Last year, for a few nights before Halloween, my roommate and I enjoyed a brief, Dracula themed movie marathon. Nested on the saggy couch in our 100 year old Chinatown flat, the two of us watched Dracula after bloody Dracula, eventually lighting on a few nuggets of pure entertainment delight. By the end of our brief waltz through several cinematic portrayals of Transylvania we discovered that we'd yet to hear a satisfactory soundtrack to F.W. Murnau's silent and beautiful Nosferatu (we alternated between two musical interpretations that were ultimately disappointing), that we loved the excellent extras that accompany the recent, two disc reissue of Francis Ford Coppola's heady and deeply symbolic Bram Stoker's Dracula (the mini-doc about the in-camera, naive effects employed in the film making is absolutely amazing), and that we sat awestruck in front of the TV while a brilliant collaboration between Canada's Royal Winnipeg Ballet and Canadian cult director Guy Maddin tantalized our eyes with their film Dracula: Pages From A Virgin's Diary (a marriage of said ballet's interpretation of Dracula and Maddin's singular, super-charged visual style). I have seen and loved many dance movies, but this has to be one of my very all time favorites because the dancing is more than just a part of the film, it is the film! Add to this the touch of Maddin's hand and I swoon like Lucy ready to receive her eternal kiss. It's that entrancing.
Part of what makes this movie work so well is the way in which it blends certain aspects of Victorian era appeal (fairy story settings, men with attractive hats, tall ships) and politics (xenophobia, fear of 'the other,' repressed sexuality) relevant to Stoker's demented story while maintaining an early film, silent-era aesthetic. Indeed, Maddin must have realized the best way to film a ballet, particularly this one, would be to treat it as if it were meant to be a silent movie. This totally works in that there could be no better, more expressive actors for a silent film than professional dancers, whose only medium is their physical form. Standout performances by sensuous and stalwart ballerinas like the pale and nimble Tara Birtwhistle (as Lucy Westenra), the suave and sinewy Zhang Wei Quiang (as Dracula), and the gracful and doe-eyed Cindy Marie Small (as Mina Harker) make unconventional movie stars who earn constant praise from Maddin in his entertaining commentary, during which he repeatedly refers to his preference for women with big, expressive hands. It is worth noting also that the story is danced to the melodramatic strains of Gustav Mahler's first and second symphonies -- yet another element of the production that supports the silent film treatment, as the music plays just as important role as the dancers do.
The visual impression this film makes is huge. Rather than film the ballet in a straightforward, this-is-a-ballet-made-for-the-stage manner, Maddin employs the use of deep shadows, blurred vignettes, and tinted colors to overload the film's sumptuousness index. Nods to more than one Dracula film of the past are dashed here and there throughout the production without ever feeling like anything has been lifted outright from any other movie. The reason for this familiar-yet-fresh-feel of the film is, in my opinion, that for all its eccentricities, this film remains largely faithful to Stoker's original story, something that is just not all that common in most Dracula adaptations. Also, shocker, Maddin is doing things his way with this film which is to say that he's doing things that are rarely, if ever, done. For example, the grainy, antiquated look of the film is at least due in part to the fact that it was almost entirely shot in black and white Super 8, many of the scenes captured in a such a manner as only can be achieved by using hand held cameras, which I love. I find this simple, intimate way of filming ballet dancers totally exciting -- it's so close that one almost feels the swish of the air displaced by the dancers' movements. This in-your-face, hand held footage also allows for the capture of miniature tableaux where the dancers are framed almost like a still life within a revolving point of view. Unlike the ballet performed in a theater or opera house which unfolds two dimensionally, Maddin's Dracula: Pages From A Virgin's Diary is so 3D it could almost take you in and it probably will if you succumb easily to hypnosis, or vampires, or ballet.
Seeing a ballet in person is a glorious thing and I urge anyone who hasn't done it to at least take a date or the kids, or a maybe flask, down to your local production of the Nutcracker (or, if you happen to be in Charleston, South Carolina, the Charleston Ballet Theatre is performing an interactive interpretation of the Rocky Horror Show this Halloween). As a little girl I took ballet classes for a few years and learned enough about the discipline and dedication of the beginning ballerina to ask my mom to get me involved in something else (I then found out the hard way that ballet is way easier, and more agreeable in my case, than karate.). I almost lost all interest in it until I went to see a production of Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet when I was about nineteen. Though I went solely for the dark, dramatic music, the production as a whole tore me apart. I remember tears streaming down my face as Romeo danced with the limp, "dead" body of Juliet in their final pas de deux. I realized then that even the most structured of dances cannot suppress physical expression of the soul. It moved me deeply. I know it's corny, but I believe Madonna's right when she says, "you can dance...for inspiration." Don't let anyone tell you you can't. I only wish I had known about the Royal Winnipeg Ballet's Dracula when it made a brief stop in San Francisco on its world tour a few years ago. How I would have loved to see it on the stage (even though I can see Maddin's vision of it any time I want to.)!
But what if ballet is truly not your thing? Well, there are enough little oddities in Maddin's mad ballet movie to keep everyone interested: sick people in glass cases, demonic perverts, bugs for dinner, oral sex in a convent, arms that leak gold coins when they're cut, near death by choking on money, a castle made of vaginas, death by impalement... the list goes on and on. And if you think Maddin's commentary would seriously clue in the curious viewer who questions any weirdness, think again, for his commentary is probably the most misleading yet enjoyable of any commentary I've ever bothered to listen to. He may not be as crazy as, say, Paul Verhoeven, but he is a little bit wacky and he clearly loves a good pun off the cuff. In the end a Maddin movie is a Maddin movie and viewers should come to expect the unexpected. I strongly suggest to anyone who fancies a gander at this flick to watch it twice, or at least once with the director's commentary on; it simply rules. One more thing: this film makes for excellent fodder for academic deconstruction, especially if your area of interest and/or expertise is any kind of political science or ethnic studies. I earned myself a big fat A+ thanks to falling in love with this gem of a movie. Oh Canada, how I love you and not just for your maple syrup and aurora borealis and Anne of Green Gables anymore.