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Tabula Rasa

Carmilla Hyde

Written and directed by Dave de Vries, 2009

A review by Kyla Ward and David Carroll, 2010

"You did this to me," a woman whispers, sliding a razor over a man's throat. Bound and gagged on a psychiatrist's couch, he gazes at her in horrified recognition. "Carmilla Hyde."

Switch to a different scene, where the threat is less overt. Student share households always involve a certain amount of friction. Unfortunately for Millie, it's occurring between Sara and Nathan in the bedroom above hers, in the kitchen, the lounge room and generally her face. The fuck buddies are unaware of Millie's personal issues, cloaked by her conservative clothes and the weird mix of religious and horror imagery in her room, so it's not surprising their attempts to help her loosen up go awry. Sara supplies the outfit and the wine, Nathan a certain enthusiasm; party girl Britt adds rohypnol and an iphone. Millie awakens with no memory of the night before, but is presented with graphic evidence. The first link in the chain leading to the razor sequence is made as she knocks at the door of Dr. Charles Webster, hypnotherapist.

Memory and consequence is the game here, played across a dark landscape of beds, bars and back alleys. As the title suggests, hypnosis brings another personality out in Millie, one well-equipped to turn the tables on all who have harmed her (and with a lingering respect for 19th century English literature). But the way in which she approaches this is more subtle and the truth of the matter less obvious than might be expected.

This is the first feature of writer/director Dave de Vries. He is a well-known comic artist in the local scene, best known for Southern Squadron and subsequent US work. For those in the know, there are some fun shout-outs to the local comic industry, with quick glimpses of work by Jason Paulos and SCAR, plus copies of Southern Squadron and, relevantly, the adult Carmilla comic from Malibu in 1991, which had Australian contributors. As might be expected from a director with such a background, there is a real visual style present in the film. It is both clean and decorative, with an initially pale palette slashed with black, purple and red. It may also be reflected in the overall static quality of the camera work, with many of the scenes such as Millie's "transformation" and the interrogation of Dr Webster working as beautifully composed single frames. Millie's seduction/rape is achieved through an actual freeze.

This isn't to say that things aren't happening in those frames: but they do happen slowly. Carmilla seeks revenge but there is no bloodbath here, only a stain. The impact of the most violent sequences is presented in mainly psychological terms, which is an interesting trick. But this subtlety, as mentioned above, costs the narrative its urgency. It's very pretty to watch. Carmilla has a lot of lost time to make up, and her housemates are certainly attractive. The nightclub sequence is almost lyrical, and I particularly liked the inversion of watching "Millie" party while Sara resorts to housework as a form of anger management. But amongst all the writhing and shadowplay (and music by SCAR and The Vampire Project), Carmilla also seeks the truth about Millie's childhood. Link by link, the chain spools out; Millie's secrets are revealed and, despite her avowed freedom, Carmilla is as caught up in them as anyone. This is unusual and intriguing: to see the alternative personality as an actual person, capable of her own growth. From the vengeance of Carmilla, the story shifts to the redemption of Millie.

This is where the piece falls short of its ambitions. The climax is pleasingly symmetrical, with definite emotive punch. But despite the foregrounding of memory as a theme, there is simply not sufficient foundation for it. What happened all those years ago was messy, easily as messy as the present, and we don't know sufficient about Millie, her family or the processes of hypnotism to judge the result. Just how completely are the characters of Carmilla and Millie divorced, especially towards the end? How rasa are the various tabula (especially with all that digital footage floating around)? For explanation, we seem to be pointed towards various external texts. Carmilla itself is described as a vampire story and quoted as lesbian porn. The relevance of "Hyde" to proceedings is simply assumed. Millie is apparently undertaking an Arts degree, but here as in so many other places, quoting Nietzsche just does not help. I was left with a sense of questioning and doubt where resolution was clearly intended.

The acting is overall good; especially Sam Tripodi's crucial performance as Dr. Webster. He has a surprisingly limited background in television. In her first feature role, Anni Lindner pulls off the trick of contrasting her performances as Millie and Carmilla without diluting either: her two looks are both very striking. The limited ensemble means that everyone has their moment to shine: the sticky, prickly share house ambiance is a real strong point and its invasion and disruption provides the film's most effective shocks.

As a visually attractive character piece, Carmilla Hyde has a good deal to offer. Describing it as "A Jekyll and Hyde Revenge Thriller," as the advertising has it, do neither viewer or film a service. It conjures expectations of violence and cruelty that is a bit of a distraction from the real thing. "A sexy, psychological mystery" might be more realistic. Overall, it's a competent film that is not quite the sum of its parts, but shows exciting potential for a new film maker.


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