Guy Maddin’s “Dracula”: A Beautiful, Odd Ode to Bloodsucking and Ballet
by Amy Biancolli
Good movies always get us thinking, and the best ones raise issues that linger long after the climax fades. But when it comes to “Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary,” a single, noisy question burns:
What IS this thing?
Is it a silent movie? A ballet? A stylized retro-Vampyr schlockfest? A paean to the mannered gothic films of F.W. Murnau? A meditation on female sexual empowerment and the twin seductions of money and death? An ode? A romp? A fugue? A joke?
It’s none and all of that, and more: It’s Guy Maddin’s latest film, which is just another way of saying it’s both rapturously beautiful and ecstatically odd. Maddin, a darling of the Canadian indie scene, has made his metier in parsing the language of movie history, and the result is a seductive coupling of old and new. His films mix obeisance to his elders with a rapscallion’s fondness for cheese; you’d be hard put to find a 21st-century director who’s more conversant in past styles and more willing to tweak them mercilessly. Surely a film that beheads its heroine with a shovel and a loud SPLICCHHH can’t be all in earnest.
Yet Maddin takes his high art damned seriously. “Pages from a Virgin’s Diary” is based on Bram Stoker’s nod to Vlad the Impaler, but its more immediate source is Mark Godden’s “Dracula” as adapted and choreographed for the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. The cast consists of company dancers, and the action revolves (literally) around toe-shoes and pas-de-deux, all of which appear in tinted monochrome — sepia, fuchsia, turquoise — above excerpts from the symphonies of Gustav Mahler.
There is no audible dialogue. Aside from that SPLICCHHH and other comic-book effects, there is no sound beyond the Mahler. Characters occasionally have their say on title cards (“Death! It is only the beginning,” or, “She’s filled herself with polluted blood,” or, “No one knows till he does it what it’s like to feel his blood drawn away into the woman he loves”), but by and large, the plot unfolds without much in the way of verbal communication.
It’s hardly needed — the dance is expressive enough, and the tale is told as most vampire tales are, with the titular bloodsucker despoiling virgins while getting trailed around by angry cuckolds. Maddin isn’t the first to find protofeminism in this horny little story, but he’s surely the first to turn it into such a mesmerizing goulash. The movie is 75 minutes long. You’ll wish it were 30 minutes longer.
That said, let us pause to consider this fully. Here we have, and it’s best not to pussy-foot around, a classical ballet set to classical music filmed in black and white with no spoken words and no (pardon the phrase) “movie stars,” all of it tricked out with surrealist touches. Just think of all the phobic moviegoers this film might repel: silent-movie-phobes, black-and-white-movie-phobes, classical-music-phobes, ballet-o-phobes, and anyone who harbors a secret phobia of dimestore fangs. The toe-shoes business alone could scare off a goodly portion of the moviegoing public.
And yes, it’s all plenty strange. But it’s a lovely strange, a strange that piques and charms. What’s remarkable is how seamlessly Maddin fuses the visual and aural cues of grand guignol silent horror with the twin disciplines of classical dance and music. The end product is a kind of graceful Frankenstein, a radiant, flaked-out hybrid of disparate art forms that shocks, then seduces, then wows. So many scenes are indelible: Zhang Wei-Qiang, as Dracula, draping an airy scarf on the neck of the virgin Lucy Westenra (Tara Birtwhistle); Lucy’s servants, crosses in hand, swirling around the bed of the ravished maiden; Dracula dancing with Lucy in a gentle snowfall, lifting her through graveyard mists.
The whole film is full of such unexpected poetry, all of it illumined by Paul Suderman’s fairy-light cinematography. Maddin owes a great deal to the cast and choreographer, of course; it’s thrilling to see gifted and sexy dancers in a gorgeous and sexy ballet rendered with imagination and wit on the big screen. (Someone had better give the charismatic Zhang a role in another movie, and soon.) It’s been a long time since dance — REAL dance, not the quick-cut sleight-of-hand we saw in “Chicago” — has had a starring role in a movie, and “Dracula” reminds us just how cinematic the art of terpsichore can be.
In another sense, Maddin’s work recalls the gyno-centric Maya Deren, whose underground films incorporated dance and Dali-esque surrealism in equal measure. But Maddin has more faith in narrative storytelling, and he has more faith in cinema, too; his love for the form infuses every frame. No one could make a movie this resonant and not feel the tug of history.