about what is, and grieving for what used to be. Even during a pandemic, creativity can thrive. It is undeniable that human beings can find hope and beauty everywhere, even in the face of depression and death.

Let us hope that our trying times find us with more of the former, and less of the latter.

And not just thousands of TikToks.