Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Wendigo Meets THE COUNTESS (Die Graefin, 2009)

In modern folklore, Erzsebet Bathory is the female Dracula, the "Blood Countess." In history, the Hungarian noble was accused of shedding the blood of innocent girls to retain or regain her youthful beauty, not by drinking the stuff but by bathing in it. In fiction, she has been imagined countless times as a blood-drinking vampire, a force of evil persisting into the present day. In cinema, the past decade has seen a point-counterpoint debate over the historical countess's character. Juraj Jakubisko's Bathory, which Wendigo and I haven't seen yet, portrays its heroine (according to reviews) as a misunderstood Renaissance woman and a victim of chauvinism and superstition. In the following year, Julie Delpy, best known in the U.S. as the co-star of Beyond Sunrise and Beyond Sunset, released her version, an all-out auteur attack -- she wrote and directed the film and composed its score while playing the title role, -- that has it both ways to an extent. Delpy's Bathory is a victim, but also a victimizer, an aristocratic woman of her time if not ahead of it. We watched it last weekend on a Netflix stream.
In Delpy's account, Erzsebet was acclimated to cruelty at an early age, compelled to watch peasants being beaten and convinced that people deserved harsh punishments. It's not a big deal while she stewards her husband's lands (and apparently enjoys the love of a local witch) while he fights the Turks, but upon his death she begins to feel anxious. She's courted by another powerful noble, Count Thurzo (William Hurt), who covets her lands, but she covets Thurzo's son (Daniel Bruehl). The boy seems to love her sincerely, or at least with the naive ardor of youth, but dad's having none of it and sends the kid off to Denmark. He convinces Bathory that the boy had abandoned her for another, younger woman, making her hypesensitive about her looks.

Erzsebet takes her frustrations out on her servants -- and after beating one girl with a hairbrush she becomes convinced that the blood splashing on her face has softened her wrinkles. Her witch companion sees no such improvement, but the countess won't be dissuaded. Delpy has shown us that she saw an image of exaggerated aging in her mirror before; now the compensatory illusion launches her on a course of infamy. While the film is narrated by young Thurzo, who tells us only that he has heard or read many stories, we seem to be getting Delpy's objective account of what happened. In that account, Bathory becomes a torturer and murderer, but you can also see how the pressures of her political situation (she must keep an army in the field without compensation from the twittish King of Hungary) and the habits of aristocracy molded a woman who might have turned out differently in other circumstances. Delpy takes the legend to its conclusion, with the condemned countess walled into her bedroom, and adds a closing twist: the only time Bathory actually bites someone to draw blood, the victim is herself....

While The Countess is no vampire film by any stretch of imagination, Wendigo wanted to make it part of the series exactly because of Bathory's close linkage to vampire lore and literature going back to Sheridan LeFanu's Carmilla and beyond. Dracula maven Raymond McNally has even argued that Bathory, rather than Vlad Tepes, may have been more influential on Bram Stoker's imagination via Carmilla. Delpy briefly teases that a decadent aristocrat who seduces, then submits to Bathory may be a real vampire -- his family is at least the subject of vampiric speculation -- but she isn't out to foreshadow any future vampiric career for the Countess. Nevertheless, since Bathory is a proto-vampire in the popular mind, any Bathory film is virtually a vampire movie.

Since we haven't seen the Jakubisko Bathory, our only point of comparison with an all-out Bathory movie is Peter Sasdy's Countess Dracula, and Wendigo considers Delpy's Countess superior to Sasdy on just about every level. Delpy is obviously more concerned with fidelity to history than Hammer was, though the sparsity of the record compels her to speculate at times, but even conceding artistic license to Sasdy Delpy outdoes his picture in script and direction. The most Wendigo will grant the Hammer is that Ingrid Pitt looks and sounds more like his mental image of Bathory, and may have been a better actress in the role overall than Delpy was. Wendigo thinks that Delpy may have bitten off more than she could chew in writing and acting a script in what to her is a second language -- English, that is. While she's given herself an out by emphasizing how cold Bathory was, her delivery too often seemed rushed and uninflected, as if she wasn't the best judge of her own line readings, though she's usually expressively convincing. What she does conveys effectively, and most impressively for Wendigo, is Bathory's complete failure to understand that she had done anything wrong. Delpy gives herself a speech like something out of Monsieur Verdoux in which the Countess complains that she's condemned for killing, but warriors are lauded -- but Delpy the director handles the speech just right, showing herself as self-righteous if not self-deluded.

