Winner of the Golden Leopard at this year’s Locarno Film Festival, Albert Serra’s mischievous period drama Story of my Death (2013) depicts the tempestuous epoch where Enlightenment gave way to the passions and frivolity of Romanticism. Falsely marketed as an encounter between Casanova and Dracula, this playful but narratively benign riff on history’s most infamous lothario’s memoir is a Renaissance road trip into an opaque crevasse of depravity. An unhurried and painstakingly crafted labyrinth rich in lurid insinuation, we follow Casanova (an ageing Marquis played by Vicenç Altaió) as he gets to know his new manservant.
Leaving the security of his opulent French château, the pair embarks on a dreary road trip through Northern Europe. However, as their journey progresses Casanova finds himself moving further away from the comfort of his frivolous aristocratic lifestyle before finally encountering the esoteric and imposing figure of Count Dracula (Eliseu Huertas). A man lost in the ideological ether dividing the 18th and 19th century, Dracula (although only ever identified as such in the film’s closing credits) is a more elusive and pragmatic monster than we’ve become accustomed to – a ghost stalking through the corridors of change, embodying the hazardous symptoms of Romanticism.
Transition is the theme symbolically represented throughout every interaction within Story of my Death, be it discussion about the role of art in modern society or the bowl movements of a man who dines almost exclusively on pomegranates and red wine – perhaps the most blasé depiction of defecation ever committed to celluloid. The film opens on a bawdy dinner party where a struggling writer states; “The stairs of poetry are very steep and this transition will not be an easy one” a succinct statement that encapsulates what the film’s struggles to articulate across its 148-minute runtime. Talk of European philosophers organically moves on to compiling a dictionary of cheeses, as there’s no greater pleasure than describing things.
Beguilingly authentic in its illustration of Dionysian and Apollonian struggle, Serra evokes a palpable erotic charge of intellectualism that runs parallel with the film’s exquisite attention to period details. Sadly, despite the film’s enthralling imagery and alluring premise, it’s easy to fall out of love with Serra’s libidinous advances. Serra’s indulgent and languid interludes, in which characters lounge around exchanging theories about the decline of Enlightenment whilst suppressing their heightened sexual appetites, soon becomes tiring.
Serra is certainly known for his slow pacing and strange atmospheres, however, whilst his ornate style and salacious bravura is endlessly endearing the wilfully obnoxiously approach employed here is difficult to appreciate. A sardonic tale of nature over nurture that reluctantly rallies behind the belief that all men are born unique, Story of My Death is an odd, uneven, yet genuinely poetic endeavour. An aesthetic void for the most part, the film’s climax is a much needed explosion of cathartic Gothic horror and untamed nature – it’s just a shame it takes so long to get there.
The 57th BFI London Film Festival takes place from 9-20 October, 2013. For more of our LFF 2013 coverage, simply follow this link.