Catherine Deneuve is an ancient vampire. David Bowie is her younger vampire lover who suddenly begins to age. We find out that all her lovers have met the same fate after a couple of hundred years of seemingly ageless beauty. Susan Sarandon works at a clinic for the study of aging, particularly the disease known as progeria which causes children as young as five to have the bodies of people in their seventies and older.
Miss Deneuve takes a shine to young Miss Sarandon after going to meet her regarding Bowie’s condition. I and probably a lot of other people remembered this movie for the sex scene between Deneuve and Sarandon. But seeing it again about fifteen years after my first viewing, I couldn’t help but notice all the principal characters chain smoking. Fine, it was the 80s, right? But in a film this reliant on imagery, with such minimal dialogue, everything means something.
Sometimes a cigarette is just a cigarette, but in this dark and elegant vampire flick it is not. The movie begins with Catherine Deneuve and David Bowie picking up another couple in a club, ostensibly for a bit of swinging. When they all get into the big, long Cadillac, Deneuve in the backseat with her prey for the evening, she blows smoke right in his face. That is an old seduction technique, believe it or not, sort of like the grown-up version of shaking someone’s hand and rubbing the palm of their hand with your middle finger or even the high school trick of giving someone a tab off of a beer can. But we already know a cigarette means sex.
Later, Bowie is smoking in the waiting room of the clinic where Susan Sarandon’s character works. The nurse tells him to put it out. I know it used to be ok to smoke even in hospitals; we saw Ellen Burstyn and a doctor smoking in the hallway of the hospital ten years earlier in The Exorcist. And isn’t it strange that he puts it out in the ashtray on the arm of the couch on which he is sitting? If the place was so against smoking why is there an ashtray in the waiting room?
He’s waiting to be treated for his extreme aging but he is not allowed in to see the doctor because she doesn’t believe he looked like a 30 year old yesterday; she thinks he’s a kook. There are lots of other elderly people legitimately being seen. Ironically they are actually younger than him, having been born somewhat later than the 18th century from which he appears to have come. But while he looks young, he maintains the illusion of being young, of being human, of being a sympathetic character.
The cigarette is not for him and the medicine is not for him, because he is a monster. I felt sorry for him because he and Deneuve (also a monster) seem so in love and so sad that he is fading away like all the others. But as his life burns quickly away, he becomes as shriveled and ugly on the outside as he has always been on the inside. He becomes repulsive to the viewer and to Deneuve. He is a killer who drank the life force of thousands of humans throughout his unnaturally long life in order to stay undead. And what does he do with the shriveled husks of their bodies when he is done with them? He burns them.
And over a couple of days his life burns down like the cigarettes he is chain smoking. But like the ash left behind, the pinhole burns on clothes, the smoke that stains the drapes, and the people left behind by the smokers who die of cancer, he isn’t really gone. He is only cast aside by Deneuve just like her other dessicated lovers. Much like a cigarette filter.