Friday, August 08, 2008

Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary – review


Directed by: Guy Maddin

Release Date: 2002

Contains spoilers

I must admit that when I first saw this I was a little disappointed. Not because it is an avant-garde cinema piece, in the style of a silent movie based around ballet… although the ballet was the source of the disappointment.

You see, some years before I had seen the Northern Ballet Theatre perform Dracula and what I saw in this, which features the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, was dissimilar. The choreography, the story and the score were all very different and I guess it was a case of expectation. I had to sit back down with this and look at it afresh. Forget the NBT’s live performance and watch something that was very much a stylisation and reworking of the Dracula story.

The story itself begins with the coming of Dracula (Zhang Wei-Qiang) to Whitby and we see that Maddin plays with one of the underlying themes of the novel. It is often recognised that Stoker played with the theme of the invading culture from the East that would corrupt the Victorian sensibility. Maddin makes this clear as we see narrative cards that tell us of immigrants from other lands, from the East specifically. These are designed to look like the graphical depiction of invading forces.

biting LucyLucy (Tara Birtwhistle) is quickly bitten and her suitors, Arthur Holmwood (Stephane Leonard), Jack Seward (Matthew Johnson) and Quincy Morris (Keir Knight) call in Doctor Van Helsing (David Moroni). Interestingly Van Helsing declares that she has “filled herself with polluted blood”. A strange addition to all this is the fact that Mrs Westenra (Stephanie Ballard) is so ill that she spends much of her time in a glass coffin hooked to a ventilator.

the Bloofer LadyWhen Renfield (Brent Neale) escapes the asylum and the men are looking for him, gargoyles invade the Westenra house, scaring the mother and causing her to inadvertently re-invite Dracula into their home. His renewed invitation leads to Lucy’s demise. One of the more disturbing aspects of the film was how Maddin portrayed the Bloofer Lady, hereafter. Stoker’s beautiful woman who fed upon children was bad enough but here we see, in silhouette, Lucy snatch babies from their prams.

killing LucyThe men folk are guided, by Renfield’s words, to the graveyard. It was interesting to have Dracula specifically raise Lucy himself and for them to bite each other. Whilst this might have had more to do with choreography it added a fascinating element to the Lucy/Dracula dynamic. The actual slaying of Lucy was a powerfully portrayed scene, decapitation by shovel adding a macabre ending that is not normally so viscerally portrayed in Dracula adaptations.

Renfield is then tortured until he reveals that his master’s next target is one Mina Murray (CindyMarie Small). She is at a convent where her fiancé Jonathon Harker (Johnny A Wright) is recuperating. Of course we skipped the head of the book and, in a turn around, that long section concerning Harker and Castle Dracula is now visited in the briefest of flashbacks.

Mina and JonathonAt the convent Mina finds Jonathon’s diary detailing castle Dracula and his ravages at the hands of Dracula’s brides. She not only forgives him what he has detailed but, in a complete turn around in the story, becomes clearly sexually aroused by what she reads within the detail of the diary – scaring her fiancé. Maddin uses the sexual medium here to portray Mina as the new woman and, whilst in other productions of the story this might fall flat, it is a brave and successful ploy especially given the lack of dialogue through which the new woman aspect could be otherwise explained.

Mina is bittenMina is captured by Dracula and taken to the castle and the men folk follow, however they do not arrive before she is bitten. Dracula clearly wants to seduce this woman not just through his own charisma but also by using money (stolen, we later hear, from England). What we then get is the progression of the heroes through the castle.

Van HelsingThey despatch the brides but are not so successful against the Count. Indeed they are eventually all defeated. Dracula is not above threatening Mina to force Van Helsing to re-cover the window he had smashed to let in sunlight. It is Mina who finds the strength to turn upon Dracula and force him back with a cross before uncovering the window herself.

death by impalementThe death of Dracula is unusual as the men then attack him with long stakes and, eventually, he is impaled in a manner reminiscent of the historic impalements meted out by Vlad Tepes.

The look of the film is remarkable with Maddin using many techniques, including smearing the camera lens with Vaseline, using tints on frames and adding in flashes of colour through the black and white imagery.

What is more interesting, however, is what was done with the story. No this is not novel accurate but there is a distinct attempt to reveal some of the novel subtexts in ways Stoker never dreamt of (or dared use), such as making Mina voraciously sexual with Harker. Clearly, as it is the only diary we see, Harker himself is the virgin of the title.

the eyes of DraculaPerformance wise I assume the dance was good – I am no expert – it did feel oddly immersive as we are within the performance rather than watching the stage. Zhang Wei-Qiang carries a commanding presence on screen

Musically the score is based around Mahler (his 2nd symphony I believe) and whilst this works the score created by Feeney for the NBT’s production of Dracula is more story fitting, to my way of thinking.

What we cannot escape, however, is that this is not going to be everyone’s thing. Maddin is an experimental, avant-garde director with a love of silent film techniques coupled with a modern content sensibility. The film is based around a ballet performance. This will be enough to put many viewers off.

I think, however, that it is worthwhile. I am glad that I was able to overcome my bias born of the earlier alternative stage performance that I watched. 6.5 out of 10.

The imdb page is here.


christine said...

I must to say I sort of liked this one. It was artsy without being.. you know. I think Stoker´s story fit to this lushly melodramatic balle-made-as-a-silent-movie presentation well.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

cheers Christine, I liked it also. I think that 6.5 out of 10 reflects the film well.

I just wish NBT had released a video of their stage show of Dracula. Absolutely stunning

The Dirge Of Gabriel said...


I've been keen to see this for years, but the ballet aspect has turned me off even though the actual interpretation of it looks quite intriguing.

Can you tell me how much ballet is actually in the film? Is every scene 'acted' out with ballet or is there usual acting with walking and action etc? Is it all cue cards in black and white, or is there actual speech.

This interests me too because of the asian vampire. I have a big thing for the asian version of vampires ala Vampire Knight, Vampire Gigolo and also Moi Dix Mois version of Vampires. MdM are a visual Kei band from Japan, formed by Mana who used to run Malice Mizer with Gackt, who in turn was in a little Japanese vampire gem with Hyde called "Moon Child" which I recommend you watch.

Mana also produces a cellist named Kanon Wakeshima who did the ending theme songs of both Vampire Knight series, Still Doll etc.

Moon Child one of my favourite vampire films of all time. Ah! I just searched your blog and you've already seen it, I'll have to read your review and comment, I see you thoroughly enjoyed it too. Kudos to you, I like you even more now!

Malice Mizer did a little hard to get vampire film based on Dracula called "Bara no Konrei ~Mayonaka ni Kawashita Yakusoku" (Bridal of Rose)

here is the link to part one on youtube:


ps: how do you make clicky links the usual [url][/url] doesn't work for me...

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Gabriel, its pretty much ballet and cue cards but... it really is worth checking out, Maddin is a great director