“Casanova meets a new servant who will witness his last moments in life. From a Swiss castle with its gallant and libertine Eighteenth Century atmosphere, to his final days spent in poor and shadowy Northern lands. There, his rationalist way of thinking and frivolous and mundane world will succumb to a new, violent, occult and romantic force, represented by Dracula and his eternal power”.
– HMM Press kit, Locarno Film Festival.
‘An imagined meeting between an ageing Casanova and Count Dracula’ is an intriguing premise for a fantasy. The world’s so called ‘greatest lover’ and misunderstood intellectual, now reduced to being a pathetic shadow figure in his own fading world; and the Transylvanian nobleman doomed to exist in immortality, seeing only the darkness and the memories of life that he can no longer have.
Catalan director Albert Serra claimed that: “I wanted to make a film about the night and I ended up making this: a fantasy of our desires that are stylised by the night, but uncovered by the day”(1).
Serra’s 2013 Golden Leopard winning film (Best Film Locarno Film Festival) matches two characters who found a very different existence during the hours of darkness: one finding some kind of love again and again, but never any seeming satisfaction in his conquests; the other a tragic and solitary figure who could only destroy the objects of his desires. In many ways, the two men (one fact, one fiction) had much in common.
Giacomo Casanova (1725-1798) was a Venetian adventurer and author, now known less for either and more for his complex romantic liaisons; a man of scandal, a dandy who saw a life of high society, gambling, womanising, debt and imprisonment. His career in the Church was short lived, ended by a sex scandal, but it was never meant to be for a man not fond of the kind of rules the Church demanded must be followed. A military career ended almost as quickly, Casanova finding it too tedious. The life of a professional gambler similarly was cut short, due to him being simply no good at it and losing all of his money. His attempt at becoming a professional violinist finished as soon as it had begun, again due to a boredom that would fill his life. Fate dealt a kinder hand when Casanova saved the life of a sick nobleman, who became a lifelong patron. It would last only a few years, in which Casanova’s gambling and scandals soon became too much for Venetian high society, and he fled, beginning a gambling and seduction tour of Europe that saw him imprisoned. He escaped, supposedly in a daring plan, but more likely due to bribery. It all added to his growing legend, but would also prove to alienate those with money and power. In Paris, he found a new patron, but made a fortune in business (being involved with France’s first lottery), also claiming to be an alchemist, then briefly a spy. Whatever fortune he made, he lost it just as quickly, usually on the various women he was seeing. It was a lifestyle impossible to fund. He would travel seeking finances, but it was a pursuit doomed to failure, his wanton life catching up with him. He moved still in high society, but ill health caused largely by sexual diseases left him scarred physically, and financial failures scarred socially and mentally. He was 73 years old when he died. But, even his enemies could not deny that he had lived a life more interesting that most of them could ever dream of.
Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula has, largely since the early 1970s and the work of Professors Mcnally and Florescu in their book “In Search of Dracula”, been considered to have been based on Romanian Prince Vlad III (1431-1477?), known now as “Vlad the Impaler”. A hugely popular character considered a national hero by the Romanians for keeping the expanding Ottoman Empire at bay, they are less happy at any comparison with the vampire Count of Stoker’s 1897 novel “Dracula”. Stoker, himself, never visited Transylvania, but became aware of the name of Vlad’s family name Dracul (meaning dragon, but also devil), and his father who was awarded the Order of the Dragon (an important and respected title in Transylvania). Stoker, himself, never made any claims that Dracula was based on Vlad III, but it became a speculation that grew. Romanians find themselves in a tricky position in that they resent the comparisons between their hero and a blood sucking vampire and the recognition that vampire tourism brings in much needed finances to a country that is struggling economically. Stoker’s book wasn’t exactly a best seller on its release (Stoker himself dying in relative poverty), but became a hit mainly due to the Universal Pictures’ 1931 film starring Bela Lugosi, a popularity that has never waned since, seeing countless films, books and graphic novels based on the immortal Transylvanian Count whose undoing is the destruction of one man’s fiancee and pursuit of another man’s wife
Dracula has met Batman, Abbott and Costello, Billy the Kid, even Betty Boop. Meeting Casanova is an interesting concept, with both from worlds of the erotic. It is often overlooked that vampirism and eroticism have been interlinked in many ways, with seduction at the heart of the myth. James Malcolm Rymer’s penny dreadful then book “Varney the Vampire” introduces many tropes that would be used in the genre later on; Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Carmilla” predated Stoker’s work and was the basis for Hammer Films’ later ventures into sexual horror of the early 1970s. In Stoker’s work, Dracula’s seduction of Lucy Westenra and then Mina Murray/Harker are the events that set the ‘Crew of Light’ on their mission to destroy the evil Count. Jonathan Harker’s seduction by the ‘Brides of Dracula’ at the Count’s castle has also been shown as the sexual blood encounter impressively on a number of occasions.
