VIFF 2021 Review: Kicking Blood

Alanna Bale plays a modern world vampire who faces a life-or-death decision in the Canadian thriller Kicking Blood.

Right during the first week of the Vancouver International Film Festival, I fulfilled my first VIFF goal of seeing a Canadian feature when I saw Kicking Blood. It also became my first Altered States film of the VIFF. It’s a vampire story that’s something.

Anna celebrates her birthday with a slice of cake and with Bernice and Gus: two of her co-workers at the library. During the shift, Bernice is upset Gus is leaving her for another woman. That night, Gus is about to make love to Anna. He thinks he’s the one in control. What he doesn’t know is that anna is a vampire. She delivers him the fatal bite!

Somewhere else in the city, Robbie is an alcoholic who’s being booted out of the house of a young woman who’s been looking after him. She caught him making out with her fiance! Robbie finds himself out on the streets. Anna walks by him. She sees him with a bottle in his hands. However she notices something about him. Somehow she’s willing to take him in. She’s able to let him live in her place and feed him well. He is expected to recover from his alcoholism, if he says he’s willing to change. Anna conducts business as usual at the library. She has her friendly conversations with Bernice. She then comes home to Robbie. She learns she has feelings toward him. Feelings of love. But she doesn’t know how to deal with it.

One night in a nightclub, two men named Boris and Ben are having fun and drinking. There they meet what appears to be a woman alone named Nina. Ben is attracted to her. He tries to get closer to her, but Nina knows he’s married and trying to hide it. Soon it’s the three of them with Ben doing cocaine. They’re having good conversation. Anna joins the conversation. However it’s apparent Ben will become Nina’s latest victim. She does eventually bite the life out of him.

It becomes apparent there is a trio of vampires in the town: Anna, Nina and Boris. They bite people out of their lives and then live off their possessions. Anna is very good from hiding it from Bernice and Robbie: two people who mean a lot to her, but how can she keep it a secret? It shows in her restraint as she wants to make love to Robbie, but she can’t get any closer. How is Robbie going to find out? That also hits her as she learns from Bernice she won’t take her pills and will rely on her inner strength and her mentality on her physical condition. A vampire like Anna can’t have connection to humans. How can Anna make this work?

The trio’s next victim is an artist who lives alone. They visit her in her apartment as she’s making a sculpture. They first ask her questions about her art, but then they shift the focus on how her art may be remembered after her death. The questions of her art seen after her death continue, which the artist kindly answers them. Then Nina bites the life out of her. Instead of enjoying this, it’s a turning point for Anna as she shows huge concern.

The last incident of vampirism affects Anna. She knows as a vampire, she can’t connect with humans emotionally. Problem is she has been connecting with humans as she watches Robbie go through his alcoholic withdrawal and as she visits Bernice in the hospital as she’s dying. She is reminded she has human sensitivity. She can’t have that as a vampire If she does, she would have to identify with mortal humans. She reveals her identity to Robbie, but he is shocked and leaves her. While at a bar, he meets Vanessa: an old flame from his college days. The two start heating up.

However the time is coming for Anna. This is the time she will have to choose between life as a vampire or human mortality. First she confronts Vanessa with Robbie. The two face off right in the middle of the road as Nina and Boris arrive. Vanessa is the latest victim. Then the two remind Anna that Robbie is her last chance. One bite of him will keep her immortality active. Refusing to bite will lead to her death. The ending is slow and more about intensity than effects, but dramatic and unconventional.

I’m sure we’ve all seen our fair share of vampire stories. From the classic stories of the legendary Count Dracula to the teen craze of the Twilight series, vampires still intrigue us and captivate us. This is a unique story of a young female vampire who’s part of a trio of vampires. As they welcome themselves in other peoples’ lives, they kill them with one bite and take material things of theirs. Anna is a vampire who works a librarian job, but pursues her victims. Often you’ll understand why a librarian like Anna has so many luxuries. However it’s an odd twist when she takes in a homeless alcoholic like Robbie. Often you wonder why would she? He has nothing to take from. Would he still be one of her eventual victims? More on that later.

The thoughts continue when you learn of the vampire trio she’s a part of. It’s after she meets and tends to Robbie that she starts to reconsider her life as a vampire. She has feelings for Robbie and doesn’t want to kill him, but her vampirism is her immortality. Should she continue to be a vampire and have Robbie as one of her victims? Or will she choose the life of mortality? That she’d rather die than kill Robbie? Even with the presence of Boris and Nina, it gets you wondering. Does she like being a vampire? Or is she controlled by the other two?

