From inaction-image to the furious impurity of desire
by Victor Guimarães
While a gorgeous melody fills the night – guitar, woodwinds, smooth percussion – a couple is sitting at the table, behind a small candlestick. The frame is frontal, almost Byzantine: wearing costumes from the eighteenth century, the bodies rub against each other, awkwardly; the girl faces the camera sometimes, absentmindedly. There is the solemnity of clothing and décor, and there is the incomparable lushness of those performances, swaying in and out of character during the shot. In those few seconds of the prologue of Story of My Death, something in the mysterious alchemy of Albert Serra’s cinema unfolds: the task is to regain innocence where it seems less likely; to offer an unexpected cinematic treatment to the greatest literary narrative, which rediscovers life where it only seemed to be dead words.
Quixote and Sancho in Honor of the Knights (Quixotic)(2006), the three kings and the holy family in Birdsong (2008). The preference for the great figures of literature is still present. Here, Serra decides to retell the last days of the adventurer Giacomo Casanova, the famous seductive character, well known for his verve and his memoirs (Histoire de ma vie), to which the film’s title refers. During the first half hour, we follow some everyday scenes with this strange character inside a castle, surrounded by servants, paintings, books and women. Early on, a trait distinguishes Story of My Death from Serra’s previous work: this will be his dirtiest, impurest film. If Honor of the Knights was an unwavering idyll of innocence and Birdsong reached the sublime in its approach to religion, Story of My Death is a deeply sinful film, openly flirting with eschatology. Casanova (Vicenç Altaió), the greatest of the libertines, brings to Serra’s cinema a coefficient of impurity that transforms the ripening of a style in a search for other tracks, an inveterate bet on the unknown.
The first part also reveals another distinctive feature: although the minimalist style still remains – and acquires other nuances -, this is the most novel-like of Serra’s films, with greater investment in dialogue, as well as in a kind of drama that, while still rarefied, has never been this crossed by extraordinary events and this dedicated to outlining an actual protagonist. Inside the castle, we get to know the turn-of-the-centurypersonality of Casanova, which combines the aversion to Christianity with empathy towards the Revolution, the taste for science with an interest in the occult arts, a down-to-earth humanism with the most unbridled licentiousness. As would be expected, however, this is character presentation is anything but conventional. Serra’s dramaturgy remains attentive to details that would go unnoticed in other films (the “dead times”), with a fabulous disdain for any predictable dramatic arc. In his films, it is as if these grand narratives of mankind had the proportions turned inside out: where the traditional approach sees inflection points, Serra conceives an opportunity to open an ellipsis; where we expect passage shots, he discovers an event of major importance; where the mise en scène seems to demand a close-up, he shoots the actors’ backs.
While in Honor of the Knights the director had chosen to narrate the story of Don Quixote not through his famous adventures, but through the waiting times and indecision moments at the Catalan open fields, in Story of My Death the daily lives of these characters at the south of the Carpathians ranks foreground again. Outside the little peasants’ house where the film rests for almost its entirety, we see meals, the work with pigs, careless conversations among girls. Once again, the self-imposed task of the film is to turn each gaze towards the landscape into an inexhaustible source of aesthetic experience; to turn each movement of the face into an adventure of perception.
If “Cervantes opposed the chivalric fictions with the poor provincial reality of his country” (as read in a passage of Enrique Vila-Matas’ Aire de Dylan), Serra provides him a renewed homage in every film, finding honor and beauty not in the noteworthy acts, but in the childish gestures of ordinary men. There is a strong opposition to the grandeur of the obvious heroism, which refers to Renoir’s La Marseillaise (1938) and Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964). In this radical refusal of programmed grandiloquence, a simple dialogue around a tree is raised to the level of a decisive experience.
