Catherine Deneuve plays Miriam Blaylock, a centuries old vampire in the classical tradition. She lives elegantly in an elaborate townhouse with John (played by David Bowie), her partner of the last couple of hundred years or so. They spend their afternoons performing Shubert in the drawing room and at night they visit nightclubs in order to “feed” on unsuspecting mortals. Their equilibrium is destroyed however, when John starts to age rapidly, beginning the day aged 30 and ending it ancient and decaying, his swollen head rendering him unrecognisable. John is none too happy with this state of affairs because Deneuve had promised him “eternal youth” when she turned him into a vampire all those years ago. She had also promised that they would be together “for ever and ever” and so his bitterness is only fuelled when she starts to think about taking a new lover; “who’s next, Miriam?” he asks her. The Hunger was director Tony Scott’s first feature film after working in commercials and so the kitsch visual are to be somewhat expected. However, Scott’s flimsily artificial forms serve to emphasise the gigantic emotions which lie at the heart of the film. Bowie is quite brilliant as jilted John but it’s Deneuve who, as the powerful vampiress, dominates the film, and, in the process, delivers a masterful demonstration of how actors can express complex ideas simply – in this case: compassion and acceptance.
The key scene comes when Bowie, now decrepit and decaying, asks Deneuve to kiss him. She tries her best but it’s no good, their centuries old love affair is over. Bowie then asks her to put him out of his misery; “kill me, Miriam” he says, “release me”. Deneuve, weeping and in agony, tells him she can’t. He repeats; “kill me, release me”, and again she says she can’t. We think she can’t because it would be too painful for her, that she lacked the will. Later however, we learn new information which changes our perception. When she says she can’t kill him, she means she literally cannot, there is literally nothing she can do; “there is no release, my darling” she informs him. Instead of release in fact, she provides him with the opposite: imprisonment. She carries him to the attic room of their house and takes a final deep breath before locking him in a coffin where he will spend the rest of time in “eternal darkness”. Deneuve then turns to the stack of other coffins containing her other former lovers and asks them to help John through his difficult first night. She’s seen it all before.
Deneuve had always known what Bowie’s fate would be, right from the beginning when she seduced him with the twin lies of eternal youth and everlasting love. And so when she weeps, she does so not for herself, not for their relationship, she weeps for Bowie, she is aware of the pain he is suffering, caused by the revelation of her lies and she knows of the dreadful darkness that awaits him. She feels his pain. However, she accepts the situation too. She is no anguished romantic longing for the impossible. She knows what needs to be done and she does it without flinching – Bowie must be locked away and she must take a new lover.
In another scene, Deneuve uses physicality to express the same idea. Bowie falls down the stairs and is too old and weak to lift himself up. The look of concern on Deneuve’s face is obvious and yet she ambles over to her prostrate friend casually, lacking the urgency one might expect. She is sympathetic about Bowie’s misfortune but she accepts it, her movement tells us she isn’t trying to resist it.
This combination of acceptance and compassion is provocative and irresistable. Deneuve manages to strike a balance between the two beautifully, employing her intrinsic coolness and minimalism to deliver the control and precision necessary to create such rich expression. Furthermore, Deneuve’s performance is so powerful because she supplies only the Minimum Effective Dose – she does just enough to give us the idea. Had she done too much, dousing her performance with emotion or characterization, then her actions would diffuse and our experience of watching would become less acute, vague. Had she not done enough however, then there would not have been enough on the screen to move us, the performance would have been trivial.
By 1983, the year of the film’s making, Deneuve had appeared in 51 pictures over 26 years, working with master auteurs such as Jean-Pierre Melville, Luis Bunuel and Francois Truffaut. Her performance as Miriam Blaylock in The Hunger is the work of a consummate film artist. She demonstrates how an actor with high skill levels and emotional intelligence can deliver a performance deep in meaning and rich in complexity.