“We are not sinners because we sin, but we sin because we are sinners.”
– R.C. Sproul
“You’re an addict…so be addicted.”
– Mark Renton in Trainspotting 2
A girl walks home alone at night, and a woman in black strolls sensually behind her. The woman in black sidles up next to the girl and casually comments “Nice night.” The girl nervously nods before she is snatched into an underground dark alley by the woman in black. The alleyway is a netherworld of zigzagging light and shadow. The woman in black corners her prey with shadows engulfing her face like a chain link fence pressed against hungry jackals. She forcefully yet calmly intones “Look at me and tell me to go away. Don’t ask, tell me.” The girl can only croak “Please,” but it’s not just a “please” bargaining for her life, but a “please” of invitation. The girl fears this unknown experience but at the same time is aroused by the opportunity. The woman in black sinks her teeth into the girl’s neck and the look on the girl’s face is one that some people might be familiar with. It’s the same look of the agony and the ecstasy of a needle sliding into a plump vein being injected with your first hit of heroin. The girl’s name is Kathleen, and her unlikely journey to salvation has just begun.
I’ve only briefly talked about Abel Ferrara before, and only then as one of the defining, albeit unsung, voices of the New York City film scene. However, if I were to sum up the overarching theme of a large portion of his filmography it would be that, like his contemporary Martin Scorsese, Ferrara (along with frequent collaborator and devout Catholic Nick St. John) has a fascination with faith, specifically Catholic faith and even more specifically redemption and salvation. Ms. 45, Bad Lieutenant, The Funeral, King of New York and so many others have characters going on journeys, looking for spiritual and moral (but mostly spiritual) atonement for their sins. The Addiction stands as the most textual and blatant of this theme in Ferrara’s early films. What makes this particular film so interesting is that it’s directly confronting the idea that intellectualism and knowledge alone is never enough to be a whole person. To truly be complete you have to give yourself over to something bigger.
At first Kathleen (played by the amazing Lili Taylor) thinks that something larger is academic pursuit and sussing out where guilt and responsibility are to be placed on the atrocities of the human race. She explores these ideas with her friend and fellow philosophy student Jean (Edie Falco) after they watch footage from the My Lai massacre of the Vietnam War. Kathleen is trying to intellectually parse out the logic of human behavior. However, that all changes after the encounter with Casanova (the aforementioned woman in black played with sarcastic charm by Annabella Sciorra). The metaphor isn’t subtle in this film (I mean, look at the title): vampirism is a metaphor for the addicted.
Historically within fiction, while vampires so often represent sexual desire, the baggage that came with that desire was being a slave to it. Vampires need and lust for blood at base primal level. Within The Addiction it’s taken even further. Vampires are themselves the addicted and the addiction, foisting themselves alluringly upon people who want to dabble in something dangerous and all consuming. The words Casanova speaks to Kathleen (“Look at me and tell me to go away. Don’t ask, tell me”) become a refrain in the film, the idea being that the prey want to become addicted even when they know the risks.
Kathleen gives in and goes on a journey from rejecting to succumbing to her addiction because it gives her a kind of free will. Her addiction is her purpose and makes the world that much more black and white. Her philosophy morphs into something darker in the movie. “It makes no difference what I do, whether I draw blood or not. It’s the violence of my will against theirs,” Kathleen espouses. She justifies sin with her own corrupted will with these words.
But her certainty is challenged in the end. After she overdoses and finds herself ready to end her life with sins now smothering her, with Casanova showing up one last time to be her snake in the garden of Eden, she finds salvation with a priest coming to her bedside to give her a confessional. From this confessional we see that she destroys herself to become something new. She humbles herself and dies in grace, only to emerge reborn to walk a new path, one that can take her from the living dead to truly living.
The Addiction is screening at the IU Cinema on November 2nd at 9:30 pm as part of its Essential B&W Indies from the ’90s series, a program celebrating black and white classics and oddities from ’90s indie auteurs.
Abel Ferrara’s New York City-centric revenge drama Ms. 45 screened at the IU Cinema in 2011 on 35mm.
David Carter is a film lover and a menace. He plays jazz from time to time but asks you not to hold that against him. His taste in movies bounces from Speed Racer to The Holy Mountain and everything in between.