Saturday, September 12, 2009

House of Silent Scream: Dance, Dracula, dance!

I think I can say, without fear of contradiction, that Guy Maddin's 2002 Dracula: Pages for a Virgin's Diary is the best silent, all-ballet retelling of the Dracula story that I've ever seen.

Yeah. Ballet. Leaping and such.

Wait! Come back!

Despite sounding like a huge, self-satisfied, art house gimmick, the whole thing holds together surprisingly well. (That's a sentence that works as a summary for Maddin's entire career.) In fact, it only takes a few minutes for these overtly artsy and seemingly provocative decisions to start making sense and pay off. By taking a familiar story and rendering it in dance, the film becomes a sort of ritualistic recreation of one of modern life's foundational archetypes. "Going through the motions" of yet another version of Dracula calls attention to the core of the tale and highlights the power of its repetition. As a viewer, we're forced to re-engage with the story, translating the soundless actions we see through the lens of the hundreds of retellings and interpretations to which we've been exposed, simply by virtue of living in the modern world.

Maddin's reliance on silent film techniques and tech – something he's done in several films to greater or lesser success – seems, in Dracula, to mesh with the overt artificiality of the medium of dance. It parallels the negations at the heart of dance. The same way ballet's force comes partially from eschewing naturalism and dialogue, the self-imposed restrictions of silent filmmaking make Maddin reconsider the system of film representation and encourage him to get the most he can out of what he leaves in play. There's a certain irony here in that, as retro as Maddin's approach is, its suitability for this project is something available only to a modern filmmaker. Without the sense of a deliberate refusal to use certain techniques – something that was not available to filmmakers in the silent era – then the film would lack its lush and self-aware artificiality.

The film is supported by a powerful performance by Wei-Qiang Zhang as the famed vampire. Zhang is a compelling performer, and I say that even though he has no recourse to dialogue or naturalistic motion. His Dracula is convincingly animalistic and sensual, and Zhang uses the defamiliarizing nature of the medium to invest his Drac with profound uncanniness that, in its way, works as wonderfully as Max Schreck's Nosferatu make-up. While watching Zhang's performance, I was reminded of those "my favorite vamp lists" that sprung up in protest over the EW best vampy run down. I don't recall Zhang's interpretation of Stoker's iconic villian appearing on any list, but I think an argument could be made that the force and originality of his Dracula earns him a place on the shortlist.

Tara Birtwhistle's Lucy deserves special mention too. As with most adaptations, Mina gets the greatest amount of screen time and is more central to the plot. But Ms. Birtwhistle's Lucy, with the surging eroticism and attractive mix of innocence and calculation, is the character who will linger in your mind longer.

For all its visual innovation, the plot of Maddin's Dracula (based on the ballet by Mark Godden) is remarkably true to the source material. In fact, Maddin brings back to foreground elements that most film adapters – going all the back to Lang – leave out. Notably, Maddin dredges up the novelistic Dracula's bizarre relationship with money. Though largely forgotten, Stoker's Dracula and his opponents are oddly obsessed with money. Dracula pauses the tight action of Harker's intro, the most intense part of the book, to divert the plot and dig up some buried gypsy treasure. Dracula's financials are considered part of his threat: He partially represents a dangerous flood of foreign capital into the British system. Later, Mina reflects on the efforts of Harker and Lucy's three suitors to bring down Dracula and takes special notice of the financial sacrifices they've made. She contrasts their noble use of money with Dracula's sinister transactions. What all this money stuff is supposed to mean has baffled critics of the novel. Various Marxists have suggested it some hold over Victorian fantasy of the innate goodness of the white upper class in the face of an increasingly international system of capitalism that does not respect Anglo notions of value. Others have suggested it reflects Stoker's own financial unease. Maddin suggests it links up with the xenophobia of the original. Whatever Stoker's intentions, the money-thing is a bizarre facet of the original that most interpreters simply drop. Maddin gets points for working it back in.

Where Maddin does diverge from the original text, he tends to explore familiar territory. Maddin highlights the sensuality of Lucy and plays her death like it was a lynching at the hands of a puritanical masculine mob enforcing Victorian, repressive norms. Though there's an undercurrent of this in the novel, the off-kilter feminist subtext tends to become the text in modern adaptations. Maddin doesn't innovate here, but rather gives us a nod to the story's most common modern reading. The end of Maddin's film also more resembles final scenes of Browning's seminal 1931 adaptation than Stoker's endgame, though Maddin closes out on a shot of an impaled Dracula that evokes the terror tactic Drac's real life inspiration became famous for.

Maddin does add a strange steampunkish iron lung for Lucy mom into the piece. To be honest, I couldn't tell where Maddin was going with that particular bit. At first I thought it might be intended as a loose parallel to Lucy – another women cut off in some way from the world. But, honestly, I'm not sure Lucy is that cut off from the world. Even prior to her vampification, Lucy is a highly sexualized figure. So, I don't know. Maddin also foregrounds the sexual identity of Harker, a figure most adapters shuffle off-stage as soon as the novel's introductory scenes are complete. In fact, his diary is the titular "virgin's diary." Maddin highlights the sexual aspects of Harker's encounter with Dracula and his brides, then plays out the implications of what that would mean for Hacker in terms of readjusting to the safe, Victorian norms his marriage with Mina represents. Unlike the somewhat inscrutable iron lung thing, this adds a nice element of depth to Harker and Mina, a relationship that I think is usually viewed as little more than a speed bump on the way to the more tantalizing relationship between Mina and Dracula.

I'll admit that the pitch for this flick is almost a deal breaker. Happily, it is neither opaque or vapidly pretentious. For all the preciousness of the project, Maddin's finished product is more artsy than fartsy and worth the time of any fan of silent cinema, Dracula, or envelope pushing filmmaking.

Here's the trailer:

1 comment:

zoe said...

awesome post! i'm so excited. i'm definitely going to see this :)