If there were no Guy Maddin, cinephiles would have to invent him. The pure visual ecstasy that silent films offer to the discerning film consumer is Maddin’s métier, and with his first venture into filming another visual art—ballet—he has melded two forms that this reviewer loves without reservation.
Of course, we all know that silent films never were silent. Like ballet, music is an integral part of the presentation, and with Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary, both forms are greatly enhanced by Mahler. His first and second symphonies provide the passionate, mournful rhythms by which choreographer Mark Godden’s ballet for the Royal Winnipeg Ballet and Maddin’s film come alive.
WATCH A CLIP FROM DRACULA: PAGES FROM A VIRGIN’S DIARY
Or should I say undead? The vampire sank its fangs decisively into the British zeitgeist at the turn of the 20th century, a tear in the fabric of Victorian repression that would never be repaired. The first really popular vampire in films, however, was the proto-femme fatale, The Vamp, made popular to film audiences by Theda Bara in A Fool There Was (1915). This being a man’s world, however, male vampires took over the role of seducer fairly quickly, as first Max Schreck and then, memorably, Bela Lugosi, interpreted Dracula for the movies.
Shreck’s vampire was more animal than man; Lugosi’s showed the seductive menace of the foreigner. Maddin takes the latter interpretation as far as it can go, using a map of Europe o’erspread with red to show the infection of the vampire’s curse as an invasion on a par with that depicted in Charles Minard’s famous map of Napoleon’s march into Russia. That the dancer portraying Dracula, Zhang Wei-Qiang, is handsome and Chinese only emphasizes this attractive otherness Maddin wishes to explore.
The film upends the usual progression of Dracula films, relegating Jonathan Harker’s trip to Transylvania to a short interlude late in the film. (However, this scene is likely to please many film buffs, who will recognize Harker’s horrified, intertitled cry “SEXPOTS!” as he is attacked by three female vampires as a nod to Sam Fuller’s famous “NYMPHOS!” scene from 1963’s Shock Corridor.) Instead, Lucy’s seduction and vampirism take center stage, showcasing, as Godden’s ballet did, prima ballerina Tara Birtwhistle.
Don’t look for much poignancy in this film. Maddin is all about the sex and violence. His Lucy would like to keep all three of her suitors—clearly she will be punished most harshly for her wantonness, as Dr. Van Helsing (David Moroni) will eventually behead her in a scene scored with excruciating squishing noises. By contrast, Lucy’s touching pas de deux with Dracula gets a rather standard shooting-through-fog-in-a-graveyard approach, illustrating that Fred Astaire’s full-body shooting rule can also result in some pretty boring scenes, particularly in a film as eerily inventive and expressionistic as Guy Maddin’s. Lucy’s desperate attempts to elude the vampire hunters in her crypt is much more exciting, with wonderful close-ups of Birtwhistle’s made-for-the-silents face and articulate hands.
For my money, the best scene is Dracula’s demise. To rescue Harker’s wife Mina (CindyMarie Small), the vampire hunters must face Dracula’s brides as well as the big bat himself. The destruction of the brides was rather perfunctory, though I enjoyed the red-tipped pikes flashing about the monochrome crypt after they were staked. Zhang came out of retirement to dance for this film; while his style is that of a mature dancer, emphasizing interpretation over dazzling technique, he manages some extremely impressive quadruple pirouettes that manage not to look like applause-mongering tricks at all. He’s really quite a scary vampire who appears out of nowhere, his red-lined cloak flashing, and laughs in the face of Van Helsing’s puny cross; Maddin suggests that the virgin of the film’s title is Van Helsing himself, and this scene would suggest his, um, lack of virility when faced with a sexual creature like Dracula.
In the end, Dracula is run through with a pike. The vampire hunters carry his body to an opening in the crypt and plant the pike into the ground. This haunting, thoroughly cinematic image recalls Transylvania’s most famous fiend before Dracula—Vlad the Impaler—as Mina quietly, and perhaps a bit reluctantly, returns to her mortal mate, and Van Helsing furtively tucks her ripped petticoat inside his jacket.
Marilyn Ferdinand is the proprietor of Ferdy on Films, a film review and commentary blog.
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