Format: DVD from Northern Illinois University Founders Memorial Library on laptop.
Long-time readers will know that both of my daughters are heavily involved in ballet. Kid #1 has her degree in dance performance and is a couple of months away from auditioning for full-time positions at companies around the country. Kid #2 also dances, commuting into Chicago a couple of days a week. Why is this relevant? Because Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary is a version of Bram Stoker’s story performed by the Royal Winnipeg Ballet and directed by Guy Maddin.
Maddin is an artistic director, which in this context mostly means that a lot of his work is dense and hard to understand. Maddin frequently manipulates the film itself, or changes film stock to achieve particular visual effects, and much of what he does is heavily symbolic and doesn’t seem to have any easily discernible meaning. I have to admit that I found this interesting when it came to this film. After all, I know the story. I’ve seen umpteen versions of Dracula in cinematic form, have seen it performed on stage, and have read the book once or twice. It’s also worth noting that Dracula has been performed as a ballet before. Maddin didn’t create the idea and had nothing to do with the choreography.
The film appears to start with what would normally be Act 2. Count Dracula (Wei-Qiang Zhang) has arrived in London and has targeted Lucy Westernra (Tara Birtwhistle). Lucy is currently being wooed by three men—Arthur Holmwood (Stephane Leonard), Jack Seward (Matthew Johnson), and Quincy Morris (Keir Knight). She chooses Arthur, but is also being slowly seduced and drained of blood by Dracula. Eventually, Lucy is killed and, of course, comes back to life, only to be hunted down by her trio of suitors and Dr. Van Helsing (David Moroni). Asylum patient Renfield (Brent Neale) who is connected to Dracula, is interrogated to determine where the count will strike next.
His next target is Mina (CindyMarie Small). Mina is on her way to a convent where her fiancé Jonathon Harker (Johnny Wright) is convalescing after a terrifying experience at Dracula’s castle. It’s here, in a sort of flashback/mental fugue that we get small pieces of what would have been the first act of the ballet. Mina is eventually targeted by Dracula, who does his best to seduce her. You should know the ending here. If you honestly don’t know how the basic story of Dracula helps, you need to do a little homework.
There are really two things to go into here. The first is the ballet itself. Honestly, I wish there was more of it. While we do see quite a bit of the ballet, there are many places where Maddin’s camerawork moves in close on the dancers. In this scenes and moments, we get very little of the choreography. That ballet that we do get to see is beautiful, as should be expected from a company as prestigious as the Royal Winnipeg. Tara Birtwhistle and CindyMarie Small are lovely dancers. Sadly, we don’t get nearly enough of Wei-Qiang Zhang dancing, although what we do get is great.
The second thing to look at is the way that Maddin films it. Maddin’s goal was to create not simply an arthouse film, but something that mimics as closely as possible the sensibilities and styles of silent film. In many places, if you did not know better, you would be happy to suggest that this film is approaching 100 years old. Maddin frequently uses film stock that looks old and blurry and in need of restoration. Other scenes are shown with modern stock, looking fresh and clean. This was clearly his goal, juxtaposing both the feel of older films and the more modern technology. Enhancing the feel of the older film is that Maddin removes a couple of frames here and there, making the film jerky, as if some of the frames have been lost to time.
Maddin also uses color filters throughout, changing scenes to blue or green or purple in places, although the bulk is still in black-and-white. He does, however, highlight blood, which almost always appears in red starkly against the monochrome. It’s not overdone and always interesting when it appears.
The music is also gorgeous. I don’t know my classical music, but this is evidently music written by Gustav Mahler, and it fits the action perfectly.
All in all, I was really impressed with Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary. I knew nothing about it going in beyond the title and my own slight acquaintance with the work of Guy Maddin. I didn’t know it was a ballet until it started, and I can’t say that I was upset that it was. Admittedly, I probably have a higher tolerance for ballet than a lot of other people, but I found this beautiful and interesting, surprisingly sexually charged, and absolutely worth my time.
Why to watch Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary: It’s beautiful.
Why not to watch: Guy Maddin is sometimes very frustrating as a director.