Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Countess – review

Director: Julie Delpy

Release date: 2009

Contains spoilers

Over 2008 and 2009 there were two serious productions concerning Countess Erzsébet Báthory (in this played by Julie Delpy) – this one, obviously as I mention it, and Bathory.

Bathory received an honourable mention, whilst it mentioned vampires in passing it took the premise that Báthory was innocent and framed. This does not take that premise, though there is a degree of framing for political/monetary gain she is guilty of the crimes she is accused of. There is only an oblique reference to vampirism – which I’ll mention in review – and so there is no mystical rejuvenation ala Countess Dracula but there is a belief that the blood is making her younger. I, however, get ahead of myself.

Ferenc and Erzsébet's wedding
The film begins with Istvan Thurzo (Daniel Brühl) visiting Báthory’s grave and can I just say at this point how impressed I am with Brühl – he was marvellous in Inglorious Basterds and he was marvellous in this. Anyway, Istvan is unaware of all that has happened (he was only present for a small part of the tale) and thus he does offer the opinion that history is written by the victors. The film then very much glosses over Erzsbet’s childhood and marriage and we are left with the impression of a woman taught to be cold who was responsible – whilst her husband, Ferenc (Charly Hübner) went to war – for making their estates so profitable that the king, Matthias (Jesse Inman), is indebted to her family. Mention is made of her running a hospital but again it is quickly glossed over.

first kiss
The film quickly passes beyond Ferenc’s death and Erzsébet takes her children to Vienna, for safety reasons, and whilst there we see the cutting edge of her wit and learning at a dinner party. At the dinner party is Count Gyorgy Thurzo (John Hurt). The Count asks her to marry him but she declines pointedly telling him that he, being a noble through money gained, was not noble enough to marry her bloodline. She then goes to a ball and meets his son Istvan and they are immediately attracted, though Istvan is much younger. They kiss and begin an affair.

Anamaria Marnica as Darvulia
Erzsébet has to return to her castle and she has her healer – Darvulia (Anamaria Marinca) – cast a spell to tie her and Istvan together when a promised letter from him is late. Darvulia is obviously jealous and the price for the spell is time in the Countess’ bed. Again this lesbian aspect is little played upon. When she hears that Istvan will be at a ball she high tails it to Vienna. She is approached by a noble called Vizakna (Sebastian Blomberg) but dismisses him. Istvan finds her and speaks to her briefly – saying that he will go to her and run away with her.

Sebastian Blomberg as Vizakna
He never shows. We later discover that his father has intervened and sends him under guard to Denmark for the arranged marriage that will strengthen trade routes. A distraught Erzsébet goes riding with Vizakna. Here we get the oblique vampire reference in that she makes comment that his family are said to shun the day and eat babies. He explains that they share a complaint that makes exposure to sunlight painful – Porphyria – but they don’t eat babies. Given the obliqueness of the reference I didn’t actually mind it. An old hag gets in her way and tells Erzsébet that one day she will look like her. At Vizakna’s urging she beats the woman – her cruelty begins to show through.

obsessive love
However the true source of her sadism is multi-faceted. Heart broken by Istvan’s betrayal (she receives a forged letter telling her that she was never loved by him) she becomes obsessive. She had taken a snip of his hair and cuts open her own breast and then sews the hair under the skin. Perhaps the resultant infections caused some of her delusions – as we see much later on that the wound is festering. She has also become obsessed with age.

what Erzsébet sees...
She looks in the mirror and sees herself lined and bagged – much worse than her actual natural lines and wrinkles. She assumes the hag has cursed her and that Darvulia’s salves to keep her skin soft are failing. It is during this that she has her hair snagged by a maid and beats her quite viciously. However, when she wipes the blood away – as a morning light illuminates her window – she sees that she looks younger. She assumes that it is the virgin blood.

first victim
She has the girl looked after and then bled into a bowl so she can wash in the blood. We see no blood baths in this – though later we get a hint of blood showers from a piercing cage contraption she has built (ostensibly to bleed witches before burning them). The first girl we see bled over time and then we see her taken to the priest for burial.

post blood delusions
From this (to give us a sense of the crimes) we see a hand dipped in blood, blood rubbed on the face and bodies – at first sent for burial and then abandoned in the woods for the wolves. We also see exactly what she sees in the mirror through her delusion. During this time, at Count Thurzo’s behest, Vizakna seduces and begins an affair with Erzsébet. He is a masochist and actively encourages her sadistic side, flatters her vanity and generally (mainly unknowingly) encourages her delusions. Her downfall is less plotted than it is stumbled over and capitalised upon. In a cruel moment it is Istvan who has to uncover the truth of her crimes – and quickly (from his father’s perspective) before the king raises a charge of witchcraft and gets all her lands himself.

The acting is all top notch and, unlike its contemporary 'Bathory', there are no silly monks with James bond type gadgets. I couldn’t help but think, however, that where Bathory was a little too long this was a tad short. Perhaps a little more of her early life was needed, maybe something of her relationship with Darvulia needed exploring. Gore hounds will be disappointed at the lack of gore but over all this was a satisfying piece.

6.5 out of 10. The imdb page is here.


Zahir Blue said...

While I'd heard of this film, this was the first review of same I've come across. Thankee much!

Taliesin_ttlg said...

No probs... for some reason it is only out on DVD in Germany so far (that I can tell)

Christine said...

I saw this in cinema with my sister. We both thought it was like Julie Delpy´s acting as Bathory - so icy cold it was frozen. Handsome period dresses, though. Didn´t Countess say something like that to some bishop? "I am a woman. I like beautiful dresses. Like you". p

Taliesin_ttlg said...

She did indeed say that. I took Delpy's performance, as icy as it was, as sociopathic - which fit