October 9, 2003

Cornell Cinema: Bloody Brilliance

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It’s fairly safe to suppose you’ve never seen anything like this film. And that’s because Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary is a rare example of film as truly original expression. It is a glimpse into Canadian experimental director Guy Maddin’s manic genius. This take on the quintessential Dracula yarn is an amalgamation of silent-film style, surrealist imagery, and avant-garde technique. On paper, Dracula sounds like a questionable endeavor: an adaptation of an adaptation of an adaptation of the Bram Stoker classic. Maddin was commissioned by The Royal Winnipeg Ballet to translate to screen their interpretation of Mark Godden’s Dracula, which, of course, is a retelling of the original Stoker tale. Surprisingly, the film doesn’t suffer from this evolution. Instead, like a game of Telephone, the final product is twisted into something wholly distinct from its precursors, mutated by stages of reinterpretation and infused with Maddin’s hallucinogenic vision.

This is the stuff of nightmares, partly because film is the device Maddin apparently uses to excise his demons. Dracula, already densely imbued with symbolism and universal themes, becomes even more disturbing since it passes through so many lenses. The tale comes to haunt not only with fangs and phantasmagoric imagery, but with pirouettes and controlled motion.

Far from serving merely as an instrument to capture the dancers, the camera in Maddin’s hands comes to partake in the dance, a participant observer. The cast of dancers comes to include everything from soft/hard focus and lighting to color. Maddin plays the role of choreographer, treating these elements as marionettes. This choreography (almost like a form of animation) extends to the editing room, where stop motion and other techniques are used to turn the human actors themselves into puppets, moving alternately between jagged, jerky seizures and elegant fluidity. As mentioned, shadows are crucial to this nightmare, a seeming homage to Javanese wayang kulit (shadow puppetry).

The lack of spoken dialogue augments the disquiet, but as with the deliberately reserved use of color, what one hears is revealing — the puncturing of necks by fangs, the beckoning of victims by bells. And then there’s the music, excerpted from Gustav Mahler’s Symphonies #1 and #2. The music is used to operatic effect, at times juxtaposing the narrative drama with ironic playfulness and at others augmenting the visual assault of the motion. Silence serves as yet another source of contrast, setting the action is a sort of removed reality, the dancers twirling in a metaphorical snowglobe, a manipulated world always vulnerable to being shaken up.

It is the blurring of these ubiquitous contrasts, however, that has always made Dracula’s story an intriguing one. The dichotomies between life and death, innocence and corruption, light and darkness are all grayed (even the film’s black and white format is challenged by filters that hue the screen everything from a sickly green to an antique bronze). The inherent eroticism is wrapped in the gothic sensibility. Desire and pain are inextricably linked in the same tangled web as life and death, within the vanishing line between want and need. Maddin brilliantly emphasizes the themes of Christian fervor and xenophobia. This density nears incomprehensibility (something like a certain Nabokov novel, also about forbidden love) and demands multiple viewings.

Maddin’s Dracula is a richly unpredictable take on Stoker’s classic. It confuses, shocks, and ultimately overwhelms. In the end, it proves the quote from Stoker that appears early in the film: “There are bad dreams for those that sleep unwisely.” Full of erotic explosions and near-psychedelic cinematography, Dracula is a must-see for anyone curious about the outer bounds of what film can accomplish.

Archived article by Ben Kupstas