There’s an inherent risk to saying this on the internet these days, but here we go: sometimes spoilers aren’t a bad thing. Every single synopsis or review I’ve read of Albert Serra’s seventh feature film, Story of My Death, mentions a character who doesn’t turn up immediately, and as such his presence may be considered a spoiler. Yet the experience of watching the film is enhanced considerably by knowing that, after a while, Dracula turns up.
Undoubtedly this is solid commercial logic – for a property that’s almost 120 years old, Dracula still pulls in the crowds. But it also brings the meaning of Serra’s film into focus. Story of My Death was conceived as a clash between the eighteenth-century Enlightenment and the capital-r Romanticism of the nineteenth century, examined through a meeting between Bram Stoker’s Prince of Darkness and an aging Giacomo Casanova. Watching the early, Casanova-centred scenes of the film knowing what’s ahead, you’re struck by how similar the two characters are, both powder-faced, aristocratic, nocturnal, with the local women the rope in their ideological tug-of-war.
The women aren’t the focus, but they are fascinating, living in a world which sees equal validity in medical science and ancient folklore. Serra makes it clear, both through Casanova’s dialogue and his own pointed cutaways to the old man’s maids, that they have been excluded from a lot of the progress of the Enlightenment, and it’s this exclusionary, boys-club attitude that creates room for the sensual, irrational Dracula to fill. This portrayal of an arrogant technocratic class creating its own worst enemies has obvious resonances for Serra’s native Spain, and Europe in general, as the there-is-no-alternative political centrism of the EU’s power players is assailed from left and right.
This allegorical reading is one that the film doesn’t disavow, but it keeps it at arms’ length. Story of My Death doesn’t treat Dracula as an avenging angel come to correct Casanova’s wrongs, but regards his presence with a great, prickly unease. Serra criticises Casanova’s values but doesn’t trash them, and this sympathy manifests itself most obviously in Vicenç Altaió’s confident, natural, authoritative performance as Casanova. Altaió is not a professional actor, and his performance was pieced together from some 400 hours of footage.
It’s laudable that the film feels so unified, so singular in its uneasy small-hours mood, though even after what was no doubt a lengthy editing process there are still occasional scenes which test the patience. This working method would obviously have been prohibitively expensive before digital video, and Serra joins a very select group of directors – Lynch, Mann, Costa – who is using digital video not to imitate celluloid but to do something new. In the case of Story of My Death, this means that his evocation of the seductions of the night is, er, experiential – which is to say, very dark indeed, often to the point of eye-strain.
This isn’t a mistake – Serra clearly meant the film to be shrouded in inky darkness, and he uses it to further both the mystery of Dracula and the insularity of Casanova, always laughing at something the viewer can’t quite make out. It’s also unquestionably a serious challenge, but it’s one adventurous moviegoers will want to test themselves with. Accompanied by Serra’s 2013 short Cuba Libre, Second Run’s new DVD alerts British cinephiles to a gifted creator of moods, a philosophical provocateur and a high-culture epicure, a challenging new talent whose work hasn’t – until now – escaped the festival circuit in this country. The booklet pairs him with perhaps his nearest British equivalent, Two Years at Sea’s Ben Rivers, for a winningly candid chat about film versus digital, the challenges of finding an audience and why they’re ultimately optimistic about modern film culture.
• Presented from a new high-definition digital transfer, approved by the director.
• Albert Serra’s exquisite short Cuba Libre, his 2013 tribute to filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder.
• 16-page booklet featuring a wide-ranging conversation between Albert Serra and filmmaker Ben Rivers.
• New and improved English subtitle translation.
• 5.1 Dolby® Digital Surround audio option.