Use Your Illusions

Dancers in the Dark, From Zion to Transylvania

Much was made of the copy of Baudrillard strategically placed in Neo's humble room. Here, serious intent is signified by the presence of celebrity professor Cornel West as a Zion elder. He's in the Matrix simulating resistance to . . . the matrix. Another version of the matrix condition would be the cover flaunted by Warner's corporate sib Time the week Reloaded press-screened: "We're the FIRST to see the movie and play the video game!" As Morpheus might say, the newest illusion is the illusion of news.

Another action invitation to the dance, Guy Maddin's Dracula: Pages From a Virgin's Diary takes one of the oldest stories in movies and very nearly reinvents it. Maddin refracts Bram Stoker's musty gothic novel through Mark Godden's newly minted ballet, which itself appropriates excerpts from Gustav Mahler's first and second symphonies, and presents this doubly choreographed piece as a kind of exhumed silent film—more digitally deteriorated than digitally enhanced.

Multiple choice: Reeves in Matrix Reloaded
photo: Warner Bros. Pictures
Multiple choice: Reeves in Matrix Reloaded


The Matrix Reloaded
Written and directed by the Wachowski brothers
Warner Bros.
Opens May 15

Dracula: Pages From a Virgin's Diary
Directed by Guy Maddin,
from Mark Godden's ballet Dracula
May 14 through 27, at Film Forum

The performances, too, are doubly abstract. Throughout, the dancers mouth unheard dialogue and the not inconsiderable action is interspersed with excited intertitles: "When I'm Dead Will You Drive a Stake Through My Heart and Cut Off My Head?" ("Yes, My Child I Shall.") This defamiliarized Dracula is itself a kind of vampire object. Feasting on stage makeup and extravagant gestures, the movie not only reanimates a dead form and cannibalizes its own footage—it also steals Mahler's soul, ravishes the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, and embalms the pale beauty of prima ballerinas Tara Birtwhistle and CindyMarie Small. Not surprisingly, Zhang Wei-Qiang's Dracula is the hero.

The movie's first half belongs to the possessed Lucy Westernra (Birtwhistle), her three human suitors, and the unwholesome presence she summons into her boudoir. Explicitly arriving from the mysterious East, Zhang is a robust and lithe Count Dracula, as well as the taloned personification of Otherness. "I see Dracula as not even existing," Maddin told Cinema Scope. "He's just a big, pleasurable lust fluttering around from woman to woman." Dracula and the willing Lucy perform a lengthy pas de deux amid the icy glitter of a wintry graveyard. Indeed, containing female sexuality is the main issue—as evidenced by the scene in which the suitors and vampire hunter Van Helsing pry open Lucy's coffin and engage in a long struggle with the wanton feral creature within. The male posse sets off in search of Dracula in the second half for a danced confrontation that is surprisingly violent.

Filmed on 16mm and Super 8, then refilmed and otherwise reworked, the haloed, matted images might have been shot through an anamorphic snow globe. The movie is black-and-white, with strategic drops of red. (It ends with a door opening on a delicate orange-and-purple dawn.) The light flickers seductively. The images pile up as super-impositions. The action erupts with surreal pirouettes and dips, sometimes in slow motion. The camera placement is irrationally analytical—Maddin breaks down individual scenes into often inexplicable signifying close-ups. As the ballet itself is periodically disrupted by offstage cutaways to Dracula's fly-eating lacky Renfield, the montage is often as frenzied as in Maddin's six-minute masterpiece The Heart of the World, also edited by deco dawson.

Dracula isn't campy, but it is funny—in one of Maddin's inventions, Van Helsing has Lucy's bed wreathed in garlands of garlic. It's also overtly erotic, willfully archaic, often inspired, uncannily affecting, and beautifully convulsive. Even more than Aki Kaurismäki, who managed to make the last silent feature of the 20th century in his underappreciated Juha, Maddin has created a fascinating hybrid—this enraptured composition in mist, gauze, and Vaseline is more rhapsody than narrative, less motion picture than shadow play.

Related Article:
"Reloaded Questions: Hacking the Matrix Master Code" by Jane Dark

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