However, although there’s something undeniably Beckettian in Serra’s minimalism, it seeks other ways to engage the viewer. While what is at stake in the talks between Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot is a highly provocative installation of the audience on the absurdity of the scene, Serra’s cinema has no exasperation, no taste for direct affront. In this radical inaction-image, in these many occasions in which “nothing happens” – the refusals of work by Sancho that could lead his last name be changed to Bartleby; the long walk of the kings through the desert; the girls wandering through the woods or the conversations between Casanova and others – there is a double gesture: on one hand, the attention to the materiality and beauty of the smallest of movements; on the other hand, an accumulation of small situations that prepares us for a catharsis of the senses. Be it in Don Quixote and Sancho diving at the river, or in the meeting between the kings, Mary and Joseph, there is a degree of sublime that is impossible to Beckett: Serra’s cinema is an art of generosity, which does not hesitate to offer us a few moments of pure plastic and musical power. The accumulation has an ultimate goal: to give birth to cinema again after a long period of expectancy, to conceive beauty as a result of an arduous conquest.
In Story of My Death, as in his other films, much of the power of this minimal aesthetic lies in anti-naturalistic performances. Like Pasolini in his quest for African faces for the protagonists of a Greek tragedy in Notes Towards an African Orestes (1975), Serra is interested in keeping the contradiction between the literary character and the actor who plays it; in making this meeting not an incarnation, not a perfect mimesis, but a game of stepping in and out. There is the method of Straub-Huillet, but there is a praise of imprecision here that doesn’t exist in their films. There is the same keenness for de-dramatization of Lisandro Alonso, but there is a freshness that is not present in Misael Saavedra from La Libertad (2001) or in Argentino Vargas from Los Muertos (2004). The strength of Pompeu, Casanova’s servant (again played by Lluís Serrat, who had also been Sancho and one of the kings), lies not only in the unusual contours of this character, but in this interval between the dramatic figure and the occasional actor who gives life to it: we see him sitting under a tree, and his action of trying to get rid of mosquitoes using his hand is more important than his insightful words. We look at the faces of the youngsters Clara (Clara Visa), Delfina (Noelia Rodenas) and Carmen (Montse Triola), and what’s most impressive is the power of these expressions, so indecisive, and so profoundly beautiful.
But if Story of My Death is the latest stage of an unmistakable style, it is also the discovery of an unprecedented sensory trajectory. As the proximity of the forest acquires translation in film form – for the first time, nature is also the place of desire and danger, sensuality and death –, a whole new climatic web comes to life. The ingenuity of this narrative, which finds in the crucial figure of Count Dracula (Eliseu Huertas) its most powerful shift, is accompanied by a mutation that transforms the unlikely aesthetic blend of lyricism and eschatology into something even mightier: the peasant daily life is enchanted by rituals and alchemy, the pastoral ease flows into absolute terror. Dracula is not only the eternal power that will change the course of things, but a virus that gradually penetrates the form: the length of the film allows us to pursue a journey from the artificial light of the castles to the naked darkness of the woods, from the licentiousness of the alcove to the unexpected brutality of the girls, from the sentimentality of the initial melodies to the terrifying musical attacks that densify the night, from Goya’s satirical engravings to the late severity of the Black Paintings.
Through a narrative and stylistic bifurcation, the country idyll and the frivolous sexuality of the last days of Casanova both turn into a vertiginous story of vampires, sacrifice, torture and revenge. Those innocent girls become ravenous, and the impurity of uncontrollable desire takes over everything. The transitoriness of twilight (when the boundary between faces and landscape seems to dissolve) dyes itself with the densest blackness, and the subtle, almost whispered, dialogues open space for the wrathful and orgasmic yell of Dracula, the ruler of the night.
The small talk, the repetitive work, the gentle movements of the actors become contaminated by hieratic vampire bodies, performing the stylized work of death in the forest. The gradual conquest of beauty in Story of My Death comes with a unique diving in the codes of horror cinema, its sensuality and strangeness. If Frankenstein had to wait fifty years to find its most beautiful and unexpected incarnation – Víctor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) –, Dracula had to wait almost a whole century to find the power of a cinematic resurrection. At the beginning of a new millennium, the nineteenth-century decadence finds a new myth of origin in cinema, which revives the romantic soul in unsuspected vestures. Faced with a power that exceeds it completely, the frivolity of the European turn-of-the-century elite can only wait for the final bite.