As a director, she labored under some budgetary limitation that kept her from really showing us this mighty army Bathory's husband had created and the Countess herself maintained. Instead, Delpy gives us symbolic images of the husband fighting and chopping heads, then sitting on a pile of corpses -- one of the first hints of gruesomeness to come. Lack of extras aside, she makes excellent use of costumes, locations and sets to give a convincing picture of Bathory's aristocratic milieu.

Delpy must have realized that a Bathory movie would most likely be seen as a horror film, whatever her intentions. She doesn't flinch from violence and gore, including mutilated corpses and some alarming self-mutilation. One hair-raising early moment comes when she cuts her breast open in order to insert a lock of young Thurzo's hair -- that can't be healthy! She's also liberal in showing us mutilated corpses and suggestive scenes of torture, but she never really crosses the boundary into bad taste and silliness. The Countess is less torture porn than kin to the "history of cruelty" pictures I've reviewed on my own, where torture and bloodshed are emphasized to illustrate the injustice of the past. For today's audiences, however, it may prove neither fish nor fowl. The gore in it may be just enough to repel Delpy's usual American fans -- The Countess didn't get a theatrical release here -- but it may not go far enough over the top to meet the expectations of exploitation film fans.

Wendigo thinks that Delpy succeeded in her stated intention to show "the psychology of human beings when they're given power." Her Bathory is a product of her culture, where nobility as a class thought themselves divinely privileged and entitled, but treated each other just as ruthlessly as they treated peasants. Wendigo also detected some defining insecurity, if not self-loathing, in Delpy's Bathory, who after all starts cutting herself before she bleeds others. The insecurity may have come with her status as an aristocratic widow with an army whom the King owed money. As Wendigo notes, she was an inconvenient woman whom enemies might want to get rid of on the least pretense. There's also, ultimately, insanity -- a chilling scene inside her final prison when the Countess prays to God for vindication, and for blood. Worst of all, there's an utter absence of compassion, best illustrated for Wendigo when Bathory watches her most faithful lackeys brutally executed without batting an eye. That lack of compassion, which may simply have been bred out of her at an early age, belies her sanctimonious griping against double standards at the end, and in showing this Delpy is at her best as both actress and director.
While The Countess doesn't count as a vampire film, Wendigo would recommend it to vampire-film fans, who may imagine themselves familiar with the Bathory legend, as an introduction or approximation of the real "Blood Countess." It might be an object lesson. Erzsebet Bathory was not a supernatural monster, but this film's Bathory is indisputably evil without any redeeming glamour. Her life and career, at least as Delpy renders them, are sufficient material for a horror movie.


venoms5 said...

Excellent review, Sam. I first saw a trailer for this one a year or so ago. I don't know which version it was only I thought it was a Russian film but they were speaking English in it. I have a couple books on historically savage individuals and Bathory gets chapters all to herself. So far, none of the films based on her, even loosely so, vividly display her actual cruelty. DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS comes closest, but only verbally. As far as this new film(s) go, I will definitely be on the lookout for it.

Samuel Wilson said...

venom, if you have Netflix you can stream it. There's no official Region 1 DVD of Bathory that we know of, however. Odd to think that exploitation-level cruelty might be more historically accurate, but it just might be so.

Anonymous said...

If u r interested to know: the movie "Bathory" may not be in Region 1 dvd, but after ordering it, waiting 2 months for it, and being disappointed it wouldn't play on my dvd player...it work on my dvd rom 4 my computer!!!!yea! So excited! Watching it tonight! I want to write a darker, more sinister version book on her, tying it into my fathers history (from hungary).