In Albert Serra’s “Story of My Death”, we see not just two characters of the erotic night that encounter each other, but “the clash between an eighteenth century of rationality and sensuality against a nineteenth century founded upon repression and violence”.
Serra works only with digital cameras and shot more than 400 hours worth of images for “Story of My Death”. In an interview with British filmmaker Ben Rivers that is included in the accompanying DVD booklet and arranged by ‘Sight and Sound’, Serra said: “I like the constraints of shooting digital. You don’t have a beautiful image, for example….” Regarding film: “You have to spend a lot of money in post-production. The reasons I use digital are the number of cameras you can use, but mainly the length of the shot. Shooting on 35 you get 11 minutes; for me, with my actors, that would be impossible. I would never even have been a filmmaker without digital, it would have been impossible”.
In the Andergraun films HMM press kit for the Locarno Film Festival (2), Serra was asked by Alvaro Arroba (for So Film – September 2013) how he came up with the idea for ‘Story of My Death’? Serra said: “I was presenting ‘Honour of the Knights’ in Romania, and a Romanian producer that saw the film and liked it told me: “you should do the same thing with Dracula”. I had never seen any films of the fantasy genre, nor Dracula, and I took it as a joke. However the weeks went by and the idea came back to me without thinking about it. But as I’m not really interested in the theme of Dracula, I decided that perhaps merged with imagery I was closer to, the film would make more sense to me. I decided to cross the initial idea with Casanova, whose universe I was far more familiar with. And I realised how interesting it could be to make a film about night, and the transition from the lightness and sensuality of the 18th Century to the darkness, violence, and sexuality of the 19th Century, of Romanticism”.
“Story of My Death” shows a Casanova (Vicenç Altaió) seemingly always eating and talking and never happier than when doing both, unless it’s when he’s having sex. A fading footnote in history living on past, minor glories who talks of writing, but never seemingly getts around to doing any. He laughs at books he reads as though trapped in his own private internal conversation and joke. He offers advice and recollections that would be useful if they had actually served him well in any way. If there was ever any grace, he fell from it a lifetime ago. As he leaves his latest patron in Switzerland and finds himself in the South Carpathians (arriving on the back of a broken down horse and cart) along with his manservant Pompeu (Lluís Serrat,) his both defender and critic, the locals seem bemused by the once nobleman. Unshaved whiskers sprouting through his dandy make up, he is becoming a grotesque without realising it, his ego still dictating his every move as he seduces the servant girls.
When Dracula (Eliseu Huertas) does appear, just over half way through the film, it is by day, retaining the aspect from “Dracula” that vampires can move during the light, but in a weakened form. (Interestingly, Serra has previously admitted that he was not a fan of Stoker’s novel, finding it ‘boring’). Dracula seeks to entice one of the servant girls to his castle, (inviting her other female relatives as well). It isn’t sex that he offers, but the chance for her to improve herself, to become a woman of importance, and the opportunity to learn to read. It paints a very different scenario to Casanova’s purely sexual use of them. Both men are after the women of the small house, but for individual reasons. Dracula seems to regret his acts, Casanova never does.
According to Smithsonian.Com (3), in 2010, Casanova’s memoir “Story of My Life”, written in his old age poverty, was bought for $9.6m (€8.64m), at that point, the most paid for a manuscript, and is today housed in the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris, all 3,700 pages of it, where it is considered a ‘national treasure’ due to the amount of time Casanova lived in France.
Albert Serra’s “Story of My Death” is a fascinating and original piece. If you can surrender to the pacing (Serra uses very long takes) it is a rewarding and often indescribable piece, finally reminiscent of Dreyer’s “Vampyr” or “Murnau’s “Nosferatu”. Though shot digitally, it looks beautiful with an atmosphere and imagery that will stay with you. It is a period piece examining the end of lives and what we have done with them. Casanova seems to have done little and learned nothing, so it is ironic that his work would finally gain recognition and elevate the man’s reputation beyond that of a waster and libertine.
“Story of My Death” is now available on Second Run DVD and is Region 0 in Catalan with optional English Subtitles. It includes the short film Cuba Libre, Serra’s tribute to Rainer Werner Fassbinder; a sixteen page booklet, and is presented in a director approved new HD transfer.
By David Paul Hellings.
(1)(Excerpt from the interview by Alvaro Arroba, So Film September 2013).
This review originally appeared on SFFWorld: