The title of Spanish director Albert Serra’s fourth feature, “The Story of My Death,” presents a sardonic riff on 18th century Italian Renaissance man Giacomo Casanova. His memoir, “Story of My Life,” recounts his lively travels across Europe and encounters with fellow luminaries of his era like Voltaire and Rousseau. But Serra sets those recollections aside in favor of a dryly introspective look at Casanova’s dwindling command over his legacy as it starts to fray when faced with changing times, a force manifested in the form of Dracula.
Unsurprisingly for the director of “Birdsong” — a black-and-white, digital video depiction of the Three Wise Men that famously includes an eight-minute static shot of nothing but the subjects wandering across an empty desert plane — Serra has made a slow, cryptic work heavy with metaphor and implication but also riddled with details. Yet it’s oddly Serra’s most accessible work, the first with scripted dialogue and something closer to a conventional plot. Casanova is a vivid character nevertheless rich with metaphor. Serra’s interpretation is something akin to an anti-biopic that turns the characters into symbols of history in flux.
Casanova has remained an object of historical fascination for epitomizing the secular convictions of the Enlightenment. An ebullient womanizer who fetishized his high class existence, the Casanova in Serra’s dark, intentionally murky parable (played with an eerie frozen grin by Vincenc Altaló) faces the morbid ramifications of the incoming 19th century Romanticism in the form of a scheming vampire (Eliseu Hertas) who arrives later in the film to upend Casanova’s existence. Yet even as the invader is meant to represent Dracula, “Story of My Death” is far from a traditional bloodsucker drama. Before the supernatural component creeps into the narrative, Serra crafts an undead world in which the aging Casanova has already begun to fade from existence.
Shot on digital video but warmly lit primarily with natural light, “Story of My Death” retains an ancient feel on par with sifting through Casanova’s texts. But Serra also infuses his work with a dreamlike quality that quickly defines the proceedings. With an opening dinner shared by various party guests at Casanova’s Swiss home, “Story of My Death” starts out with a quiet, gentle tone in which time appears to stand still, an apt way to set the mood because neither Casanova nor his surrounding friends see the change of times on the horizon.
Though hardly the first project to delve into Casanova’s eccentric, pleasure-seeking world (see: “Fellini’s Casanova”), Serra’s treatment features a unique tension between classical storytelling and subversiveness. It’s an approach that allows the filmmaker to explore the era while smuggling in strangely off-kilter tangents: In the dialogue-heavy early scenes (a first for the director), Casanova munches loudly on fruit while relishing his new manservant Pompeu (Lluis Serrat) and a poet colleague with his thoughts on the writing process as he contemplates the prospects of his memoirs. Then he steals into the next room for an extensive bowel movement as Serra pushes in on his character’s pale face, covered with makeup and blush, while the man breaks into giggles. That same chortle returns in another bizarrely comical scene involving Casanova’s giddy bedroom antics and a fragile glass window. His amusement creates the perception of a man defined by anarchic extremes; everyone around him conforms to those standards until the concluding act.
If life is something of a joke for the blithe, insensitive Casanova, who describes the world as devoid of “moral experience” and solely composed of atoms, then he uses that mentality as an excuse note. Serra gradually fleshes out the world of figures who linger around Casanova’s estate, foregrounding the sense of despair experienced by the disillusioned women he keeps around for his personal needs. “You should be more wicked,” one of them tells another, the first hint of the devious elements introduced by Dracula’s arrival as “Story of My Death” transforms into an irreverent revenge story.
Intentionally obtuse in its closing scenes, the movie doesn’t quite manage to pull off the comeuppance promised by the initial semblance of an eerie presence in the finale. Serra’s typically cerebral direction has a more vibrant quality due to the clarity of his images, though certain drawn-out sequences have an alienating effect on the drama. Still, “Story of My Death” manages to connect its profound aims with a devious atmosphere to match the turn of the century backdrop. Serra’s vampire is an expressive creature of chaos, a description one could equally apply to the movie itself.
Criticwire grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Though hardly commercial, “Story of My Death” will likely receive divisive critical attention on the fall festival circuit that will elevate its profile; a small distributor could generate some interest with a very limited release.