The aeroplane has taken off and the doctor, Verari (René-Jean Chauffard) is shifting nervously in his seat, betraying his anxiety about flying. One of his two companions suggests he spin one of his yarns for which he is well known to pass the time on the journey, so soon he is regaling them with a strange tale of when he was out in the French countryside as the guest of Count Leopoldo (Mel Ferrer) at his castle retreat. He was planning to be married to Georgia (Elsa Martinelli), who had made good friends with his cousin Carmilla (Annette Stroyberg), but they were finding the superstitious nature of the locals something of a bind. With the talk of the supernatural, and specifically vampires, going about surely those of a higher social class could rise above such frippery?
Hmm... probably not, as this was an adaptation of J. Sheridan Le Fanu's celebrated vampire novella Carmilla, which for many was the jumping off point for the lesbian subgenre of bloodsucker fiction. Hammer films in Britain embraced the notion for at least three films come the nineteen-seventies, delivering their own version of this story with The Vampire Lovers thereby starting the so-called Karnstein trilogy which has garnered a following for its sex and violence dressed up in would-be classy finery, but French director Roger Vadim got there first with this, and arguably managed a degree more poetry than the moviemakers across La Manche, though oddly not for the whole of the work, as there was an out of character mundanity to the first half.
It was almost as if Vadim was determined to centre his narrative in the everyday to contrast it with the more outlandish aspects later on, and that included the homosexuality. That opening set of scenes establishes parts which will be important later on, such as Carmilla's wisdom about the past she is becoming an unlikely expert on, or the explosives set in the abandoned cemetery to both make way for a display of fireworks and put the locals' minds at rest. Though Leopoldo has reckoned without the staunch belief in vampires pretty much making it into a reality, as if the faith in the darker side of the unknown has brought the entity into being; there are two little girls who excitedly swap gossip-like exchanges on the properties of the vampires, encapsulating the immaturity of putting so much store in the paranormal.
And yet, since the spirit of a vampire noblewoman from long ago apparently returns to inhabit Carmilla - anagrammatically named Mircalla - there's a sophistication to the unreal elements that betrays Vadim's enchantment with the notion, and comes to dominate the atmosphere as the grip of the vampire sows the seeds of fear. But it's not all fear, as lust enters into it as well, with Carmilla becoming confused in her attractions; since she has no partner of her own, she either becomes jealous of Leopoldo or Georgia, and attempts to seduce them both, though seems to make more progress with her friend than her cousin, leading to scenes much-censored in their day, though now look nothing more racy than a sensual kiss which wouldn't get this cut down if it was made now, in spite of the original title, Et mourir de plaisir, translating to And to Die of Pleasure.
Nevertheless, there were bits and pieces of subversive material that offers a noticeable charge, though whether that was erotic or transgressive was in the eye of the beholder. Certainly Martinelli and Stroyberg rarely looked more beautiful, one of the benefits of being filmed by Vadim who knew his way around presenting ladies at their physical best; he was married to the latter at the time and was patently building her up as his latest discovery as Brigitte Bardot had been to vastly more success. Stroyberg, who took Vadim's surname for the two movies they made together before splitting up, would never reach the heights of some of her ex's other wives, but we will always have her here to appreciate before she retired to become a socialite, much as her Carmilla character is here, funnily enough. Some accused the director of aping Jean Cocteau, probably because there was an excellent dream sequence near the end in his style, but Vadim was confident enough in his own methods to craft his own, attractively coloured if tonally uncertain vampire romance. Pretty music by Jean Prodromidès.