THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Most movies – even the best ones – are easily classifiable. They fall under familiar headings: comedy, drama, horror, action. Sometimes we get hybrids such as the “dramady,” the “romantic comedy,” and the “sci-fi/fantasy.” Once in a blue moon, however, a film comes along that either can’t be classified, or must be classified in a unique way. Such a film is Guy Maddin’s inventive Dracula: Pages From a Virgin’s Diary. Certainly there are elements of familiar cinematic styles at play here, yet the combination of them is unlike anything I’ve seen before. Hands down, this is the most one-of-a-kind motion picture of the year.

You see, Dracula: Pages From a Virgin’s Diary is a ballet version of Bram Stoker’s timeless story done in the style of silent cinema. That’s right – black and white, no dialogue, lots of ballet dancing. Does this sound like the opposite of a must-see movie? Perhaps on the surface it does, although I am hoping that this description provokes a reaction of intrigue and curiosity rather than one of apathy. What Maddin does here is to meld two forms together into a totally new hybrid. In the opening moments, I thought the film would be little more than a stunt. I was quickly proven wrong. The combination of ballet and silent cinema works, and more than that, it creates a totally new take on a story that most of us know by heart.

The project began when Canada’s Royal Winnipeg Ballet staged its own interpretation of Stoker’s novel. Maddin – described as the Canadian David Lynch – saw an opportunity to interpret their production for the big screen. He employed his fascination with silent movies and set out to create a movie experience like no other. The familiar characters are all here. Zhang Wei-Qiang plays Dracula, CindyMarie Small is Mina Murray, Johnny Wright is Jonathon Harker, and David Moroni, C.M. plays the unforgettable Van Helsing. As the story goes, Dracula seduces and bites the lovely Lucy Westernra (Tara Birtwhistle), and her newfound undead status draws the attention of Van Helsing. Dracula next turns his sites toward Mina after locking Jonathon away in a chamber with several lusty sirens. There is sexual tension as the vampire seduces the young Mina, who is drawn to his carnal presence. Meanwhile, Van Helsing gets an assist from several of Lucy’s suitors in battling Dracula and, hopefully, saving Mina from an undead existence.

Much – but not all – of this action is conveyed through dance, with the movements carefully syncronized to the motivations of the characters. For instance, when Dracula and Mina have their seduction dance, the dancers move in more erotic ways. It is a much more fiery dance than the virginal one she does with Jonathon moments earlier. At another point, Lucy reveals her new undead state to Von Helsing and her three suitors in a sequence that uses wilder, more erratic forms of dance movement. It is easy to see why the Royal Winnipeg Ballet would choose “Dracula” for interpretation: the story is so rife with emotions of every kind that it allows for great creativity in the choreography.

Directorially, Maddin has, in every way, made the film resemble a silent movie from a hundred years ago. (Watching it, I was often reminded of Carl Dreyer’s magnificent Vampyr, a silent take on the vampire legend from 1932.) The movie has some sound effects, but no dialogue. There are occasional title cards indicating what the characters are saying to one another. The musical accompaniment is comprised of selections from Gustav Mahler that perfectly compliment the images on screen. The camerawork is intentionally grainy and the editing is generally rapid. Maddin also makes use of a stylistic technique that was possible during the age of silent cinema: he gives certain scenes color tints to emphasize the emotions. At times, the screen will turn bright purple or green or blue. These moments really capture your attention, as they signify that something important is happening. Maddin also makes symbolic use of the color red. Whenever you see a close-up of Dracula’s eyes, or the inside of his cape, or somebody’s blood, Maddin uses bright red to highlight them. Against the black and white of everything else, the images are striking.

It might seem weird to combine ballet and silent cinema, but upon reflection it seems natural. Both involve using movement in place of words. Because neither form relies on the spoken word, there is more of an emphasis on finding non-verbal ways of getting across emotions and ideas. Maddin marries these two forms in a way that makes perfect sense. When the movie was over, I couldn’t believe no one had ever done this before. That’s how logical the mixture came to seem.

Maddin injects a few moments of sly humor into the film, but again, this is more than just a stunt. The director hits every emotion inherent in Stoker’s work. I have seen “Dracula” reinterpreted in many, many movies, and I’ve seen it done on stage. This may be my favorite version of it yet. I sat in total awe of Maddin’s imagination, as well as his bravery. He takes some real chances with his approach, but every single one of them pays off. In a year in which so many movies have (pun intended) sucked, Dracula: Pages From a Virgin’s Diary stands even higher as a triumph of artistry and entertainment.

( out of four)

Dracula: Pages From a Virgin's Diary is unrated but contains mild violence and sexual overtones. The running time is 1 hour and 15 minutes.

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