19 May 2004

Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary

Simultaneously a film of a ballet and a beautiful homage to silent movies, Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary was originally made for Canadian television by director Guy Maddin and based on a work choreographed by Mark Godden for the Royal Winnipeg Ballet .

I have not seen any of Maddin's other films, though I will certainly seek them out now, because from the evidence here he may be a genius. He saw that the aesthetics of ballet and silent film could work together and enhance each other, and he delved into the original novel with a creative, fruitful, and deconstructive zeal.

The film ends up, then, not as a PBS-style 3-camera representation of a performance, but rather as a fully reimagined work of art in its own right. While it pays tribute to silent films of the past -- everything from Nosferatu to The Passion of Joan of Arc -- it is far more than a simple tribute, but is, rather, a film that uses the conventions of silent movies to create a beautiful and entertaining piece of cinema.

The viewers who will enjoy this version of Dracula most are ones who are at least somewhat familiar with the original novel, with silent film, and with ballet. I expect lovers of ballet find Maddin's use of various lenses, film stocks, and jagged editing to be a distraction from the excellent choreography, but some of the most affecting movements get full and loving attention, particularly the pas de deux between Dracula and Lucy and Dracula and Mina. To Maddin, Dracula represents the energy and lust Victorian women were expected to repress, and the energy of freedom and passion fills these dances. Lucy's final scene is also a tremendous accomplishment of acting, dancing, and cinematography.

Maddin discovered that ballet dancers make excellent melodramatic actors, and numerous scenes capture extraordinarily dramatic facial expressions and body postures that, had the film not been constructed with such care and sensitivity, would have been cloying or inappropriately hilarious. There are funny and campy moments in the film (particularly the opening credits, which stress the inherent xenophobia in the Dracula myth -- the threatening, monstrous menace from Eastern Europe coming to corrupt and destroy good British women), but such moments make the scenes of grace or horror more affecting through contrast.

In the end, this Dracula is a grand celebration of style -- the beauty of human bodies in motion, the photographic possibilities of various camera and editing effects, the exuberance of melodrama. It is an intelligent film, and often a clever one, but the underlying ideas it explores and the emotions it provokes all rely on the stylistic choices of the director, choreographer, cinematographer, production designers, and actor-dancers. By committing themselves to an aesthetic exploration of an old story, the filmmakers allow the story the excitement of being new.