The libertine rationalism of pre-revolutionary France is fed to the lions in Albert Serra’s strange and transfixing Story of My Death (2013). A low-lit union of bloody thighs and throats, it plucks two infamous seducers from the annals of history and literature and uses them to metaphorically wander through a social dusk, taking one last look at the sun before it is consumed by the night. Typical of the Catalan filmmaker, this is dense and cryptic stuff, in which the air of a musty baroque mansion is a thick with ideas as it is dust. Winner of the top prize at Locarno, it now receives a DVD release in the UK through the tireless purveyors of under-appreciated world cinema, Second Run.
The title is a play on the memoirs of Giacomo Casanova who serves as the work’s central character, embodied – as is the director’s custom – by non-professional actor Vicenç Altaió. The light is waning for this legendary scoundrel, though, apparently in symbiosis with his way of life – “the sovereigns steal the people’s money” he ominously declares. In what reportedly amounted to 450 hours of original footage – edited into a comparatively brisk two-and-a-half hours – the inexorable decay is made candidly and laughably evident. Serra employs sardonic humour throughout the film, particularly during the opening half which observes Casanova lolling around an ornate home, grotesquely munching on fruit and cackling as he defecates it back out. He pontificates on all manner of subjects with an unidentified and laconic writer, or his own famulus, Pompeu (Lluís Serrat). The tendency towards atrophy is overwhelming.
Though he claims his sexual conquests are experiences for the serving girls he fondles – rather than himself – their visible lack of pleasure and his uncontrollable, squealing titillation suggest his diminishing prowess. When in the film’s second half he takes a sojourn to a rustic homestead in the Carpathian mountains, a familiar Transylvanian (played by Serra regular Eliseu Huertas) appears to subsume the lothario’s sensuality and outmoded cultural signifiers into a new and terrifying vampirism. After the absurd ritual of the opening half, Serra delves into dark atavistic genre waters without ever imposing distracting aesthetic change. He somehow creates two starkly different sections of the film, and merges them seamlessly.
This may in large part be due to the uniformly excellent work of Jimmy Gimferrer, whose digital photography seems to envelope Casanova in a miasma of archaism. As if representing the blurring lines of historical eras, the intrusively modern images of period detail are rendered beautifully in dim natural light. Candles and sunlight will pick out details where necessary, but when the Drácula’s arrival brings with it chiaroscuro, it is subtle enough not to represent a jarring stylistic flourish. The stale atmosphere of the stately home – scented as abundantly with faeces as philosophy – becomes the fresh air of the Carpathians, where life and death do their merry dance. And the ebb and flow of the natural order circle one another in Casanova’s sputtering anarchy its ominous successor.
Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson