A Kind of Dreaming – Vampyr (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1932)

The German Expressionist film movement of the late 1900’s radically altered the landscape of European silent cinema, and paved the way for inventive directors such as FW Murnau,  GW Pabst and Fritz Lang.  Expressionism’s formal stylings – painted sets, flat lighting, angular cinematography – rejected any attempt at naturalism, and instead made a virtue of stylization.

These breakthroughs naturally coloured the cinema of other countries, as other film-makers began to experiment with form. Danish Director Carl T Dreyer’s 1927 film, The Passion of Joan of Arc, is notable for its use of a non-professional actor in the lead role, its reliance on close-ups, very little use of intertitles for dialogue and a near empty frame. The German set designer Herman Warm, who had worked on the Expressionist classic, The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1919) also designed Joan of Arc’s bare minimalist set, the style of which owed more to theatre production than to cinema.

In 1932, Dreyer followed the ascetic minimalism of Joan of Arc with an altogether different film; Vampyr is his adaptation of Sheridan Le Fanu’s novella, Carmilla (from the collection In a Glass Darkly) and is an early entry in the vampire film genre. Here, Dreyer indulges his passion for experimentation, producing an atmospheric fable which leaned heavily on Expressionist motifs, and Surrealist imagery.

Vampyr’s plot, such as it is, follows the protagonist Allan Grey as he arrives at a remote French village. Grey stays the night at a local inn, but his attempts at sleep are hampered by an encroaching  sense of unease, as well as by a nocturnal visitor who inexplicably states “She must not die” before vanishing. The visitor leaves a parcel bearing a note that it is only to be opened in the event of his death. This sets Grey on a mission to discover who the mysterious visitor is. Later, we discover that the parcel contains a book on vampires, including mention of one who has wreaked havoc on the very village Grey has found himself in.

Dreyer’s vampire story differs from, say, Bram Stoker’s Dracula.  In Stoker’s story the central character was the embodiment of evil who was pitted against a morally “good” adversary with whom he battles.  Vampyr largely eschews the idea of a bad or evil central figure and instead deals with the notion of evil as an unseen destructive force which reaches into the lives of ordinary, law-abiding people.  In Dreyer’s film a young village girl has been “possessed” by the vampire figure, and it is her struggle to live and to refute evil which Dreyer foregrounds.

Vampyr uses techniques borrowed from German Expressionism and the French Surrealist Movement to tell its tale. Dreyer had spent time in Paris with the Surrealists, and at times Vampyr’s narrative reflects the non-linear, dream-like patterns favoured by them. Indeed a key central segment of the film has Allan Grey “step out” of his body, and see himself placed inside a coffin being carried to a graveyard. The image of Grey’s face under the glass of the coffin lid, with the sky and trees reflected in it, is one of the most visually powerful in the film.

As with The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, Vampyr’s set designs feature cramped, uneven interiors, shadows, narrow hallways and darkened rooms. The character’s inner turmoil and emotions are expressed in the films visual style; we see as Grey sees. Often we don’t know if what he is seeing is real or imagined; here Dreyer’s subjective style gives the film a psychological realism which was unusual for its time.

Vampyr was not a commercially successful film. Bad press and indifferent audience reaction sent Dreyer into a physical and mental tailspin, and it was some time before he returned to film-making. Much as the influence of Caligari and the Surrealist masterpiece, Un Chien Andalou (1928) can be seen in Vampyr, the film’s own influence can be seen in the work of later generations of experimental film-makers such as David Lynch.

The screening I attended featured a live musical score from Steven Severin, ex-bassist with 70s goth-progenitors Siouxse and the Banshees. Severin’s evocative electronic score greatly complimented the eerie visuals of Dreyer’s film, breathing new life into a still slightly perplexing film; now rightly regarded as a classic of its kind.

More information on Carl Dreyer and Vampyr can be found here and here.

Watch a film clip here

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Focuspullr is One Year Old!!

Focuspullr has been very remiss of late in getting to see films, let alone finding the time to review them. However, as tomorrow, May 3rd marks the first anniversary of this blog, I thought it appropriate to get busy and post a review!

I first saw Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress during the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival back in February, and posted a review at that time. However, I’ve since seen the film a second time and enjoyed it even more.  So, to celebrate the past 12 months, and as I look forward to the next 12, here’s my updated review for your reading pleasure.

Thank you to everyone who took the time to stop by and read my blog in the past year. It really means a lot. I look forward to your company again in the months ahead.

Damsels in Distress (Whit Stillman, 2011)

This is Whit Stillman’s first feature since Last Days of Disco in 1998, and while his work rate wouldn’t worry Woody Allen, it’s an absence of almost Malickian proportions for this most urbane of directors. What has kept him away for so long is uncertain, but with the release of Damsels in Distress, it’s as if he’s never really been away.

The story takes place at the leafy Seven Oaks College where a trio of high-minded female students, led by the very lovely Greta Gerwig (as group leader Violet) attempt to take on the rampant “male barbarism” which they feel has overtaken the college. The girls’ mission, amongst other things, is to tackle the high incidences of college suicides; encouraging the students to improve themselves, they advocate the eating of doughnuts and self-expression through tap dancing. As you may already have gathered, for a campus-set teen romp, Animal House this ain’t.

After the early, loose trilogy of films with which he made his name – Metropolitan, Barcelona and Last Days of Disco – Damsels in Distress feels slightly like Whitman in off-duty mode. This is certainly no bad thing as the film contains his usual trademark qualities – well dressed, well heeled, articulate, intelligent characters; smart, funny dialogue; cheesy music and droll humour.  Like David Lynch, another creator of familiar-but-weird American settings, Stillman creates his own world, which you either enter into at face value, or want to run screaming from.

Though, to be fair, this is not a film which you can really dislike or even hate.  There are some funny visual gags, and the girls themselves are earnest and likeably sweet, if a little dim.  They all sport fragrant names, Violet, Heather, Lily and Rose – who seems to believe she’s from London, despite only spending a few short weeks there.  Like a benevolent old uncle, Whitman indulges the girls and their heart-felt, though half-baked theories. One of their self-improving ideas, for example, is taking on less good-looking, less intelligent boyfriends, in order to improve them. While Whitman gently pokes fun at the girls, he is never mean or cruel to them. In fact, there is a sort of old-fashioned innocence to the whole affair which is oddly appealing.

Violet even aspires to inventing a new dance craze, the Sambola, which she genuinely believes will make the world a better place. And if all this faux-naivety isn’t quite enough for you, the film ends, as surely every film should, with the principle characters leading their partners in a chereograped dance sequence set to a cheesy, 1950s faux-rock and roll soundtrack. Marvellous.

Watch the trailer –