Deathless, ruthless and bloodless

This vampire never dies. He never makes us laugh either. Or feel afraid . Adam Mars-Jones on Neil Jordan's all too melancholy Interview with the Vampir e

Some are born deathless: some achieve deathlessness: others have deathlessness thrust upon them. This cosmology is the essential innovation that sets Anne Rice's Interview with the Vampire, written for the screen by her and directed by Neil Jorda n, apart from the competition in a fairly crowded field. Many recent ventures in the genre, such as The Lost Boys, have been at least half jokey, and even more serious films, like Kathryn Bigelow's fierce Near Dark, spent a lot of their time trying to fi nd a chink in the old dispensation (what a stroke of luck there happens to be a veterinary operating theatre to hand, where we can arrange a total blood transfusion) whereby those bitten become vampires in their turn.

In Interview with the Vampire, victims of Lestat (Tom Cruise) don't automatically join him in his eternal limbo. They aren't recruits, they're empties. If he chooses to promote a human being to vampirehood, as he does with Louis (Brad Pitt) in 1791, thenhe must undertake a further procedure, a sort of blood transfusion, which Lestat seems to experience as a traumatic orgasm. It isn't something he takes on lightly - it's not like buying a pet. He is creating a companion who will be friend or enemy, lover or rival, forever.

In Coppola's Dracula, for all its visual astonishments, it seemed absurd that vampirism was still being treated as a metaphor for repressed sexuality, since in the film's version of the 19th century there was nothing repressed. Interview with the Vampiregreatly benefits from its more sophisticated setup, which means that vampirism can be seen variably as a curse, a perversion, or an alternative lifestyle. We spend almost the whole film in the company of vampires, being asked to identify with the victims only in one gruelling scene near the beginning of Louis's undead career, and there is enough variation between the vampires in temperament and even in their supernatural powers, ("The dark gift is different for us all") to stop us from missing our own kind overmuch.

But then Louis, who provides the film with its point of view, remains in some way human. A Parisian vampire (Antonio Banderas) at one point even described him as, "A vampire with a human soul" and this, oddly when you think about it, is a compliment. Louis lives on animals' blood as long as he can bear it, and is never quite reconciled to his fate. He becomes obsessed with the quest for an original vampire, someone who is born undead, and not made that way. Brad Pitt wanders the centuries looking elegan t and melancholy, which is a relatively easy task given that vampirism in this version isn't disfiguring. All it does is create tiny dark blue veins that encroach on the cheeks and forehead, and it requires hair to be worn long.

The hero's preoccupation leaves the film available for Tom Cruise to dominate whenever he has the chance. The earnestness, not only of Cruise's screen persona but of his approach to stardom, the doggedness with which he imposes himself on audiences, is mercifully in remission with this role. He genuinely seems to relish the preposterousness of Lestat, his dry explosive humour, his casual cruelty (unless the wearing of a sharp plectrum on one thumb, for tapping an artery, counts as humane) and his senseof grievance. Lestat, as he often reminds us, was not given the choice he gives to his own potential recruits, of deciding whether to be a vampire and live or to remain human and die.

Lestat, though, is only a glorified supporting role. He claims to have chosen Louis for his fire and his anger, but these are well hidden from the audience. The overall mood of the film is undeniably melancholy in a way that dampens the excitement that is anything but an optional element of the genre. One necessary consequence of the narrative's siding with vampires and not victims is that we, too, are deprived of sunlight, and though cinematographer Philippe Rousselot can make night-time look sof t andwarm, without the moral alternatives of light and dark, we become vaguely sad rather than greatly excited.

Neil Jordan's direction is highly accomplished, without bearing a strong signature. The celebration of impossible love, which has preoccupied him so much, from Angel through to The Miracle and above all in Mona Lisa and The Crying Game, doesn't come intoInterview with the Vampire, where there is plenty of impossibility but not a lot of love. The film's eroticism is muted and homosexual; an honourable compromise by Hollywood standards, but not offering Jordan much to get his teeth into.

It is still an achievement to contain potential jostling elements in a single over-arching mood. When Lestat recruits Claudia (Kirsten Dunst), a child, to console Louis's melancholy, the new arrival not only destabilises their partnership but also threatens to do the same for the film. There is a flurry of new themes here: explicit parody of family sentiment, the subversive suggestion, since Claudia is ruthless, that Louis's scruples are acquired and arbitrary, and an idea that is sentimental in its ownway, namely that it is worse to be cheated of a childhood (and also, paradoxically, of a maturity, since Claudia cannot develop sexually) than to be cheated of a life or a soul. Dunst has a very disconcerting presence in the role, and the scenes of a sort of emotional triangle between two vampire adults and a vampire child are in some ways the best things in the film.

On the basis of The Company of Wolves, it seemed that Jordan might favour stylisation with this new film, but he and production designer Dante Ferretti opt for painstaking re-creations of New 1790s Orleans and 1880s Paris. A single shot, of a group of hooded vampires seen from above, pouncing in formation on a helpless victim, recalls the absurd brio that Coppola brought to his Dracula, but Jordan doesn't enjoy hokum for its own sake, which is a disadvantage in this line of work. There has been no stinting on special effects, and some of the stunts we see go some way beyond the standard ones. Yet it is possible to see the screen filled with the howling undead flying in flames, like an aerial display team from hell, and not be jolted out of the mood of solemn contemplation. At moments like these, it seems that Neil Jordan is better at capturing the eternal ennui of the vampire condition than the cheap thrills which are the lifeblood of the genre.

n On release from Friday

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