The Story of My Death (Historia de la meva mort): Locarno Review

Story of My Death - H - 2013
Critics' darling delivers another archly esoteric, challengingly static take on prominent cultural/historical personages, one unlikely to attract many new admirers.

Vicenc Altaio plays Casanova in Catalan writer-director Albert Serra's experimental Spanish-French co-production, winner of the Golden Leopard at the Swiss festival.

Casanova meets Dracula -- eventually -- in Albert Serra's The Story of My Death (Historia de la meva mort), a fanciful project that's tantalizing on paper but largely DOA on screen. The third ostentatiously patience-testing big-screen feature by shrewdly provocative Catalan writer-director Serra, after Don Quixote tale Honor of the Knights (2006) and biblical anti-drama Birdsong (2008), will enrapture his loyal fans among the critical and festival-programming communities while leaving most audiences bored, baffled and bemused. Theatrical prospects look very dim, though brief runs in spots like Paris, New York and London might well materialize.

The modish vampire angle and the Golden Leopard at Locarno -- the first ever Spanish triumph in the event's 66-year history -- will help in terms of exposure, and a North American premiere in Toronto's experimental Wavelengths section is already confirmed. But despite moments of cockeyed humor and occasional flashes of genuine inspiration, this 150-minute evocation of 18th century atmospheres is an enervating, embalmed affair. Indeed, in terms of 2013's more "artistic" treatments of bloodsucker lore, The Story of My Death makes Jim Jarmusch's stylishy quirky Cannes competitor Only Lovers Left Alive look like Craig Moss's Twilight parody Breaking Wind.

The entrance of Count Dracula, who's only identified as such in the closing credits, must be the most low-key in the entire cinematic history of that much-filmed character. Eighty minutes in, Serra shows two sitting by a riverbank -- in broad daylight! -- with their backs to the camera, one of them a raven-haired but elderly gentleman. As creepily incarnated by Serra regular Eliseu Huertas -- a non-pro, like the rest of the cast -- this Dracula, with his brooding visage and ample, severely swept-back locks, looks like a cross between a Russian Orthodox priest and Wallis Simpson.

Sluggish of movement and gloomy of temperament, Dracula is presented as the polar opposite to Casanova -- the Venetian seducer whose chronicled his exploits in the posthumous bestseller The Story of My Life. An aged rake of lively sexual appetites, Casanova is entertainingly played by poet and cultural curator Vincenc Altaio, the goatish debauchee's jaded decadence offset by a wacky, almost childish sense of humor.

After 45 minutes of static scene-setting in Switzerland, the "action" abruptly moves to the southern Carpathians, where Casanova and his entourage encounter a local squire and his beautiful daughters -- lasses upon whom Dracula has his traditionally nefarious designs. But Serra is infinitely more concerned with evoking the mood, pace and artistic/philosophical crosscurrents of 19th century Europe than with anything so vulgar as narrative development, even if events do belatedly turn bloodily violent in the latter stages.

The majority of the film, however, consists of torpid interludes in which the characters lounge around, indoors and outdoors, exchanging Catalan dialogue that makes little attempt to capture the vocabulary or grammar of the period -- in contrast to the convincingly lived-in production-design and costumes. Serra (who also edits) very occasionally delivers some kind of flourish that shows what he's capable of when he bothers to rouse himself, especially during those few moments when he elects to embellish Jimmy Gimferrer's visuals with music (the score is co-credited to Ferran Font, Enric Junca, Joe Robinson and Marc Verdaguer).

Shooting on mid-grade video, Gimferrer apparently relies on either natural light or candle-light, but the images (which reportedly went through some kind of celluloid intermediate stage) are generally murky and become near-impenetrably so in the latter stages. By this point, however, many will have long since tired of a picture whose tone wanders between arid academic exercise and something close to parody of the more pretentious trends in current auteur cinema.

At least with the last most notable award-winning Catalan oddity, Sergio Caballero's Rotterdam-garlanded Finisterrae (2010), the director allowed the viewer in on the joke. And while Werner Herzog showed with his Nosferatu (1979) how Dracula can operate at the most rarefied art-film heights, Serra's "succeeds" in leeching nearly all the blood out of this seemingly immortal myth.

Venue: Locarno Film Festival (International Competition)
Production companies: Andergaun Films, Capricci Films
Director/Screenwriter/Editor: Albert Serra
Cast: Vincenc Altaio, Lluis Serrat, Montse Triola, Eliseu Huertas, Clara Visa, Noelia Rodenas, Mike Landscape
Producers: Thierry Lounas, Albert Serra, Montse Triola
Director of photography: Jimmy Gimferrer
Production designers: Mihnea Mihailescu, Sebastian Vogler
Music: Ferran Font, Enric Junca, Joe Robinson, Marc Verdaguer
Sales: Capricci, Paris
No MPAA rating, 150 minutes