Guy Maddin’s film of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s production of Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a work aimed at both fans of the Canadian director and cinephiles familiar with the subject matter: although the film starts with text introducing each character, it may be somewhat confusing for anyone who does not know the story well. The film skips the novel’s prologue, which describes how Jonathan Harker travels to Transylvania to sell the Count a house in Britain (the film presents this in flashback later), and starts with the arrival of Dracula by boat to England, juxtaposed with Lucy Westenra deliberating over her suitors and an incarcerated lunatic’s orgasmic fervour over his dark master’s proximity. Maddin belabours the sexual desires of everyone involved – Lucy’s suitors for their potential bride to be, her own lustful longings, Renfield’s pining for his master – by repeating the subtitle: ‘Master I hear you coming. Coming! Coming!’ in increasingly large type. Renfield’s blatant desires are paralleled by Lucy’s polygamist yearnings: ‘Why can’t they let a woman marry three men?’ Lucy may possibly be a virgin bride, but it’s clear she’s a swinger in waiting.
Maddin’s usual skewed sense of characters’ sexuality is contrasted with an intriguing set design almost veering towards steampunk: Lucy’s mother, who in a sense is also undead, is kept alive by a machine – a hyperbaric chamber into which maids must constantly pump air. Maddin’s film refers to the future in waiting, echoing Francis Ford Coppola’s version of the story, which focuses on the dawn of a futuristic century heralded by new technology, while also adding references to fears of the mass movement of immigrants. Mrs Westenra’s chamber also reminds us of the glass coffin from a dream sequence in Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr; Maddin is aware of the history of the vampire, both on film and in literature. Dracula as a metaphor for demonic invasion from abroad was portrayed most explicitly in Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu, and here it mainly serves to elicit laughter from the audience in the hyperbolic prologue that opens the film.
Just like Ford Coppola’s adaptation, Maddin’s version makes the themes of the novel completely explicit – for example Lucy’s death before her return as a vampire is accompanied by demons dancing around her deathbed, indicating that her soul is taken to hell. Each adaptation of Dracula adds something new to the story, from the misogyny of Van Helsing that Coppola and Maddin’s versions bring to the surface to the themes of plague and malign German politics in Herzog’s. In addition, Maddin depicts the Count as some kind of financial predator – when the men raid Dracula’s lair, one coffin is full of ‘Money stolen from England’, while the cutting of his flesh causes gold coins to fall out. Whether this, coupled with the motif of invaders from the East introduced at the start of the film, has something to do with late 20th-century fears of new Asian super-powers or late 19th-century fears of what was referred to as the ‘Yellow Peril’ is not entirely clear.
Innocence and corruption are paramount themes and are revisited in the second half of the film when Harker’s fiancée and part-time nun Mina reads of his exploits with the succubae in Transylvania in his diary, but all is forgiven later as the young lovers are filled with the joys of spring. The original novel is told entirely from diary entries, newspaper clippings and other pieces of reportage, but Jonathan’s diary is the only one read from here, so it is possible to infer that he is the virgin referred to in the film’s title – which would suggest that while erotic, his encounter with Dracula’s vampire brides was chaste. The ambiguity of the title and the possible audience assumption that it refers to a woman while in fact it’s a man, fit with the concern with (male) sexuality that runs throughout Maddin’s filmography. Far from offending or angering Mina, Harker’s exploits serve to inflame her desire, so that we might wonder if she was sent to a nunnery, as Ophelia was told to do, for having more sexual urges than her fiancé could handle! Since the theme of the story is the (Victorian) fear of female desire, it’s no wonder Dracula himself almost seems to cameo in his own film until the final act, as he is simply the catalyst for the transformation of the two female characters into femme fatales.
Colour and composition are particularly meaningful in the film. Maddin makes interesting choices regarding screen-tinting throughout the movie: the screen goes slightly green after Lucy first meets the Count, prefiguring the start of his malign influence; later the arrival of Van Helsing is announced by the screen turning purple (in colour theory the contrasting hue). Just as Dracula is often present off-screen, in this early scene Van Helsing is initially obscured from vision, first by the hat he is holding over his face, and then by Lucy, positioned between him and the camera. This is a film all about presences and absences, literally in terms of who is on screen and whose presence is felt even when they are not seen, and also in the idea of life and death as presence and absence.
The monochromatic cinematography is contrasted with the orange font of the intertitles and blood from a thorn prick on Lucy’s finger. The most horrific moment of the film is the look of smug satisfaction on Van Helsing’s face when he severs Lucy’s head with a spade. The high-contrast cinematography of this scene, which juxtaposes stark black and white with just a slash of claret on Lucy’s dress following her penetration by her suitors’ wooden stakes, reminded me of Frank Miller’s film Sin City, which featured an equally heady brew of sex and violence on screen. Spot colour is continually used to great effect from green gas seeping in through the vents to the lush scarlet lining of Dracula’s cape and Lucy’s lips when discovered undead in her coffin.
The manner in which Maddin films ballet, an art form all about elegant movement traditionally framed in long shot – i.e. from the point of view of a seated audience – varies from complementing the action to acting almost in opposition to it. His hyperkinetic editing style often seems at odds with the languor of ballet, but I assume this is part of the reason for hiring him to film the production – rather than the fact that Maddin’s silent movie style is contemporaneous with the setting of Dracula (Ford Coppola had Mina and Dracula visiting an early cinema in his version). Some of the director’s signature affectations, such as removing frames here and there to make it look like a time-worn silent film, interrupts the fluidity of certain movements and does the staging no favours, but elsewhere the cuts complement the action, as when the discovery of Lucy’s bite marks is intercut with reaction shots and changes in tinting to convey the characters’ shock. Ballet being an art form (generally) without dialogue, Maddin’s silent movie style suits the project perfectly. As well as being terrific dancers, many of the cast are also great actors – Lucy’s partial transformation into a vampire in the middle of a scene is achieved purely through acting; in contrast, her short-lived respite thanks to a blood transfusion is represented through special effects, a blush appearing superimposed on her otherwise monochromatic cheek.
There is one scene in which another theme of the novel, the rituals of Christianity, is beautifully captured through choreography as Van Helsing, Lucy’s suitors and the maids glide around her deathbed with crosses held aloft. Maddin’s sweeping camera moves make the cinematographer another one of the dancers by necessity – one can only imagine the hours of rehearsal needed to keep the camera moving delicately around the set while the actors wheel around it and each other. In such moments, Maddin’s predictably unusual entry in the Dracula cannon proves to be a peculiarly happy marriage between the wordless world of dance and the rich, dark magic of the director’s art.
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