by Karina Wolf
I don’t burn; I consume myself. – Catherine Deneuve
The Hunger begins in a nightclub. Night and darkness have historically been the vampire’s domain; also: decadence and connoisseurship. Here, Catherine Deneuve and David Bowie prowl through a boite, elegantly outfitted in YSL, to watch Bauhaus perform “Bela Lugosi’s Dead.”
The song is a poem and an invocation. The best 1980s lyrics have oddball narratives that you don’t need to understand in order to get. ‘Bela Lugosi’s dead…undead, undead, undead,’ vocalist Peter Murphy chants from inside a mesh cage. He extends his arms and raises up his jacket like a cape. This isn’t kitsch—you won’t find the silent screen crescendos of scariness that you’d see with Carl Dreyer’s or Werner Herzog’s undead. What you get in The Hunger is lavish affectlessness.
Deneuve and Bowie, obscured in semi-darkness and shades, survey the club. Bowie flashes his impressive canines. They make contact with a redhead (Ann Magnuson) and her dance partner, and the two couples drive in a hearse-sized Cadillac to a motel. There, Miriam unsheathes an ankh pendant that masks a blade, cuts their carotid arteries and drains the victims of life. Your typical vampire blood harvest and feast.
When The Hunger was released in 1983, it received mixed to negative reviews. If praised, reviewers called out its torrid commercial aesthetic. The film was director Tony Scott’s first feature—he and cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt, along with Tony’s brother Ridley Scott and colleague Adrian Lyne, began work in British TV spots, experimenting with form as practice for dramatic films. You can’t praise The Hunger for its sharp structure or recognizable human emotions. It’s not a heart-warmer, it’s a heart chiller. But if not exactly a good movie, it is a relentlessly cool one.
Released in the same year as Ridley Scott’s dystopian thriller Blade Runner, The Hunger shares its science fiction meets noir aesthetic. And the two films’ images have become synonymous with what the 80s look like on celluloid: blue-cast darkness, single light sources, lots and lots of atmospheric smoke. (Goldblatt says he lit the scenes so sparingly that some footage was unusable). While Blade Runner prognosticates an entire future, The Hunger shrinks all of post-punk New York to the scope of one blood-drinking couple. But the films share a central concern: in what qualities do we locate humanity? And do human strengths define the apex of feeling and conduct on Earth?
Scott said his visual conception was inspired by Helmut Newton’s fashion photos for French and British Vogue. Newton sexualized froideur—his most striking portraits of Deneuve, Bowie and especially Charlotte Rampling are remarkable for depicting fascism as fetish. Similarly, Scott’s film straddles soft core and arthouse, pulling from 70s exploitation pics (Blood & Roses, Vampyros Lesbos) as much as from European auteurs. While 70s vampire movies may have been about anxieties of sexual identity, they are also about provocation. Here, Scott takes titillation mainstream.
He needed for this project performers who were not averse to nudity or to fantasy. Susan Sarandon, who gained cult fame appearing in Rocky Horror Picture Show and playing a madam in Louis Malle’s Atlantic City, was game—the story is essentially a long build to her smokey soft core embraces with Deneuve.
The Hunger makes the problem of vampirism both scientific and sexual. The condition is the result of the mingling of human and alien blood. The resulting disease endows the victim with an extended youth followed by rapid deterioration to a kind of sentient corpse. In this story, Miriam (Deneuve) is the predator and John (Bowie) is her patient zero. After decades of immortality, and despite Miriam’s promise to preserve his life, John’s indefinite vigor is suddenly spent. He responds to his physical crisis in a recognizably human way: he consults an expert he sees on TV. David Bowie, king chameleon, is so alien that in films he has acted only as otherworldly entity: extraterrestrial tourist, goblin king. But here, as a creature confronting his ending, Bowie is given the emotional scenes, and he is unexpectedly moving .
When she recognizes John’s case is hopeless, Deneuve’s Miriam is pragmatic. She shelves her old lover amid the stacks of coffined former mates she keeps in their New York dwelling. Sarah Roberts (Sarandon), the telegenic scientist whose book on sleep studies and longevity commands John’s attention, becomes Miriam’s next target.
Right now, the least interesting approach to the vampire genre is to say that vampires are just like us. Vampires are a terrific subject for films, of course, because they are recognizably human, but without our quotidian worries about money, social standing or biological reproduction. Thus, a vampire story has been free to focus on a single aspect of human development: on pre-adolescent and teen romance, forbidden love, transgressive sexuality, agoraphobia, petty and grand criminality, family feuds, outsider artists. A true vampire tale is prompted by an encounter with the sublime—a meeting so significant it annihilates human subjectivity. It is fitting that this annihilation arrives in The Hunger in the form of Catherine Deneuve.
Deneuve is a woman made for abstraction. She is remote as the Mona Lisa, and contains all the ambiguities implicit in that famous painted face. Whose moods live in her image, at whose prompting? What secrets does she hold, what agency does possess? Is she self-directed, or the product of a Svengali lover (Roger Vadim, her son’s father, also minted the stardom of his wives Brigitte Bardot and Jane Fonda) and countless metteurs-en-scene who know how to use her? Is she a victim or a perpetrator?
Three decades ago, when she filmed Tony Scott’s The Hunger, Deneuve’s fame was anchored in her dispassionate sexuality. She gained attention in the candy-colored musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, but her breakout performances mined, or mimed, a darkness within her. She was the bourgeois prostitute inBelle de Jour, turned on by degradation; the schizoid hairdresser in Repulsion. Deneuve, like John Wayne or Kristen Stewart, is not an emoter, but that doesn’t mean she’s not an actor. Just as Lauren Bacall developed her signature look, a glance of glowering sexual frankness, to mask a trembling chin and unsteady nerves, Deneuve’s screen stoicism was a strategy to overcome shyness. The result was the perfect neutral: a resting face that conveys, always, a secret.
In The Hunger, the dissonance between Deneuve’s line readings and her lines is irrelevant. Unlike her early films, she is not portrayed as exiled from reality—rather, the human world falters in her sight. To look at her is to be enchanted. Susan Sarandon is audience surrogate in this respect.
The movie—maybe all horror movies—doesn’t do the things I’d usually want from a film. It doesn’t play with and pay off our hopes by protecting or rewarding characters. If the dialogue is as contrived as a contemporaneous old school porno, it’s adequate to bring the characters together. Its strengths are its sensory elements, and it is, therein, actually spooky. The rattle of a guitar somehow sounds like blood sluicing through veins. The glimpse of a breastbone, an opaque t-shirt, or a young girl’s discarded Polaroid camera suggest one’s own vulnerability.
I suppose the horror of The Hunger is meant to rest in the powerlessness of Miriam’s victims, in the funerary gloss of her environs. But it’s a delicious powerlessness—one to lust for. The Hunger is about decadence as the ultimate counter-culture and survival technique. If Sarandon’s Jamesian scientist seems to win the film’s moral debate by trying to avoid the corruption of vampire life, Deneuve’s amoral glamour trumps all. Sarandon ends the film transformed and consorting with her own female vampire recruit. Nothing human loves forever, is the movie’s tagline. The Hunger doesn't really offer the option of mortal insufficiency over immortal savagery. Yes, it’s an advertisement for the undead. When in doubt, Deneuve.