The film has Robbie as the surprising secondary character. Anna meets Robbie on the streets right after his previous ‘keeper’ booted him out and with a bottle in his hand. You’re left wondering why would a vampire like Anna take in a man like Robbie who has nothing? Would he be her next victim? Even later as she houses him instead of giving him a fatal bite like all the others, you wonder why is she keeping him alive? Is it something in herself that she sees and only Robbie can bring that out in her? Is it Robbie that gives her the change of heart? Boris and Nina remind her that her biting is her key to immortality and that a vampire is not to connect or empathize with humans. But Robbie is the human that does exactly that. Even though her best friend Bernice is the first human to get her to connect as a human instead of maintain her vampire separation from humans, it’s Robbie who best conveys Anna’s human feelings. It’s also Robbie, as he goes through alcoholic withdrawal, who sends the message to Anna of the vampirism withdrawal, a fatal withdrawal, she could face. Is it worth it?

This is a film full of a lot of twists and surprises. The vampire legend is always full of various elements of the legend. I’m sure many stories play with the legend. One thing that caught my attention is how these vampires are perfectly unaffected by the sunlight. Most vampires are either affected by sunlight or the light is fatal to them. The trio of vampires are unharmed by the sunlight, but it’s the nighttime where their vampirism comes to life. Maybe that’s the trick. They act like everyday humans by day, but their vampire side comes out at night. Even the story of how another woman tries to steal Robbie from Anna adds into the drama. For the most part, the story makes sense. If it’s a jigsaw puzzle, the pieces fit well. The story however carry itself out in a slower-than-usual pace. It settles more for the intensity of the situation, rather than the sensational images of bites of the flesh. Also I feel we learn the fact that Anna is part of a trio of vampires later in the film than we should. However those who come to a film about vampires and are huge fans of seeing ‘vampires in action’ may be disappointed. The ending works, but there were even small bits where it had some flat moments, or could have been better. Like Nina’s last line.

I give top marks to director Blaine Thurier. He does a very good job in directing the play he co-wrote with Leonard Farlinger. I like how he plays along with the legend and creates a unique story of vampires in the modern world. It even gives you the feeling of a vampires-next-door story! Also very good is the acting from Alanna Bale. Playing a character that goes from an everyday girl to a vampire at night to a vampire with human feelings is not an easy task. She does a very good job of it and keeps her focus well. She makes it work. Luke Bilyk is also very good as the recovering alcoholic Robbie. He does more than just play a recovering alcoholic. His role is also that of human feelings and feelings of love to Anna. He does a very good job of showing the importance of Robbie in the story.

The film also has a lot of great supporting performances too. Rosemary Dunsmore was great as Bernice, the librarian who gives Anna her human feelings. Vinessa Antoine was also very good as Vanessa, the woman who tries to win Robbie away from Anna. Ella Jonas Farlinger (daughter of scriptwriter Leonard Farlinger) and Benjamin Sutherland were good as the two other vampires, but their roles lacked dimension.

Kicking Blood is not your typical vampire story. It does offer a twist in the common vampire story that delivers the unexpected. Despite it’s small but noticeable glitches, it will still keep you at the edge of your seat.

DVD Review: Elle

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Isabelle Huppert plays a woman caught is a troubling time in her life in Elle.

Elle was one of those films that came around the time of the Academy Awards. It has a lot of interesting elements, but it features a lot of elements some would first find unwatchable. Is it worth it?

The film begins with a cat witnessing the rape of her owner Michele LeBlanc (that’s right). The masked rapist immediately leaves. Michele just calmly cleans up themes and resumes her life, but doesn’t call the police. Michele returns back to her job as CEO of a video game company where her male employees either lust after her or view her as a ‘bitch.’ She tries to maintain a relationship with her son Vincent but feels detached as she feels he’s being controlled by her pregnant girlfriend. She has a troubled relationship with her mother who is narcissistic and has a thing for younger men. She’s having a love affair with Robert, the husband of her best friend and business partner Anna, but also has caught the eye of her new neighbor Patrick, although his devoutly Catholic wife Anna is unaware of this. Michele also has a troubled past.

The reason why Michele doesn’t call the police is because she has a sordid past. She is the daughter of a mass murderer who was arrested and imprisoned over 40 years ago when Michele was 10 years-old and even involved Michele in his murder spree. His parole hearing is coming up and the events from the past still haunt her. Her friends plead for her to report the rape to the police but Michele won’t, fearing the police have it in for her. Life is hard for Michele as she receives harassing text messages form a man claiming to watch her. She’s also the victim of a hacked video game which shows an alien with her face being raped by another alien. She learns the male colleague who made the hacked video game is infatuated with her but not the rapist. Her ex-husband learned of the news and tried looking out for her safety.

