Monday, January 21, 2008

Vamp or Not? The Brothers Grimm

This 2005 film by maverick and genius Terry Gilliam is set in the eighteenth century in French held Germany and follows the Brothers Grimm, Will (Matt Damon) and Jake (Heath Ledger). It was regular reader Crabstix who suggested that I look at the central villain under the auspices of a ‘Vamp or Not?’

Of course the central characters are the famous tellers of fairytale and the film begins with them as children when Jake is sent to sell their cow for money to buy medicine for their sister. He returns, having met a stranger on the road who swapped the cow for magic beans… of course he has been conned.

As adults we see two men with opposing world views. Jake still very much believes in magic, it seems, whereas Will is a realist. However they now travel from town to town vanquishing supernatural evil. It’s just that the evil does not exist, they use their men to fake hauntings, troll invasion etc and then solve the mystery. They are con artists.

The village of Marbaden has problems, the young girls of the village are being taken one by one and the occupying French General Delatombe (Jonathon Pryce) is not happy. He has his Italian torturer Cavaldi (Peter Stormare) capture the brothers and makes them an offer they cannot refuse – find out who is at the bottom of the disappearances and stop them, or die.

Once they get to the village, however, it becomes clear that the forest is enchanted, this centres on a tower at the heart of the forest in which, legend says, a Queen hid herself (unsuccessfully) from the plague that ravaged the lands. She is said to have cast a spell to make herself immortal and it becomes readily apparent that she had been successful.

The film itself lifts from many, many fairytales but it is the Mirror Queen, played by the gorgeous Monica Bellucci, who we are going to concentrate on in this. Of course, she fits in many of the fairy tale archetypes herself, not least the Snow White wicked Queen, and thus has more than an overtone of the witch archetype about her. As we have seen before, however, witches and vampires share a common heritage in traditional folklore.

The Mirror Queen was successful in her spell for immortality but, as we first see her, we realise that immortality does not mean eternal youth. This is exemplified in the script where Jake explains that the years “haven’t been kind, I can tell you that.” She is decrepit and her nails and hair have grown for 500 years.

However, in the mirror, she is still her young and beautiful self. This is clearly a Snow White tie in – mirror, mirror and all that – but if we look to vampire lore for a moment it is almost a complete switch around. Rather than not having a reflection she has an idealised reflection. The mirror itself plays a larger role which we will get to soon.

The witch has enchanted a woodsman, through a broach that pierces the heart, and turned him into, not only her servant but, a werewolf. We have had films in the past where the werewolf is slave to a vampire’s will. She is using him in her quest to gain twelve young girls whose youth she will steal. Stealing youth is not an unheard of concept in vampire films, Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter features such a beast – but it is the methodology she uses that caused Crabstix to suggest I look at this.

She will perform a ritual spell on the night of the blood moon. This involves using the blood of the girls, a pinprick from each. Stealing blood to regain youth was the foible of Countess Báthory and was highlighted in the film Countess Dracula amongst others (indeed the look of the aged Queen reminded me of Countess Dracula a little). Whilst only drops have been taken in this, rather than bathing in the stuff, she does ingest the blood as part of the ritual and, one guesses, the ingestion of the blood makes a connection to the twelve girls.

I mentioned the mirror lore comes into this again and this is in the fact that it is through the mirror that she can be stopped; smashing the mirror smashes the Queen.

The film, as I said, borrows from many fairytales and folk stories. The mirror Queen herself is a composite of several stories, she is very much a witch but her immortality, coupled with a blood ritual that helps her regain youth puts this on the periphery of the Vamp radar at the very least. The film itself was one that I was not too sure about on the first watch, subsequent views have endeared it to me – but I find that sometimes with Gilliam films. It certainly is very sumptuous and has an undercurrent of irreverent humour that one would expect from something Gilliam was involved with.

The imdb page is here.


Anonymous said...

Farewell, Heath Ledger.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Farewell indeed.

Anonymous said...

RiP Heath Ledger