Picked Flick #34: Bram Stoker's Dracula
Bram Stoker's Dracula portrays two ardent, flamboyant, and perpetually haunted love affairs, one of which begins in the 1400s and spans more than 500 years until the 1890s, the other of which begins in the 1890s and spans more than a century, through 1992 when the film was released, and through 2006, and after. The first of these loves, exquisite but also inhuman and adrift in its timelessness, is the erotic, spiritual, and finally organic bond between Count Vlad Dracula of Romania (Gary Oldman) and his wife Elisabeta (Winona Ryder). Dracula fights with fervid conviction in a holy war in distant lands, impaling his enemies in an intended tribute to his God and to his wife; already we may sense some confusion between the two, a confusion which Francis Ford Coppola's absintheate mise-en-scène of lurid colors and superimpositions works hard to amplify. Returning home to find Elisabeta tricked into despair and excommunicated as a suicide, Dracula perjures his soul with such grandiloquent acts of blasphemy that he is doomed to live forever, no longer a man yet marooned among mortals, alienated from his love but tortured by her reincarnations (which torture all the more because Ryder inhabits them with such prissy and dumb discomfort). Meanwhile, as the shape-shifting Count chases Mina Harker, his wife's uncanny duplicate, to her home in Victorian England, a new sideshow technology of shadows and silhouettes, of cranks and flickers and distractions, has bemused the urban populace. Dracula's London is a London of kinetoscopes and zoetropes, and Coppola is witty, risky, and besotted enough to saturate his movie with the ghosts of the cinema's own beginnings, to plumb the antique past of the medium as an adventurous artery into a new and heady present.
The movie is proudly, almost over-emphatically vampiric, toying with its own shape, purloining liberally from all of the arts, confusing its chronologies and sometimes confounding its own plot, reflective of and awestruck by the mercurial methods of lead actor Gary Oldman, and almost cruelly willing to lay bare the limitations and vulnerabilities of an unlikely supporting cast. Bram Stoker's Dracula is made of equal parts folly and terror; its very definition of love amounts to a fusion of these two elements, each drinking liberally from the other, interfused so that we are less and less prepared to observe any difference between the two. The film is both a strange and a logical one for Coppola to have made, merging the generational torments of the Godfather series with the hallucinogenic anti-dramaturgy of Apocalypse Now and the curious, occasionally abject self-ridicule of Peggy Sue Got Married. Bram Stoker's Dracula is a movie that slides outlandishly between an extraordinary belief in itself, writ large as a belief in the cinema, and an equally extraordinary drive to flout and undermine its own ambitions. How else to account for the scrupulous production design and exacting star performance that we behold in Dracula's castle, while Keanu Reeves stumbles and falls, resolutely unsaved from himself, through every moment of the very same scenes? How else to receive a movie that can locate and even sublimate a persuasive romanticism within the guise of wild expressionism, culminating in scenes as beautiful as Mina's candlelit seduction by the forlorn and raven-haired count, but also trash itself out with shock-cuts from a kitschy beheading to a bleeding, fatty slab of English roast beef? When I first saw the movie, I marveled only at the beauty in Michael Ballhaus' cinematography, so rich in its colors and proud in its artifice, but now I can detect something of Ballhaus' history with Fassbinder, the way the images shuck us unpredictably between immersion and bafflement, sometimes flattering the actors and sometimes catching them off-guard, ironizing their presence in the movie as well as our own.
For me, Bram Stoker's Dracula distills and sacralizes a form of aestheticized passion, the kind that insists on both the virtuosity and the foolishness in artistic experiment and self-exhibition. The film finds its director living on the outward edge of his mind's eye and inviting a plethora of fellow artists to join him there, all of them enraptured with the arts that constitute the cinema if also a bit skeptical, maybe even a bit cynical, as regards the final product. This peculiar, prevailing attitude both for and against art, both for and against camp, deliriously carnivalesque, is a mighty challenging climate for a movie to grow up in, but then again, it fosters the kind of creative highs that a more serious movie or, in some ways, a less serious movie would never be able to touch. I'm thinking here of Eiko Ishioka's costumes, a nonpareil panoply of wacko but prepossessing conceits: an external armor of internal musculature, Victorian gowns in saccharine shades of mint and pink, a funeral shroud topped with a reptilian headdress. I'm thinking, too, of Wojciech Kilar's churning and thunderous score, which would be too overfull and insistent for almost any other movie but which sees right into the brutish, beating heart of this one, running up and down the scale of ardor and violence. I'm thinking, too, of the expansive and sometimes incongruous sound design, which gets away with inserting some whirring, chirping electronics into a scene where Dracula's brides encroach upon Mina and Van Helsing inside a Wagnerian ring of fire; and of Greg Cannom and Michèle Burke's hair and makeup designs, skewering Victorian masculinity, recycling but also satirizing stereotypes of feminine delicacy and Slavic swarthiness, ushering Oldman's Dracula through not just an array of wild guises but entire phyla of bestial existence. In many ways, Bram Stoker's Dracula is just too, too much, but its fusion of literary and cultural archetypes with avant-garde novelties of vision and sound makes so many films look thin, frightened, and underfelt. It's as though Coppola, his own career all but scuttled and his chosen medium increasingly eulogized, is throwing every new and old inspiration he can find at the screen, and saying, baying, crying, laughing, joking, fuming, declaiming, "Here, for better and for worse, is a movie that's alive." (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)
Image © 1992 Columbia Pictures/American Zoetrope