Already, before her film has even come out, a number of gore hounds, guys in particular, have accused Mary Harron of further diluting the vampire mythos by drowning its fans in girly melodrama à la Twilight. The point of view strikes me as rather egotistical, not to mention short-sighted. If they want their girlfriends to go to the movies with them, horror fanboys are going to have to accept that female interpretations of fear are just as worthy of the genre as their favourite slashers’ “rape with a serrated blade” metaphor. Adapted from Rachel Klein’s novel, The Moth Diaries was made by women for women. That doesn’t make it an abomination. Of course, that doesn’t make it any good either.
The plot centers on fourteen-year-old Rebecca (Sarah Bolger), who feels threatened when a new student by the name of Ernessa (Lily Cole) comes to her boarding school and seduces her best friend Lucie (Sarah Gadon). Bodies soon start piling up, but no one listens when our protagonist compares Ernessa to the vampire in Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla, preferring to link her distress to her father’s suicide two years ago. Various parallels are made with female puberty, though I probably missed a good deal by virtue of my penis. For example, I still don’t know what moths have to do with anything.
Perhaps this tidbit is better communicated in Klein’s book. I’m guessing it reads a bit like Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s feminist novella The Yellow Wallpaper, with a first-person narrator projecting all of her repressed anxieties onto a perceived supernatural threat and becoming increasingly unreliable as the story progresses. Harron captures this literary device by limiting Rebecca’s more urgent interactions to one-on-one exchanges. When characters behave inconsistently in the scenes that follow, we start to wonder whether these conversations occurred as depicted or ever took place.
Even in the first half hour, before weirdness abounds, Rebecca comes across as more of a mean girl than the desperate heroine she thinks herself, spreading rumours about Ernessa and making fun of her alleged anorexia. God only knows what the girl would’ve done if she’d figured out her frenemy was a lesbian. For a while, I thought The Moth Diaries would unfold like Léa Pool’s Lost and Delirious (2001) but from the perspective of the misguided little sister, Allison. Both films deal with sexuality from a singularly feminine perspective. They also share a dreamlike aesthetic, perhaps because they were shot in Montreal.
I don’t mean that the City of Montreal looks like a dream. To me, the Quebec metropolis mostly looks like someone toasted a slice of Europe in the morning and dropped a hot cup of America all over it. Rather, I mean that the local cinematographers bring an ethereal quality to their work, one typical of an artistic culture that, owing to historical or political barriers, has yet to form a commercial identity. Harron uses this attribute to evoke the uncertainty of burgeoning womanhood and eerie sensuality of Gothic romances. Twelve years after American Psycho, she remains a gifted horror director.
She does not, on the other hand, turn out a gifted teen writer. While The Moth Diaries is beautiful to watch, listening to its stilted, weirdly functional dialogue proves excruciating, as Rebecca and her friends insist on announcing their every action one scene in advance: “Party in my room,” informs Sofia (Laurence Hamelin); cut to party in Sofia’s room. This results in awkward chains of events like when the heroine makes a startling discovery in the school basement, runs to her room to write what she plans to do about it, and then goes back to the basement to resume the sequence. Couldn’t we have just assumed she’d write that stuff in her diary later?
In fairness, the oddity of it all sets the tone for an ambiguous ending that never makes it clear who the villainess truly was. Whatever your take, I can promise you no satisfying climax, at least none that I comprehend. As I mentioned, a large part of The Moth Diaries flew over my noggin, and it sometimes felt like the movie was leaving gooey white drops on my hair. Maybe the problem lies in my limited male perception. Maybe Harron missed an opportunity to expose the female condition to a wider audience. I’ve no clue, but I’ll let you decide whether my ambivalence adds anything to this review. Annoying, isn’t it?