Kathleen Conklin is an angry young woman, although her anger is comparatively low-key at first. She is studying philosophy and ethics at university; and while she is, on the one hand, eating it all up and regurgitating it with some fervour, there seem to be doubts as to what all that theory means in the face of real-life problems and atrocities, including the Holocaust and the war crimes in Vietnam.
A traumatic event triggers a full-blown crisis that spirals out of control. Convinced she has been infected by vampirism, she uses her philosophical reasoning (and her disdain for philosophy) to justify her new existence and her blood-craving. A deranged Kathleen walks around the campus and around town without people taking note of her predicament, or of the danger she might pose. That changes when she runs into the eccentric Peina, who is a bit of Nietzschean mock-philosopher himself.
The Addiction is the brain-child of the notorious creative duo Nicholas St. John and Abel Ferrara. It is a moody, black & white arthouse piece which cycles through some of the contemporary tropes and allegories associated with vampirism. Yet we are (for the most part) left wondering if there actually are vampires in the film’s world, or if Kathleen is really just going crazy.
The film’s two main allegories are drug addiction and sexual assault. HIV is also mentioned, but although Kathleen’s purported vampirism develops like a clinical disease, not much is made of this connection. The drug allegory is so obvious I am almost hesitant calling it an allegory: the film is called The Addiction, after all, and there is literal drug-consumption featured in the story. Likewise, the rape allegory floats very, very close to the surface. Hunger/thirst, sensitivity to sunlight, and covered mirrors are some of the traditional tropes that hint at vampirism.
Despite (or because) of all those tropes and especially all the unsubtle allegories, it is not really clear if this film aims to have a message, or what that message could be. Something about PTSD, and about victims becoming perpetrators, perhaps? Or is it about the relativism of good and evil? A few of the films many philosophical excursions also have religious undertones, but I am not really understanding them. Kathleen’s many pseudo-significant lines, like “medicine is just an extended metaphor for omnipotence”, create a mock-philosophical fog through which it is impossible to see the actual message or even plot (if they actual exist). With all the mock-philosophising going on, you start wondering if this film – with its style, plot, and dialogue – is intended not as an arthouse film, but as a film mocking arthouse cinema?
In the end, this film is a bit of an enigma – but a well-shot, well-acted enigma. However, as the ending is even more confusing than the rest of the film, it leaves you slightly unsatisfied.
The acting is outstanding. Lili Taylor fully transforms into Kathleen, changing in the same way her character changes, morphing into a deranged, crawling creature. And Christopher Walken (Peina), who shows up relatively late, delivers an absolute tour de force in weirdness. Major supporting roles, arguably with even more screen-time than Walken’s Peina, are filled nicely by Edie Falco and Paul Calderon.
As I said, nothing in this film is intended to mean much in terms of plot. It is a piece of art that relies wholly on tone and atmosphere. Apart from the acting, the film’s greatest strength lies in its visual aesthetics: the black&white approach, the use of light and shadow, the long, lingering shots on Kathleen’s face, and the many body-horror elements.
One practical problem lies within Taylor’s great performance: audio issues arise from Kathleen’s changes. She is talking frantically, rambling insanely; she is slurring her speech. And the more she changes, the more her voice changes: it becomes deeper, huskier, and less audible. Add to this all her philosophical and mock-philosophical vocabulary, and you get a film in which subtitles are desperately needed at times. Unfortunately, my British DVD release does not offer any subtitles, so I had to rewind many a scene several times in order to understand what was being said.
This has all the hallmarks of an elusive arthouse piece, but it is not as inaccessible as, for example, Sangue del mio Sangue. Still, if you have problems with arthouse films, you are probably better off staying away from this. But at just under 75 minutes of running time (excl. credits) it is well worth giving it a try, if only for Taylor’s performance and a glimpse of Walken’s brilliant insanity.
Rating: 6.5 out of 10