Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary
There’s an argument to be had over whether horror stories like Dracula are retold so often because they are enduring or if they’re enduring because they’re retold so often. Doubtless the answer is a combination of the two acting in a continual spiral of new interpretations and updates, taking the story into new places and inspiring creative minds to keep the cycle going. Which is not to say that the spiral can’t die off or slow down, but that it tends to be self-perpetuating. One of the stranger kinks in the Dracula cycle is Guy Maddin’s filmed silent ballet Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary, a film that feels contemporary despite its (in film terms) ancient aesthetics. Like all of Maddin’s film’s this vampire story takes the core of an old story and unfolds its subtext onto the screen, heightening the narrative’s obsessions with death, sexuality, and xenophobia in ways that can be both highly abstract and frighteningly concrete.
On the abstract side, this production is a ballet filmed on a stage, though the camera almost always feels immersed enough in the expressionistic sets that it’s hardly noticeable. Actions are suggested in sweeping motions, conveying an almost pure emotion. One critical scene in a graveyard, the first time we see Dracula (Zhang Wei-Qiang) and the undead Lucy (Tara Birtwhistle) dancing under the moonlight. Like the rest of the film, it has the air of an erotic dream; there’s no actual sex but the arousal and sensuality are unmistakable. Each actor/dancer weaves their characterizations into their movements, making sure that no moment is wasted.
Zhang Wei-Qiang’s Dracula is graceful and menacing, and feels far more sympathetic than our ostensible protagonist Van Helsing. Much of the reason for this is that our vampire villain is in many ways the victim of British Empire racism. Maddin begins the film with a nightmare about a plague of immigrants polluting grand old England, represented as a dark glob of liquid that menaces Lucy in her sleep. Near the end of the film, in Dracula’s castle, one of Lucy’s suitors exclaims that the fiend has stolen money from the crown. By casting a Chinese actor in the role rather than a Romanian, he highlights the fundamentally Orientalist character of the Dracula story. I’ve previously cited Edward Said’s notion that, in Orientalist discourse, the East is saddled with everything the West is supposedly not. In this case, the vampire’s aristocratic decadence––he has a harem, overt, fluid, flamboyant sexuality, etc.––comes to represent the exotic, everything that repels the bourgeois gentlemen who want to keep their women, their money, and their country away from this foreigner.
Because of its critical eye, the story ends up being quite rich and intriguing despite its brevity and surface familiarity. Another of its pleasures is the most obvious: the visual style. Cribbing from Soviet montage, German Expressionism, and American silent film in equal amounts Maddin and his collaborators have created a striking body of images here. Suffused in grain and surreal color tints, the film has an electrical appeal to the eye that’s all of a piece with Maddin’s other work. Though it could be dismissed as just an imitative effort, the style combines with the oppositional narrative to transcend mere imitation. It pushes its interrogation of Orientalism and xenophobia about as far as the material will allow and even further thanks to some of Maddin’s original touches (Dracula bleeds coins, for instance), and the beauty of the dancing and cinematography complements the hyperbolic story of Victorian paranoia. It’s probably the only Guy Maddin film I could recommend to anyone.