Film Review: The Countess

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Berlin International Film Festival -- Panorama special
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BERLIN -- Julie Delpy, wearing many bonnets as writer, director, star and composer of "The Countess," braves yet another version of the wicked old tale of Erzebet Bathory, the Hungarian countess who murdered hundreds of virgin girls so that she might bathe in their blood to give her youthful beauty.

While the subject of a few horror films in the past, the countess gets a measured, psychologically nuanced dramatic treatment from Delpy. Whether meant as a comment on the Botox boom or a feminist take on how even the most powerful women can be brought low by vanity, "The Countess" insists on humanizing its villain.

Of course, you can humanize the witch in "Hansel and Gretel" too, but the story can never quite escape its origins as a grim peasant tale. So while the Friday night splatter-movie crowd won't go for this soft character study, the art-house crowd and Delpy's fans may be disappointed too: This is the story this multitalented artist chooses to lavish so much of her attention on?

In Delpy's version, Erzebet is not so much a beauty freak or demented soul as a woman in the desperate throes of love. A late husband, a lesbian lover (Anamaria Marinca) and a S&M enthusiast (Sebastian Blomberg) have all been received between her bed sheets with little passion. Only Estavan Thurzo (German star Daniel Bruhl), a much younger man of much lower rank, lights her fire.

Intensely, obsessively in love, the countess believes she has been deceived and betrayed when the young man disappears. She doesn't realize that his father, Count Thurzo (William Hurt), has conspired to marry him into a financially attractive family. Instead, she sees this as a younger man's rejection based on age differences.

Erzebet quickly develops a fixation on bathing in female virgin blood to improve her complexion. At first a few drops from a tiny cut will do. All too soon she must wring each girl dry.

A metal cage with sharp, slicing knives drains away the blood, which gravitation pulls down into her chamber for long, leisurely baths. Before long, girls all over the area are disappearing. As rumors reach Count Thurzo, he realizes he has the means to seize Erzebet's family lands.

Delpy makes certain Erzebet and Estavan meet one last time. His father dispatches him to certify the rumor's truthfulness. She receives Estavan graciously, learns he has never stopped loving her and that the only madness he sees lies in her undying love for him.

So in Delpy's version, Erzebet isn't really a crazed murderess but a woman going through a phase, a sort of menopause crossed with a guy obsession. Not that there's anything wrong with a 21st-century interpretation of a 19th-century folk tale about a 17th-century witch. But the power of the story lies in unrepentant evil, not on a misunderstood protagonist. Does one want to empathize with the queen in "Snow White?"

The film is beautifully and lovingly produced with cool, deeply burnished cinematography inside the palace and out. Costumes, editing and Delpy's music all consistently support the high tone taken toward this bloody tale. One appreciates "The Countess." But it neither terrifies nor illuminates.

Production: X Filme International and Celluloid Dreams Prods. in association with X Filme Creative Pool and Fanes Films
Cast: Julie Delpy, William Hurt, Daniel Bruhl, Anamarie Marinca, Sebastian Blomberg, Charly Hubner
Director-screenwriter-music: Julie Delpy
Producers: Andre Steinborn
Executive producers: Skady Lis, Christian Baute, Chris Coen, Martin Shore, Gordon Steel
Director of photography: Martin Ruhe
Production designer: Hubert Pouille
Costume designer: Pierre-Yves Gayraud
Editor: Andrew Bird
Sales: Celluloid Dreams

No rating, 100 minutes
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