Thursday, July 15, 2010

Doomed Love

Film: Bram Stoker’s Dracula, La Captive (The Captive)
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop (both films).

With the wild, and to my mind unexplainable, success of Twilight, one might well ask when vampires became wimpy romantic pussies. It’s a fair question, really. Vampires were the stuff of nightmare and legend until what seems like 90% of the young female population decided that necrophilia was sexy. Certainly there has always been a romantic element to the vampire, a sense of doom and fatalism that seems to please the true romantic. The original pussified vampire usually gets placed firmly on the shoulders of Anne Rice and Interview with the Vampire. That may well be correct, but there’s certainly some indication in my mind that things started a little earlier, with Coppola’s version of the Dracula story.

Dracula, more commonly referred to as Bram Stoker’s Dracula is in many ways a classic retelling of the original Stoker tale with some significant additions. The film starts, for instance, with a telling of how the film version of Vlad the Impaler became a creature of the night. Historically, of course, Vlad Tepes was a monster who enjoyed, well, impaling people on pikes. Here, he starts as a great defender of the church, but when a false report of his death causes his love to kill herself and thus doom her soul for all eternity, he swears vengeance on God. He stabs the cross in the church, causing a flood of blood, which he then drinks, presumably turning him into a vampire.

From here, it switches to the more traditional narrative of the original story. A firm in London has been contacted by an obscure Count in Transylvania with a desire to purchase ten properties. The original agent sent to close the deal, Renfield (the awesome Tom Waits), went loopy and now resides in an insane asylum in London, where he obsesses over blood and eats insects. The company sends a new agent named Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves) to close the deal. Because of the trip, Harker has to put his wedding plans on hold. His bride-to-be, Mina Murray (Winona Ryder before she went all kleptomaniacal) understands the importance of the trip, but is sad at having to wait for that sweet, sweet, Keanu lovin’. Harker arrives in the Carpathians to encounter Count Dracula (Gary Oldman).

At this point, you probably already know the story. Harker is trapped in Dracula’s castle while the Count leaves, forcing him to return to London while the game is already afoot. Mina, it turns out, is the image of the doomed and dead love from hundreds of years earlier. Dracula pursues Mina, and does so initially through her friend Lucy (Sadie Frost). Harker is assisted by several men who believe his story—predominantly Professor Abraham Van Helsing (Anthony Hopkins), Dr. Jack Seward (Richard Grant), Lord Arthur Holmwood (Cary Elwes), and the American adventurer Quincey P. Morris (Bill Campbell).

All of these people are more fully entwined than it might at first appear. Holmwood, Seward, and Morris, for instance, are all greatly interested in Lucy, who ultimately decides on Lord Holmwood, which reduces Seward’s effectiveness as he slips into morphine addiction. Seward runs the insane asylum where Renfield is imprisoned. And, of course, Dracula becomes a figure of interest because of his foreign strangeness and unnatural charm and charisma.

Because the story is so familiar, at least in part, to many, going further into the tale here doesn’t really warrant much space. However, if the only Dracula you know is the cinematic version(s), there are a number of aspects of this film that may take you by surprise. The reason Coppola called the film what he did is that he sticks pretty closely to Stoker’s original story, even mimicking the use of diary and journal entries for much of his narration. Since the book is written entirely as journal entries, letters, and newspaper accounts, this was a nice nod to the style in which the story was originally told. There are differences. Mina is far more willing as a victim here than she is in Stoker’s work, for instance, and there’s far less of a chase around London to find all of Dracula’s hiding places. The final chase back to Transylvania is much faster here as well. And the Hollywood ending doesn’t track to the book, either.

Because the story is at least vaguely familiar to almost everyone, the things worth paying attention to here are not the story elements, but what Coppola and crew brought to the story. There are some interesting visual effects throughout. Coppola does a lot with shadows and light, as befits the story being told. Frequently, for instance, Dracula’s shadow moves when he does not. The shadow, in fact, frequently depicts Dracula’s mood or desire. Subtle at first, this becomes an increasingly disturbing aspect of the film, and it works brilliantly throughout. Gravity works backwards in some places in Dracula’s castle on some objects—water drops float up and mice crawl on the underside of beams. Small differences like this set up the more disturbing elements of the film. The small changes make the big changes more acceptable.

