Saturday, June 23, 2012
Movie Review: "The Countess" by David Pretty
"History is a tale told by the victors,"
- Daniel Bruhl as Istvan Thurzo.
As a fan of horror, I read many a book about the genre as a teenager and I distinctly remember the following passage in The Encyclopedia of Horror:
"Countess Elizabeth Bathory (was) a Hungarian noblewoman who became a sort of vampire queen. She was alleged to have murdered and drunk the blood of several hundred young girls, her activities having inevitable lesbian undertones."
At the risk of spoiling the film's entire plot, I won't quote anything else, but I will say that the passage that follows is even more salacious. Sadly, I also recall believing every word of this because, hey, it's in a book! That means it gotta be true! Right?
A part of me wonders if writer/director/actor Julie Delpy read something similar at a young woman, but had a hard time accepting such an acutely monstrous characterization. Perhaps she considered the possibility that this woman's mental illness was demonized and exploited by the patriarchal powers of the day for political reasons. And that's precisely what her film, The Countess, is all about.
Before we go any further, feel free to pass judgement on the film's sumptuous-looking trailer:
Growing up as a Hungarian noblewoman, Erzsébet Báthory (Delpy) was raised in a stern, unforgiving and sometimes cruel environment. As a teenager she wed Baron Franz Nádasdy but was widowed at age thirty-eight when her husband fell ill after an extended military campaign. Not long after, Count György Thurzó (John Hurt) becomes enamored with her but his clumsy advances are rebuked. Instead, Erzsébet begins a torrid love affair with György's twenty one year old son Istvan (Daniel Bruhl).
In a blatant act of revenge, György forces his son to wed the daughter of a Danish merchant. He even goes to so far as to forcibly detain Istvan, preventing him from keeping an appointed date with his beloved. As a result, Erzsébet assumes that she's been stood up and begins to fall into a terrible depression.
Her melancholia deepens in the toxic company of Dominic Vizakna (Sebastian Blomberg), another nobleman who also lusts over Erzsébet but only receives her contempt in return. Vizakna manages to convince her that the affections of young people like Istvan are fleeting, superficial and only snared by youthful beauty. This seems to complete her slide into self-loathing and psychosis.
Things come to a head after Erzsébet lashes out at one of her servant girls with a sharp brush, drawing blood and splashing some onto her own face. While wiping away the evidence of her rage, she somehow becomes convinced that the blood of young virgins will restore a youthful cast to her skin and reverse the aging process.
Despite the councils of her devoted servant and occasional lover Anna (Anamaria Marinca), Erzsébet begins to slide deeper and deeper into madness. Her incessant need for blood soon begins to cast long shadows over her estate. When Vizakna, King Matthias and the elder Thurzó begin to hear about a rash of local disappearances, they begin to plot on how best to spin Erzsébet's insanity to their own political advantage.
First off, let me say that Julie Delpy is an amazing triple threat here. She wrote the screenplay, directed the film and also brings the Countess to life with an austere yet nuanced performance. It truly is to her credit that such a flawed and repellent character can still retain a modicum of sympathy. Despite knowing how the story turns out, I was still silently begging for her to accept Anna's help and to somehow make her way out of the darkness.
As good as her performance is, it's her accomplished skills as a director that truly manages to impress. Indeed, she exhibits a veteran's eye for shot composition, camera movement and lighting in particular. She's presided over the creations of some truly incredible costumes and sets. She's also acutely aware of how important it is to shoot in real, evocative locations. From lush green fields to formal dance halls, from the exterior walls of Castle Čachtice to the dark dungeons underneath the imposing keep, the film feels incredibly genuine and proudly displays every dime of its $8 million dollar budget.
Only with the screenplay does Delpy stumble somewhat. The narrative bookends performed by Daniel Bruhl alternate between utilitarian or literal. It either doles out the details of Erzsébet's early life like a "Things-To-Do" list or bashes away at the film's theme like a scripted game of "Whack-A-Mole". A more deft approach certainly would have been harder to pull off, but it also would have made the story a lot more deeper and rewarding. In criticizing the narration, I certainly don't want to disparage Daniel Bruhl's performance, since he's truly one of the highlights of the film.
Having said that, a lot of the dialogue comes across as oblique and painfully workmanlike. Between the clunky lines and his shaky accent, William Hurt as György Thurzó really seems to be off of his A-game here. Looking like the love child of Eli Roth, Glen Danzig and Kevin Nealon, Sebastian Blomberg as Dominic Vizakna is alternately distracted and distracting. He also seems to be struggling with the "Snidely Whiplash" dialogue and often comes off as comically nefarious. In stark contrast, Anamaria Marinca seems completely at home here.
Taken as the sum of its uneven parts, The Countess is still a respectable little film. It certainly made me think about Erzsébet Báthory in a new light and consider the nature of recorded history. The strident case made by the script may very well be biased but its delivered with such aplomb that it changed my preconceived notions about the subject matter. Which means that the film succeeded in delivering something at least moderately worthwhile.