In the late 18th century, an ageing Giacomo Casanova (Vicenç Altaió) and his Sancho Panza-like manservant Pompeu (Lluís Serrat) depart Switzerland after a lengthy sojourn, during which the famous rake has tried to write his memoirs but been distracted by pleasures of the table, the boudoir and the chamberpot. On the next leg of a seemingly endless grand tour, the restless Venetian Casanova drags the slightly disapproving French Pompeu to the Carpathians, where they put up with a dour, religious farmer (Xavier Pau) and his gaggle of daughters. The libertine naturally takes an interest in the women, though loitering nearby is a rival alpha male predator, Count Dracula (Eliseu Huertas). Oddly, it turns out that Pompeu has served both masters, and prefers the roving, emotional Casanova to the castle-dwelling, boring Dracula.
The premise of Història de la meva mort sounds as if it could make for a gruesome, comic romp like Paul Morrissey’s Blood for Dracula or an exercise in archetype-mixing strangeness like Jesus Franco’s Dracula-related films, but Catalan writer-director Albert Serra, prime exponent of ‘slow cinema’, takes a very different approach to the material. Serra, picking up from the mood of his Don Quixote adaptation Honor de Cavalleria (in which Serrat played Sancho), favours long takes on digital video, the use of non-professional actors, lengthy scenes of everyday activity, mostly enigmatic and elliptical dialogue and poised tableaux. Consequently, this isn’t the Mr Sex Meets Mr Violence film some might expect from the potent collision of metaphorical historical and literal literary ladykillers. Casanova and Dracula don’t even meet until the finale, by which time night has fallen and it’s too dark to discern precisely what passes between them – and we tend to see both these incarnations of male desire from the point of view of servants and victims as absurd, impotent and doomed if not entirely unsympathetic.
Here, Casanova is a powdered, tittering coprophile given to moments of private hilarity or despair, who strains over his own heroic bowel movements and delves under a maid’s skirts to prize an anus ‘like a rosary of bon-bons’ while encouraging her to defecate in his mouth (a scene presented with Peter Strickland-like tact), breaks a window with his head during the film’s single conventional seduction (which is hardly more unnerving than the childish laughter that accompanies his amorous thrusts), and is manifestly slipping into a fantasy world inside his skull while great philosophical movements are changing Europe (‘heads will roll’). Dracula, in contrast, is a white-bearded, bouffant-haired presence who wheedles around the woman he needs to bleed and utters cries of pain and terror on their behalf after biting them. In one of the character’s oddest screen introductions, the film comes upon Dracula sitting in the long grass in daylight with a woman he is trying to inveigle back to his castle, ‘where there is no place for Christianity’ (just as Casanova quotes Montesquieu in saying that Rome would be more beautiful without churches). We see Dracula from behind, observing his finely-sculpted black hair, before the camera creeps round to show his pale face and heroic beard.
The women these creatures come across glumly submit – in one case, Casanova deflowers a girl with his fingers only for Dracula to steal in and lick up the blood – but have their own agenda for ‘wickedness’, which is as much about getting out from under patriarchs like the religious father (who, along with an ox, is the film’s major sacrifice) as becoming their playthings. Dracula interviews prospective victims as if he were a needy employer while Serra’s representation of vampirism is so austere that, by comparison, Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr seem like a Terence Fisher Hammer film. Casanova takes advantage of women because of his position rather than his (dimming) attractions. Altaió boldly makes Casanova grotesque, yet human: balding under his tatty wig, unshaven and rouged, grazing on an endless variety of foods (including shit and blood), while acknowledging rather than contributing to philosophical debates.
The approach invites ridicule, and its length and even pace are patience-testing. The longeurs, of course, are at least partially the point, forcing the viewer to strain to discern meaning and terror in video-transfer-to-film darks between the moments of wry, strange comedy. This is the epitome of a not-for-everyone film, and indeed your reception of it might depend as much on mood as taste, but it is a considerable, worthy, eccentric achievement.
Second Run’s region-free DVD has a great transfer of a film which must have proved a challenge to master. The frame is 2.35:1, with a choice of 2.0 or 5.1Dolby sound and optional English subtitles. The sole extra is Serra’s warm, performance-based short Cuba Libre (2013, 17m 55s).
First published as a DVD review in VIdeo Watchdog.