Watching a stereotypical syphilitic Casanova seducing females of every description, reputedly using a condom made out of sheep's gut and tied on with a tasteful pink ribbon, was not high on my list of things to do next Monday evening. Especially as Casanova, man for whom the world is wholly devoid of moral experience and is solely composed of atoms, shares the dubious top slot with Count Dracula, the thirsty Prince of Darkness. Whilst I admire Bram Stoker, who after a nightmare caused by eating too much crab meat covered with mayonnaise sauce, created a vampire king rising from his grave called Dracula, it was safe to say that Story of My Death would lose out in favour of chocolate, a good book and an early night.
That was until I read an interview with Albert Serra, the director. It was only then I realised that this would be worth seeing, for it was to be no ordinary horror offering, but a subversively creative fantasy. This led me to find out more about Catalonian Serra, who has made a habit of this kind of provocation. Since his debut Honour of the Knights back in 2006 Serra has carved a niche for himself, creating cinema that is both oblique and visually absorbing.
In the interview Serra says: ‘I knew that I wanted to change the style compared to my previous films, so I started to focus on the little things, you know? For example, to look how the daylight comes through the windows, how it reflects, how it changes your whole perception of the place.’
The first part of the film is set in Switzerland, where Casanova has an opening night banquet and Serra focuses on tiny details to create feeling and emotion, not fact. The action then moves to the Carpathian Mountains and a remote inn with female company. Enter Dracula, a complete contrast; rigid, gross but with some sexual charisma and lots of screams.
Their stories are familiar, but opposite. As one side is set against the other, Serra sets about capturing incongruity, in a farcical romp cum bloody, bestial horror show, using non-professional actors to create this ambivalence. ‘All my actors play very well, very original. There is richness about them, a physical and spiritual richness. In some sense there is even a photogenic richness.’
‘They all have both sides in them: the pervert and the innocent. Therefore a mystery is created. It all happens unconsciously. You can never achieve that with professional actors. Every professional actor can play a pervert. That is because a pervert is a calculating figure. But nobody can play innocence because innocence is an attribute others give to you. You cannot look at yourself being innocent. Innocent girls in movies are always fake.’
Serra describes the whole creative process as ‘Like living in a fantasy. It's the fantasy of making a film but also the fantasy of the film itself. Those two fantasies have to go together. In academic films you don't get this magic. Maybe it happens sometimes. For me it is easier to deserve my goals in order to achieve them. You have to deserve the result. The only way for me to do it, is to do the film in the same way that it has to be shown. The film is a fantasy. So if I shoot it as a fantasy it becomes a fantasy more easily.’ The resulting fantasy is what has been described as one of the most realistic ever. One critic said that: ‘Sometimes I had the feeling that the wind in the trees was more dangerous than Dracula.’ Another that: ‘I did not expect to find beauty with virgin's blood on someone's hands.’ Incongruity indeed.
Story of My Death (Història de la meva mort), which won the director the Golden Leopard Award at the Locarno festival two years ago, looks like Serra’s best film to date as it includes considerably more language than his previous works, as well as a touch more narrative. But while innovatively creating new ground, won’t make Serra rich. ‘It’s a kind of suicide. A financial suicide.’ He acknowledges. ‘But there is a Spanish saying: “It is better to stand up dying than to live on your knees.”’
So I am now very much looking forward to seeing Serra stood up dying, the chocolate, book and early night can wait!
Story of My Death is showing this Monday, 21 September at 6.15pm with an introduction from Liverpool-based Think Cinema's Monica Rodriquez - book your ticket here. Also showing as part of Scalarama 2015 are Edward Scissorhands on 70mm and John Waters' Pink Flamingos.