The Moth Diaries

Can you open the window a little bit?

Much of The Moth Diaries, a film by Mary Harron based upon a novel by Rachel Klein, revolves around the question of whether Lily Cole’s character is a vampire, and we’re (to a certain degree) left to our own analysis in the end.  I wonder whether my recent interaction with Cole has colored my comprehension in some way.  “No,” I think, “she can’t be a vampire.  She’s a really nice person.”

The Moth Diaries follows Rebecca (Sarah Bolger) as she attends a new year at an all-girls boarding school.  She and her roommate, Lucie (Sarah Gadon) are inseparable.  In an early scene involving these two and several friends (played by Valerie Tian, Laurence Hamelin, and Melissa Farman), a sense of foreboding upstages an otherwise garden-variety “teenage girl” conversation, perhaps due to the deliberate wide shots, which allow the viewer to memorize each face and personality, inviting us to figure out which qualities of each girl will lead to her inevitable exeunt from a horror movie.  The first night of the semester goes as usual, but soon, a teacher introduces Rebecca to the new girl, Ernessa (Lily Cole).  Ernessa appears sullen, ignores Rebecca’s greetings, and looks past her to make eye contact with Lucie, who has just gotten out of the shower.

Rebecca bonds with the only male teacher on campus, Mr. Davies (Scott Speedman).  Rebecca’s father was a poet (who later committed suicide and was found by Rebecca), and Davies is a big fan of his work.  Davies is teaching his students Carmilla, the vampire novel by Joseph Sheridan le Fanu, from which Bram Stoker took a heap of inspiration for Dracula.  “There are always three things that show up in a vampire story,” Davies says.  “Sex, blood, and death.”  From here, we can guess what structure the film will take on.

The film loosely adapts two formulas: the Alien school of horror, which first introduces us to the band of main characters, then sees them picked off one by one; and select plot points of Carmilla itself (because Klein/Harron apparently believe a novel written in 1872 is fair game).  But the film deals with these two structures in interesting ways: the supporting cast is trimmed, as you would expect, but we never actually see anyone killed, nor do most of the characters die – some are expelled or kept by their parents from returning to school.  Secondly, the plot of Carmilla doesn’t happen to Rebecca, our protagonist; it happens to Lucie, into whose life we are given very few glimpses.  Rebecca’s obsession with the novel and her trauma regarding her father make her believe that her time at school is becoming a real-life Carmilla story, and because we see the story through her eyes, we begin to believe it with her.  In this way, the answers are never dropped in front of us, regardless of how obvious the film may be with its references.

Is Ernessa a vampire, or is Rebecca losing her mind?  The film, like Carmilla, contains a certain amount of circumspection regarding what’s actually happening in the story.  Le Fanu’s novel concerned a woman’s romantic affair with a female vampire; Harron’s film forgoes even telling us whether the narrator is in her right mind, let alone whether Ernessa is a supernatural creature or not.  The unreliable narrator, however, is a brilliant device in this story, because we are able to examine the clues for ourselves:  Ernessa, when misbehaving, is made to swim laps.  It appears she’s afraid of water and cannot swim.  She never eats.  When the other girls smoke pot, she refuses to be near the smoke.  Rebecca walks in on Ernessa and Lucie having sex, but from Rebecca’s angle, Ernessa appears to be biting Lucie’s neck.  Another time, Rebecca sees Ernessa walking the roof of the school and passing through a closed window.  Or was the window open?  These scenes are shot so well that we truly cannot be sure.

The story is more about suicide than it is about vampires, so its focus remains on its main character.  Rebecca is bursting with melancholy, desperate for the attention of her best friend, and frequently muses upon her father’s suicide.  Why did he do it?  Was it something she did?  Did it hurt?  How is she supposed to recover from it?  She even carries around a razorblade, the film’s one true attempt at symbolism, which actually works in a film with so many fairy-story attributes.  The threat of Rebecca’s own suicide seems sincere.

The performances of Sarah Bolger and Lily Cole are the linchpins by which this film is made or broken, and both deliver.  Bolger allows us to feel Rebecca’s sadness and confusion, and even though The Moth Diaries is billed as a vampire story, we honestly want Rebecca to reunite with Lucie and have a normal year at school.  A scene in which Rebecca professes her need for Lucie’s friendship, despite the way the latter has treated her, is rife with emotion and feels incredibly genuine.  Cole manages a performance that can be interpreted in two ways: that of a stoic, manipulative succubus, or a timid misfit whose only modus operandi for making friends is to inadvertently steal them from other people.  All of this is present in Cole’s Ernessa, and the few scenes in which she appears as a “vampire” (floating through the air, causing a storm of blood to shower the library while taunting Rebecca into killing herself) are wisely contained within Rebecca’s dreams or visions.

Ingeniously, even the ending, which seems “happy” at face value, can drastically change in tone depending on whether or not you think Ernessa was really a vampire.  Rebecca finds Ernessa’s diary, which states she may have died at this very school when it was a hotel back in 1907.  Using this evidence along with her own suspicions, she breaks into the school’s basement and finds Ernessa sleeping in her own trunk (a “coffin” of sorts?).  She then makes a decision that will have a lasting impact on the school and everyone she knows, a decision she claims has “freed” the two of them.

The Moth Diaries is a good story about a girl finding strength.  Aside from the use of the shopworn “perverted male teacher” trope, the film hits all the right notes.  I don’t believe I have ever seen a film in which the intention of making the audience “interpret” the film’s action actually worked, perhaps because most of those films also lack a real ending, whereas this one sees Rebecca all the way to the fresh air she severely needs.  I felt a good breath of it once the credits rolled.

The Moth Diaries (2012); based on the novel by Rachel Klein; directed by Mary Harron; starring Sarah Bolger and Lily Cole.

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