Christmas only adds to the stress as her mother falls into a stroke and her dying wish to Michele is to see her father. Michele tells her son Vincent she believes he’s not the father of his girlfriend’s child. The rapist returns for the third time, but Michele takes of the mask to discover it’s Patrick. Even though she now knows, she still doesn’t call the police nor have an alarm installed in her house.

Michele goes to visit her father in prison only to learn he hung himself. On the ride home, she gets into a car accident. She calls her friends instead of an ambulance, but the only one who responds to the call is Patrick. Michele gives Patrick a shocking confession of her feelings toward him which leaves Patrick shocked and confused. Then the day of the celebration of the launch of the new video game. At the party, she confessed to Anne her affair with Robert, which breaks Anna’s heart. The story ends with a tensely climactic moment and an ending that comes across as triumphant.

The thing about this film is that it deals with a complicated cat-and-mouse situation. Michele wants to get her rapist arrested but she is afraid to call the police, feeling they’re after her. That could also explain why she wouldn’t call an ambulance after the car crash: because of her past. She has a sense of who did it, but she feels an attraction to him. She is caught in situations in her work, in her family and even within her circle of friends at the same time. It’s enough to make anyone snap. It even turns her into a spiteful bitter person to whomever she meets up with. You hope that her rapist is caught but you’re left wondering how will it end? Will he be caught? Will Michele be the one who ends up killed? Will her rapist end up her new lover? It keeps you intrigued.

One thing about this is that this film is a psychological thriller that succeeds in taking subject matter that is disturbing and even unwatchable and turns it into a story that becomes positive in the end. Normally I am very nervous about the subject of rape in a film. In fact the very opening scene of the rape (as witnessed by the cat) and her bleeding vagina in the bath really had me questioning what Paul Verhoeven was up to. I’ll admit I had a mistrust to Verhoeven because I know he has a reputation for films like Basic Instinct and Showgirls. I still haven’t forgotten the misogyny of the latter and I was anticipating misogyny in the film at first. Even the scene that appears like Michele is consenting to the rape of Patrick makes me wonder, in addition to knowing Michele actually gets sexual satisfaction from it. In the end, the film delivers a strong female character who is able to piece the puzzle together. It’s at the end we see Michele as if she triumphed in the situation.

SPOILER ALERT – IF YOU DO NOT WANT TO KNOW THE ENDING, BYPASS THIS PARAGRAPH: The ending is a surprise as well. Throughout the whole film, you see Michele as a bitter, hurting, troubled woman with the world seemingly against her or bothering her in every which way. However it’s right after Patrick is killed that everything magically becomes right. We see how Rebecca isn’t as hurt over Patrick’s death as she’s moving out, and makes it obvious she knew what Patrick was up to. We see how Vincent has been able to get better in his career and relationship. We see how Michele is finally able to make peace with her father. We also see how Michele makes peace with both Josie and Anna as they’ve both left Robert, and even resumes the strong friendship with Anna. It’s like life for all during the time of Michele being raped was what was causing friction in the lives of Michele and those around her, and it was Patrick’s death at the hands of Vincent that set everything right for all. Normally something like that wouldn’t work in terms of a story. I mean how is it possible for a rape victim to recover from what happened seemingly overnight? But the way it was played out in the story made it look very believable and made it look like the story ended on the right note. Quite an accomplishment, especially for a psychological thriller.

This film is actually an adaptation of a French novel titled Oh. I’ve never read the novel but David Birke does a very good job in creating a story that’s both a psychological thriller and a big puzzle that somehow is able to get all the pieces to fit in the end. Paul Verhoeven also did a good job of directing. I will admit I did get suspicious with him, especially after seeing certain scenes. However it’s in the end that I feel he did a very good job of creating a strong female character despite appearing to push the envelope at times. However making the story work also came down to Isabelle Huppert in her performance of the protagonist Michele. She had to portray a character who seemed to have everything pushing her to snap but somehow keep her composure throughout the ordeal, despite being bitter and spiteful, and appear triumphant in the end. She accomplished that feat excellently. Supporting performances of note include Laurent Lafitte as the troubled neighbor Patrick and Anne Consigny as Anna: the friend caught in the love triangle.

Elle begins as a film that one would expect to be misogynist, but instead paves the way for a female character who triumphs in the end. It’s the film’s surprising twists and turns that make it.