DraculaFest: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary

And now for something completely different. Vampires! Canadian ballet! Avant-garde filmmaking! Black and white with red all over! One thing is for sure, we aren’t in rote sequel territory.

It's dangerous to hold back a sneeze.

It’s dangerous to hold back a sneeze.

Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary (2002) is a film adaptation of a stage production by the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. Director Guy Maddin has created a number of excellent short and experimental films, many carrying the traditions of silent cinema into the modern era. He produced this feature in cooperation with the Canadian Broadcasting Company. Rather than simply document the ballet company’s production, Maddin turned the performance into a faux silent film replete with period special effects and intertitles. These techniques move the film away from a standard dance documentary and transform it into a beast all its own.

I approached this one with high hopes based on critical raves and my own love of silent film, and I couldn’t help feeling a bit disappointed. I’d assumed the film mainly recorded the choreography of the stage production; instead it uses the ballet company’s sets and moves as raw material for the formation of a heavily stylized and edited avant-garde movie. Close-ups, wipes and quick edits pull focus away from the dancers’ movements. Color tinting and histrionic title cards (“Immigrants!”) reframe the story and add new elements. The result is a strange hybrid that at times seems to struggle against itself. Pages doesn’t seem all that interested in its own dance choreography, cutting the dance performances to ribbons. On the rare occasions that dances play out for an extended period, such as in the downfall of Lucy (Tara Birtwhistle) or during the pas de deux between Mina (CindyMarie Small) and Harker (Jonathan A. Wright), I found myself wishing to see more. During the jump cuts and effects sequences, I found myself wondering how the ballet company had handled those scenes live. That we don’t get to find out feels like a missed opportunity.

5 crosses from the Romanian judges!

5 crosses from the Romanian judges!

On the other hand, Maddin uses surreal production values to imbue the film with subtext often missing from Dracula movies. He emphasizes the invasion literature roots of Dracula and uses the casting of an Asian Dracula (Wei-Qiang Zhang) to amp up the xenophobia. Strong erotic staging explores the relationships between monster and victim. In an unexpected and amusing twist, the titular virgin’s diary belongs to Jonathan Harker, not his hot-to-trot fiancée. Well played. Other elements don’t work as well. Why is Dracula stealing money? Seems kind of petty given his other agendas, and it’s never explained or given any context. And why does Van Helsing (David Moroni) back his enemy into a corner and then purposely undo his own work? For that matter, most of the action in the final act confused the hell out of me. Somehow it ends with Dracula impaled in midair, but how we got there I couldn’t quite say. I suspect choppy editing that refuses to follow the choreography is mostly to blame. The film breezes through Harker’s initial encounter with Dracula in flashback, relying on quick cuts and campy title cards to fill in the gaps. (“Infants for supper?” “Vampyr harem!” “Trapped in a devil’s lair!”) It’s amusing, but feels like a shortcut.

Ultimately Pages works on a few levels better than others. Maddin’s other films are well worth a look if you can find them, but I don’t feel that his cinematic techniques are a particularly good fit for documenting a ballet production. I want to watch the stage production in its entirety, and I’d like to see an avant-garde film that doesn’t just shove dancers into the acting roles. In this case, two films may well have worked better than one.

Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary earns a respectable 1 out of 2 fangs out. A flawed but intriguing experiment. And something different, which ain’t easy to do after almost two dozen Dracula flicks!

Next time: Drac to the Future!