Mahler meets Murnau meets Diaghilev meets Dracula
DRACULA: PAGES FROM A VIRGIN’S DIARY (Guy Maddin, Canada, 2003)
Last night, I went to see for a second time DRACULA: PAGES FROM A VIRGIN’S DIARY (thanks for the link, Missy). In a generally very good review, Jonathan Rosenbaum accurately described this film’s formula, but draw a completely wrongheaded conclusion — “A silent black-and-white film of a ballet based on Bram Stoker’s novel and performed to portions of [Gustav] Mahler’s first two symphonies — who could possibly want to see that?”
Um … me. I dunno about you, but doesn’t that description practically sell itself? If nothing else, even if the movie turns out to be no good or the elements don’t mesh or whatever, wouldn’t such a film have train-wreck value? And wouldn’t there be some virtue in seeing some fine dancing or listening to Mahler’s music itself … even if the film as a whole didn’t work? But in any event, once you’ve seen it, these disparate elements in DRACULA really work very well together and becomes amazing (to me at least, and in retrospect) to reflect that nobody had thought of this strange marriage before.
Silent-cinema after all was born at more or less the same time as Stoker and Mahler were writing. But the media have some strong affinities. Even story ballets, like silent cinema, generally don’t use any words, instead using stylized movement and exaggerated acting to convey an emotion (rather than explain an event). The events in the Bram Stoker novel have the same feverish, dreamy, suggestive late-Victorian quality as Mahler’s floridly Romantic music, and (as my pinko friend Joshua has pointed out in a discussion group) ballet can convey that ethereal, sleep-walk quality better than more-realistic media. The stagy smoke-and-mirrors effects can shroud the Baroque stage design to create an overall atmosphere with fewer concerns about realism that sound and drama create.
But director Guy Maddin (I’d previously seen nothing else by him, and boy do I want to catch up on his work now) actually managed to make a movie, rather than a ballet musical (or an opera with defined arias, recitatives and whatnot). With the exception of a couple of pas-de-deux sequences, the dancers from the Royal Winnipeg ballet company were mostly cut off at the neck, the shoulders or the waist, rather than being framed in the Fred Astaire tip-to-toe, let’s-see-the-feet-doing-the-entrechat frame. But it’s not the dance steps Maddin is interested in — he’s interested in fusing his elements, not just using them. Ballet becomes a means to convey a kind of stylized cinematic movement, as if people were moving and floating through fevered dreams. In his review, Rosenbaum cites a Maddin manifesto on acting that includes the following: “Walking actors have forgotten how to walk. All actors should walk with latent or overt purpose, and cram a little poetry into their gaits while they’re at it.”
It was also obvious (as Missy pointed out to me afterward) that Maddin didn’t direct his actors in the “tone it down” mode, as most film directors do when working with stage actors. Instead, they kept their exaggerated gestures and larger-than-life smiles — one of my favorite moments was a sequence of Lucy choosing among suitors on a swing, with the camera moving out of and into a series of facial closeups. And you know what? When a film is a silent ballet, this exaggeration works just fine because we’re accepting the stylization and the anti-realistic, dreamy universe the filmmaker is creating.
The film, I should add, is also a lot of fun. There’s an (I think) intentionally funny moment when a group of four men carrying torches each do a spin and the beams of light spin along with them. Some of the silent-film title cards are quite witty. Maddin drops in expressionistic splashes of color for money, gold and blood — there’s a universe of longing in a barely-discernible pale-pink stain on Lucy’s white dress. And the film isn’t really silent, there are occasional sound effects, proving again that less is more — there’s a chilling-ick effect from a low squealch, uncluttered by other sounds, when a character gets beheaded with a spade.