“KISS OF THE DAMNED” (SXSW Movie Review)
KISS OF THE DAMNED will most often be referred to as throwback. Its dreamy score, its opening titles, its visual flair and just how swooning the cast is all hark to the Roger Vadim, Jean Rollin Eurohorror aesthetic beloved by so many. More than a call, though, Xan Cassavettes’ vampire tale is a refresher. Entrenched in supernatural high society, its heightened senses, from ample bloodshed to melodramatics to lips that smash hard when they come together has found a way to make vampirism exhilarating onscreen again.
There aren’t many humans in KISS OF THE DAMNED. The world of the film isn’t something where they’re outnumbered, but it feels so when we stick so close to Djuna (a mesmerizing Joséphine de la Baume) and her social circle. It imbues the film with the hypersensitivity of a vampire. It’s gorgeous, and entirely in tuned to its characters. Djuna lives alone in a beautiful home in the suburbs. She’s tasked herself with retaining some humanity—as have many of her friends—and so she does not attack and feed. Instead, she rents films. KISS OF THE DAMNED is beholden to artfulness. It is artistic in construction, but also surrounded by filmmaking and theater and beauty as subjects.
Thus, it’s a trip to the video store that leads Djuna to Paolo (Milo Ventimiglia), a failed screenwriter in town to finish his latest work. The moment they meet is it. From then, it’s just a game of how long Djuna can pretend she will deny herself from loving, which reaches fever levels as the two kiss with all they’ve got between a barely open door and a chain lock that will only stretch so far. The tight, overhead camera holds on their will and their frustration and it is immediately apparent there’s only one way that lock will give. Paolo is in, or he’s out.
Fairly quickly into the film, he’s in. Their consummation is a thrilling set piece that holds a dangerous, swirling eroticism—something, it’s apparent, both of them have been lacking. As Djuna and Paolo glow with the passion of new love, her sister Mimi (Roxane Mesquida) returns. A misunderstood troublemaker, Mimi has never taken exceptionally well to being a vampire, which means her anger has taken exceptionally well to the lifestyle’s carnal trappings. Although beloved and accepted by their social queen and mentor, Xenia (Anna Mouglalis), Djuna is ever frustrated with her reckless, murderous sister, and grows even more so when she begins to infringe on new happiness.
While the honeymoon atmosphere and Djuna’s rush of intense feelings (from the aloofness of cloud-nine to helping Paolo deal with new hungers) give KISS its style, Mimi is a meatier presence. A heightened embodiment of those who are toxic in our lives, she is destructive, petulant and selfish in her actions, and on a constant tear of lashing out. However, she looks amazing and primal while doing so.
In fact, KISS OF THE DAMNED’s stylistic flourish is dazzling, but excitedly, not shallow. Cassavetes’ camera is guided by her characters, and in service of exploring this story about trying to build a new life with the baggage you already have. The writer-director may be arguing that you can’t; that leaving it behind, much like Paolo at the door, is the only way to transcend. And it’s these qualities that transcend KISS OF THE DAMNED from seeming homage or throwback to something much more.