Film Reviews

DRACULA: PAGES FROM A VIRGIN’S DIARY

By • May 14th, 2003 •

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Almost certainly the most ambitious Super 8/16mm (silent) film of all time, Guy Maddin’s Dracula: Pages From a Virgin’s Diary transfers one of the most antique of movie characters and almost manages to make it seem fresh, if not reborn. The director channels Bram Stoker’s oft-filmed tale via Mark Godden’s recent ballet production of Dracula by the Royal Winnepeg Ballet (with effective use of Mahler’s first and second symphonies). The result of which is a kind of counterfeit found object of art of the silent cinema.

The performances mimic (but never really mock) silent film acting. In the course of the film, dancers mouth dialogue and the film makes hay with the device of using overwrought silent film title cards (i.e. “When I am dead will you drive a stake though my heart and cut off my head?”) Especially effective are the prima ballerinas Tara Birtwhistle (Lucy) and Cindy Marie Small (Mina) as the ravaged objects of the Count’s lust. Most effective, however, is Zhang Wei-Qiang as Count Dracula. Mr. Wei-Qiang’s Eastern Heritage emphasizes the otherness of the Count whose Oriental persona threatens to erotically overwhelm his female victims (and destroy his male pursuers). Indeed, Mr. Wei-Qiang’s sleek presence renders his performance one of the most charismatically erotic in recent film and, most remarkably, he manages to return Dracula to a kind of horrific dignity by steering his performance away from the campiness of recent screen vampires.

As for the story, once the Count infects Lucy (the film has a fixation with regard to the transference of blood/fluids from male to female portraying this connection as ethnic, erotic and biological all at once) she submits to an unshakable melancholy that hints at a fatal case of tuberculosis. Not surprisingly, the image of contaminated blood carries with it the specter of HIV. More than this, however, is the idea of exotic corruption imported from the East and designed to batter Victorian sexual repression into submission. A transfusion of uncontaminated blood restores Lucy’s health temporarily. Not surprisingly, the Count returns to re-infect his victim. After her death and resurrection as the unholy undead she exhibits the kind of unbridled lust that frees her and seals her fate. One of the main themes of the film is the thwarting of female sexuality and the scene where Van Helsing and Lucy’s suitors pry open her casket and engage in a protracted struggle to lay her to rest is the symbolic climax of the film.

The last third or so of the film is devoted to Dracula’s perusal of Mina, Lucy’s best friend and Van Helsing’s perusal of the Count, which ends in a balletic confrontation that is unrepentantly violent. Mr. Wei-Quiang’s dramatic demise emphasizes his role as the champion of the piece.

Most surprising is the fact that Mr. Maddin does not retreat into camp like so many recent horror films. It is almost post-modern in its lack of irony, and genuine feeling. Despite this, the film has a sense of humor and the filmmakers show great visual wit (such as having Lucy’s bed swathed in beautiful wreaths of garlic) without compromising the vigor and even brutality of this story. Most of all, this film is a showcase of Mr. Maddin’s exceptional skill as a storyteller. No other filmmaker makes the avant garde more accessible or familiar to an audience than this very fine, underrated Canadian auteur.

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