Story of My Death was introduced to us by Florian Borchmeyer – one of the international programmers of the Filmfest München – as “Casanova and Dracula, together for the first time on the big screen!” The film’s director, Albert Serra, was present and seemed to appreciate the schlocky B-movie tagline that was bestowed upon his film. It seemed befitting of the monstrous hybrid plot that had been briefly outlined for us, pitting Casanova and Dracula in some kind of cross-century erotic vampire thriller period piece.
What had happened in fact was that Serra had received a commission to make a period film featuring Dracula, a character he was not particularly taken by. To make things more interesting for himself, Serra introduced another historical figure in Casanova to mix into the Dracula film. It became clear that his engagement with these two characters was fairly abstract, a way of bringing together two universes: Romanticism, logic, rationalism – the universe of Casanova – and the Gothic, irrational and chaotic – that of Dracula. Serra spoke of his aim to place the two figures in a “dialectical” relationship with one another, representing two epochs’ figurations of desire, pleasure and power over others.
The film thus borrows from its literary sources – Casanova’s autobiography, Story of My Life and Bram Stoker’s Dracula – in an extremely loose manner. The film begins with Casanova and his servant, Pompeu, whose sojourn in a Swiss castle makes up the first half hour of the film. Here, Casanova encounters a diplomat and other members of the aristocracy and philosophises about seduction, food, and politics amongst other things. The pair then travel to northern Europe to stay with a peasant family, and they attempt to seduce the three daughters. During their stay, Dracula appears and vies for the attention of the daughters as the film takes a much darker turn in the second half.
Story of My Death benefits greatly from this looseness with the literary text – it is, in fact, its great strength. Serra’s success in this film derives precisely from his abstraction away from the source material, using the cues familiar to us as points of departure for the creation of an atmosphere and universe all of its own.1 The narrative of the two texts is isolated and distended, its familiar points of reference points floated before us. What results is a kind of fever dream using the writings of Casanova and Dracula as its constitutive elements. Serra inverts the mandate of fidelity of the period piece and literary adaptation: the costumes, setting, characters are all there, but this a work of complete fantasy.
It is Serra’s experimentalist aesthetic that gives form to this abstract reverie. Working almost entirely with non-professional actors (as with his previous films), the director would keep the camera rolling for hours at a time while they improvised on and played with lines of dialogue or dramatic situations. Serra would then cut together a scene completely outside of the chronological order the actors performed them in. A line of dialogue would be followed by another spoken ten minutes beforehand in an entirely different run-through of the scene. Basic elements of drama in the theatrical tradition – action followed by reaction, provocation evoking a response – are completely undercut by this approach. Another element of fantasy thus emerges purely in the editing: this performance we see never took place, it exists only on the screen.
Perhaps even more surreal is the film’s cinematography, which lies somewhere between Barry Lyndon and the paintings of Tintoretto. It appears to have been shot using only available light, yet that did not stop the director from staging multiple scenes during twilight or even at night. I have rarely seen a film as dark as Story of My Death is in parts, yet there is a remarkable degree of control and painterly precision in the shot composition. Serra’s attention to framing and shot composition is even more remarkable when one considers that the film – though shot in a 4:3 aspect ratio – was blown up to a 2:35:1 widescreen ratio during the editing, a conversion process that means getting rid of 40% of the image from the top or bottom of the frame. Serra insisted that the cinematographer continue shooting in 4:3, hiding the fact that he was editing each image in a different ratio, in order to create a disjointed, abstract relationship between images in the final cut.
Along with Godard’s Adieu au Langage, Albert Serra’s Story of My Death is the most ambitious and experimental film in the main competition of the Filmfest München. If the film wins, Serra will receive the recognition that he deserves as one of the most talented, fascinating directors working today. Here’s hoping.
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