This is also a more sexually charged Dracula film than most. While many have a hint of the erotic about them, Bram Stoker’s Dracula goes full-bore in this regard. There’s substantial nudity (Dracula’s brides and Lucy in particular), and substantial eroticism. Interestingly, the eroticism is frequently of a disturbing, necrophilic, sado-masochistic nature.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a visual feast, beautiful and terrible to see, and more than most vampire movies, trades on its lush visuals to keep the audience in the seat. I like much of this film, but could have happily lived without Keanu Reeves in the role of a British clerk. Coppola couldn’t find a young, talented Brit for the role? We had to have Ted Logan? Regardless, I appreciate this film because it does what many horror films don’t even attempt to do. Rather than going for the straight gross-out, Bram Stoker’s Dracula attempts real, creeping fear, the look-over-your-shoulder-because-something’s-gonna-getcha-style of fear that is so rare when it happens and so worthwhile when it does.

La Captive (The Captive) does not involve vampires in any way, but does contain some of the same basic themes as Dracula. In it, we find unhealthy obsession, love, and a sense of fatalism that, as I said earlier, seems to attract the romantic in many ways. Here, instead of love from beyond the grave, we have simple obsession of one man for a woman.

The film uses part of Marcel Proust’s massive Remembrance of Things Past for its plot. We spend our time primarily with Simon (Stanislas Merhar), a rich, dissolute young man, and Ariane (Sylvie Testud), his fiancée. Simon suspects Sylvie of some vague type of infidelity, at least at first. As the film progresses, what we discover is that Simon is actually obsessed with this woman, and wants to essentially know everything there is to know about her. His lack of anything better to do with his time causes him to focus strictly on her.

As the story continues, it several things become evident. First, Simon’s behavior is due less to suspicions of Ariane than it is his own paranoia and particular oddness. And he is odd. In terms of sex, he demands that Ariane be completely passive, even pretending to be asleep, for him to have anything like a positive experience. Simon’s suspicions of Ariane’s actual identity as a lesbian with her friend Andree (Olivia Bonamy) is confirmed in his mind when her answers to his incessant questions remain vague. In truth, it’s likely that she’s just trying to keep her own privacy. As he descends further and further into paranoia and suspicion, the relationship becomes increasingly strained and reaches a final breaking point.

All of this sounds great, doesn’t it? Based strictly on the plot, the film comes across like a modern version of Play Misty for Me. Sadly, the execution falls far short of the promise created by the story.

Bluntly, I blame Chantal Akerman. My first glimpse into the film world of Akerman was the eternal and astonishingly dull Jeanne Dielman, that was three hours of boredom, a couple minutes of sex and death, and then eight more minutes of boredom. I’m always willing to give a director a second chance on things, but I’m really starting to think that unless she appears a third time on this list, I’m not going to give her a third chance.

While Akerman definitely has an artistic component to her work, she also seems to actively dislike her audience. Nothing happens. It’s almost like she is daring people to sit through her films, daring them to like them. The film is aggressively dull, and is an improvement on the huge time sink that is Jeanne Dielman only because it’s considerably shorter.

I don’t mind languorous parts of films, or long takes in which little happens. One of my favorite movie scenes ever is the bus stop scene from North by Northwest in which little happens, but tension builds continuously. There are a number of long takes in The Spirit of the Beehive that I found beautiful and moving despite the lack of action. The reason for this is that both films have established themselves enough that the action in those scenes is internal, and we know our characters well enough that we can follow the internal action.

The same cannot be said for these characters. They are little more than mannequins from my perspective, and these long, slow, dull shots contain no internal action because we have not been made privy to the internal desires and actions of the characters. It’s frustrating to watch people sit and stare at each other when we have no clue what’s going on inside their heads. To use these shots, a filmmaker needs to give the audience enough that the internal action can be followed. We don’t get that here.

I am, perhaps, being too harsh. Initially at least there is a sense of suspense and tension, but it’s held for far too long for the amount of information we are given. I don’t care about any of the people in this film, and so I don’t care if they are in peril or are upset or aren’t getting what they want.

Chantal Akerman is zero for two as far as I can see. On a final note, Akerman has a weird sex hang-up. In both of the movies I've seen of hers, women get no pleasure from sex, either because the men are too selfish or are paying for the sex in the first place. If Akerman was a guy, the general reaction would be that he needed to get laid. I'd say the same thing here, but then Akerman's horde of feminist fans would come and gut me like a game fish.

Why to watch Bram Stoker’s Dracula: An attempt at real horror that sometimes works, and (finally), a more faithful adaptation of the book that inspires all vampire stories.
Why not to watch: Duuuude…whoa…vampires…and a sappy ending.

Why to watch La Captive: A modernized version of a classic tale.
Why not to watch: Not a damn thing happens until the end. Again.

1 comment:

  1. i seem to enjoy boring movies where not much happens, both »la captive« and »kippur« are good enough for my book