[15 May 2003]
Never more than a fringe figure and left for dead after his last big-screen feature, Guy Maddin seems in the midst of a glorious restoration, if not a breakout year. The willfully eccentric Canadian director has been on a roll since an unlikely new-millennium jumpstart, the eschatological 2000 short The Heart of the World. This year has brought a prize-winning film installation, Cowards Bend the Knee, currently making the festival rounds, and a million-dollar musical starring Isabella Rossellini and scripted by Kazuo Ishiguro, slated for a fall bow.
Meanwhile, his first feature in six years has just opened in New York City and expands to other markets in the coming weeks. The lasciviously titled Dracula: Pages From a Virgin’s Diary is a reliably unhinged exponent of Maddin’s antiquarian vision. Commissioned by the CBC to adapt the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s interpretation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Maddin instead came up with this crazed reanimation of the picked-over corpse of cinema past—in other words, an unmistakably Maddinian project.
The movie opens like gangbusters. To the pounding strains of Mahler, a lightning-fast montage introduces us to the characters and alerts us to the approach of Dracula, a mysterious figure from the East played by Zhang Wei-Qiang. As if casting an Asian man weren’t enough, Maddin amplifies the story’s xenophobic subtext with lurid title cards: “Others! From Other Lands!” screams the screen as Dracula’s ship wends its way to civilized England.
Once there, Dracula pays his nocturnal visits to the virginal Lucy (Tara Birtwhistle). As she grows weaker and paler, her suitors send for Dr. Van Helsing (David Moroni, C.M.), the renowned multi-hyphenate doctor. Wild-eyed and not a little weird, Van Helsing recognizes the case as the handiwork of “vampyr.” By the time he and Lucy’s suitors spring into action, however, it is too late: Lucy has become one of the undead. All that is left for them to do is finish off the contaminated soul with a well-placed stake and messy slice of the neck—a job Van Helsing performs with unusual relish.
As in the book, the film’s second half shifts its focus to Mina (CindyMarie Small), Lucy’s friend and Dracula’s next prey. Heavily truncating the pursuit of Dracula by Van Helsing and crew, Maddin sets the final confrontation in the count’s lair. The climactic (and highly sexualized) battle ends as it always does, but with an absurd twist: the victorious Victorians march off with Dracula’s fortune, while Van Helsing caps his triumph with a wistful whiff of Mina’s purloined undergarments. Mission accomplished.
Maddin’s career-long project of resurrecting cinema’s forgotten tropes reached its apotheosis in The Heart of the World‘s six-minute blitz. Of his features, Dracula comes closest to sustaining that masterpiece’s enthralling mania. Filmed in lush black and white (with drips of voluptuous crimson), almost silent (but for choice sound effects and Mahler’s 1st and 2nd Symphonies), Dracula plays like a miraculous artifact from a nonexistent past—which, come to think of it, can be a pull-quote for Maddin’s entire oeuvre. An inspired fusion of Murnauesque expressionism and Vertovian kino-craziness, Dracula brims with visual flourishes: ghoulish shadow play, showy tint switches, kaleidoscopic lens distortions, overwrought angles and intertitles.
Just as hyperbolic is the movie’s allegorical aspect. In the novel, Van Helsing likens his band of vampire killers to the “old knights of the Cross.” Maddin imagines their Eastern crusade to Dracula’s land as not just a sacred mission, but a plunderous adventure as well. More predictable is his sensational rehashing of the tale’s sexual subtext. Nothing if not enduring, Stoker’s high-concept story has become an all-purpose metaphor for AIDS, miscegenation, male insecurity, and Victorian repression, among other subsets of sexual paranoia. Maddin’s movie runs down that list, but his febrile style plays it for laughs. We always knew that Van Helsing was a lech, but only Maddin would go ahead and make him a panty-sniffing perv.
The production’s genesis notwithstanding, the movie downplays the dancing. Choreographed by Mark Godden, the ballet sequences actually fit seamlessly into Maddin’s scheme. The phantasmagoric style only heightens their beauty—those pirouettes look like dreamy swirls through Vaseline-smeared lens—but the hyperkinetic editing, not to mention the ubiquitous fog, tends to undercut the performances. It’s the only time you wish this master of montage would slow down and let the people, rather than the medium, shine.
That fixation with form is the movie’s, and Maddin’s, raison d’être. In its fondness for the outmoded vernacular of old movies, Dracula recalls another postmodern project: Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven. Consummate cinephiles both, Maddin and Haynes construct oneiric worlds derived from familiar elements. In both instances, film’s enslavement to verisimilitude is challenged, its expressive possibilities explored. Rummaging through cinema’s attic, the two shed light on how the collective cultural unconscious is forged—and how their complacent art can be revitalized.
Occasionally, that postmodern sensibility can detract from the overall vision. Naysayers accused Haynes of condescension and insincerity; similarly, Maddin has been tagged by some as a snarky wiseass. Seen one way, Dracula is packed with knowing yuks that don’t bite particularly deeply. But Maddin doesn’t just use kitsch to congratulate his audience’s cosmopolitan superiority (though it inevitably has that effect). In love with the disreputability of movies, Maddin seeks with each film to recapture that initial frisson of pleasure that got him hooked to begin with. It’s why his movies can seem puerile to some: they are all (largely successful) attempts to rediscover that childlike awe of the medium.
Speaking in a dead language, Maddin could be accused of solipsism. Indeed, his fetishistic fervor seems to belie a casual indifference to human beings. But let’s not mistake an obsession with cinema for impersonality. For this is one deadly earnest artist. To take Maddin seriously is to see his movie as not just a clever reconfiguration of a beloved form and a timeworn novel, but as something at once more ridiculous and sublime. Like each of his anachronistic immersions, Dracula is nothing less than an excited invitation to see movies the way Maddin sees them: with virgin eyes. Far from gimmicky, it’s as personal and unreserved as filmmaking gets.