To put it mildly, Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary is narratively erratic. The film–a filmed ballet “converted” to a silent movie–opens with panic over Eastern Europeans entering Britain. At least, the onscreen text implies this panic. It’s quickly forgotten; after doing cast introductions (also with onscreen text–these aren’t intertitles, these are just text onscreen alongside live action), the film immediately becomes about Tara Birtwhistle. She’s not Dracula, but she is–presumably–the title Virgin. She has one of the two diaries in the film, after all.
Birtwhistle’s great, both as a dancer and as an actor. Director Maddin shoots a lot of closeups and it’s during her scenes the film comes closest to fulfilling the concept. There’s a lot of symbolism, like two of her suitors and pervy Van Helsing (David Moroni) giving her a blood transfusion with the three men in frame thrusting at her. When Dracula is toying with the idea of being about Victorian sexual repression and sexual violence, it’s at its best. Or its most ambitious. Well, at least during Birtwhistle’s part of the film.
But Birtwhistle doesn’t get the whole picture. Zhang Wei-Qiang’s Dracula barely shows up, usually just there in insert shots, which don’t match the film stock–though Maddin, cinematographer Paul Suderman, and editor Deco Dawson do such lackluster filters and speedups on the film, it’s hard to say what the film stock should look like. Most of Dracula looks like bad video (it’s apparently not, it’s apparently terribly filtered film).
Anyway, once the action moves to (unnamed) Transylvania, Zhang, and betrothed CindyMarie Small and Johnny A. Wright, the charm is gone. Small can dance, but she can’t act. Zhang might be able to act–he can definitely act–but Maddin doesn’t focus on his performance so much as his presence. Wright has a terrible part–once Small discovers he’s had sexual experiences (maybe he’s the Virgin), she tries to seduce him in a terribly edited sequence. Small being sexual repulses Wright and he abandons her to be attacked by dancing nuns and then Zhang. Luckily, he teams up with Moroni and his vampire hunters.
Except, of course, Dracula spells it vampyr. Because most of the onscreen text choices are obnoxious enough to produce eyerolls. They’re not even pretentious–something pretentious would use better fonts for the onscreen text and far better filters on the film. Dracula is artificially grainy, artificially zoomed (to atrocious effect); it’s like the filmmakers didn’t want to pay for an iMovie filter pack.
Maddin and Dawson try to make the film intense through fast cuts and exaggerated angles, but neither have any grace. The film’s got constant music–natch, it’s a ballet–but the music never really syncs with the onscreen action. The “silent movie” gimmick is the point, not the ballet. It’d probably have been better if someone else had shot the ballet and Dawson had cut it into a silent? As long as there had been some competent iMovie filters.
Instead, Maddin fakes a silent movie style. There’s lens distortion–because the movie’s supposed to be old maybe–and Maddin has no rhyme or reason to which shots get which style. Maddin uses iris shots poorly, then goes to wide shots (Dracula’s widescreen, not Academy), then cuts to a fake zoom shot, then another fake zoom shot. All with weak photography. Whatever filter they used removes the natural grain and detail and instead distorts.
The less said about the sped-up sequences the better.
But Dracula moves pretty well. Definitely during the first half or so, when it’s Birtwhistle’s show. The momentum keeps it going to the finish, even though nothing’s successful in the second half. Zhang ends up playing third fiddle to Small and–even worse–Moroni, who hams it up.
The idea of the film isn’t bad, but Maddin’s not interested enough in creating something singular. It’s a gimmick, a filmed ballet performance, not a filmic ballet. It’s certainly not some great homage to silent filmmaking. Especially not with Maddin’s weak establishing shots. The ballet had great sets–including some set design visuals Georgia O’Keefe would appreciate (or have her lawyer call on)–but Maddin and Suderman don’t shoot them well.
Dawson wouldn’t be able to cut them well anyway.
The film’s cynical at best, craven at worst.
Directed by Guy Maddin; ballet by Mark Godden, based on a novel by Bram Stoker; director of photography, Paul Suderman; edited by Deco Dawson; production designer, Deanne Rohde; produced by Vonnie von Helmolt; aired by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
Starring Zhang Wei-Qiang (Dracula), Tara Birtwhistle (Lucy Westernra), David Moroni (Dr. Van Helsing), CindyMarie Small (Mina), Johnny A. Wright (Jonathon Harker), Stephane Leonard (Arthur Holmwood), Matthew Johnson (Jack Seward), Keir Knight (Quincy Morris), Brent Neale (Renfield), and Stephanie Ballard (Mrs. Westernra).