Saturday, 10 October 2015

Halloween 31 For 31: Dracula - Pages From A Virgin's Diary (2002)

Director: Guy Maddin
Screenplay: Mark Godden (Based on the novel by Bram Stoker)
Cast: Zhang Wei-Qiang (as Dracula); Tara Birtwhistle (as Lucy Westenra); David Moroni (as Dr. Van Helsing); Cindy Marie Small (as Mina); Johnny Wright (as Jonathan Harker)

Synopsis: A ballet adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula reinterpreted for film by the Canadian director Guy Maddin.

Maddin qualifies as someone who lives in his own bubble of filmic influences. When some imitate silent cinema tropes, from the intertitles to lack of colour, they come off as tactless or hollow like The Artist (2011). With Maddin these tropes become his own trademark, populated by men possessed by the blue hands of his lover's dead father, a town in the mountain where no one can make loud noises in case an avalanche is caused, and various sleepwalkers, horses frozen dead in a river, fairies and deviants wandering the Canadian environments. The aesthetics and production values of old cinema are re-used in a new context be it on film or digital camera to create his own worlds. It makes sense in context for him to interpret a ballet production of Dracula through this same vision.

The story is the same as other adaptations, official or not, if condensed. Count Dracula (Wei-Qiang) is a vampire who travels to England and starts terrorising women like Lucy Westenra (Birtwhistle) in her sleep and draining her blood, his eyes set on Mina (Small) as well. Only Van Helsing (Moroni), Lucy's three suitors and, later on, John Harker (Wright), Mina's fiancée, can stop the Count. It's difficult to write about the film in some ways as its effectively a recorded performance of the ballet but filtered through Maddin's visual style. Ballet and dance are art forms that I have little knowledge on, still to learn of, but it would pretty obvious and necessary to state that the movements and choreography are deliberately stylised in ballet, metaphorical to represent emotions and incidents. Dracula is an unconventional choice to adapt into dance, a gothic tale of a being that stalks victims in the night, but as you see in this film it works exceptionally well. Aspects of the story, from the seduction of victims by Dracula to the act of having to kill a vampire by staking them, in this case with giant metal spears, are interpreted anew through the movements of the dancers with immense clearness to what is taking place, be in a group synchronised dance or between two people or just one person by themself. Maddin's style adds an eccentricity to the content, shot in black-and-white with striking use of colour added to scenes afterwards. He switches between elaborate use of editing and camera moments to letting the camera stay still to capture parts of the dances in full.

Technical Detail:
Maddin drastically condenses the Dracula story through a heightened style of editing, elaborate camera techniques and a lot of intertitles. This is not necessarily the best way to begin with Dracula in film form, still sumptuous but really requiring you either go with what plot there is or to have knowledge of the story already entering it, even if it's another adaptation like Francis Ford Coppola's or the unofficial classic version Nosferatu (1922). Maddin's films have a homemade quality to them as well, in his enclosed artificial sets depicting a reality completely separate from ours.

Abstract Spectrum: Fantastique
Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): None
If there's one flaw with Dracula: Pages From A Virgin's Diary, it's that it doesn't reach the delirium of other Maddin films. Tropes of Maddin's work are here - the use of ballet itself, a sick person confided in a casket-like rest chamber - and there are strange images to behold like demonic imps jumping on a bed to someone bleeding gold coins, but his style and obsessions take a backseat here rather than stand out. Having to be faithful to the original ballet is for me why this is, restricting him in what he can do. The gracefulness of the ballet undercuts the abstractness of his work on the film as well even if it's still beautiful.

Personal Opinion:
I use to hold Dracula: Pages From A Virgin's Diary as Guy Maddin's weakest feature film from those I've seen. I've nearly seen them all for reference, even his apparent failure with well known actors, Twilight of the Ice Nymphs (1997), immensely more magical and better in content than this film. But I'm growing fonder of Dracula, more so now I can appreciate what it was intending to do and as part of the Maddin world alongside the other films. 

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