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The Story of My Death

Sensitive to the Atmosphere

The Story of My Death in synopsis form could almost pass for a high-concept Hollywood movie: Cowboys and Aliens, Batman versus Superman – films where different universes collide in the one film. In Albert Serra’s The Story of my Death it is Casanova and Count Dracula, with Serra interested less in the direct collision between the two characters, than in offering a meditative account on the different perspectives of desire and survival. Casanova’s autobiography was called The Story of My Life; does that suggest the film’s title indicates this is the autobiography of Dracula? Not quite, or not necessarily: instead what the film searches out is what it means to be alive to the world, or dead to it, in cinematic form. Discussing the film’s burgeoning production several years ago in a Sight and Sound interview, Serra said: “It’s 90 per cent finished. It’s my biggest budget to date, €1.2 million. It’s not only Dracula, because I don’t like fantastic cinema, so I’ve mixed Dracula with Casanova. It’s a challenge; the line between sublime and ridiculous can be really really fine in this case. It’s risky, the film can fail, because it tries to mix different levels, different themes.” Serra adds, “and this is something you see too in filmmakers I admire, such as Miguel Gomes and Lisandro Alonso: the possibility of failure has to be real because otherwise it won’t be alive. Dracula and Casanova is a risk because they don’t match, so we have to solve that problem. Every film has to be a challenge and a new direction.”

If a narratively oriented film would play up the contrast between two characters for mainly comic effect (imagine Dracula and Casanova vying for the same woman?), Serra is more interested in keeping the characters apart all the better to bring out a teasing thematic that would tie them together. Casanova after all was an 18th century womaniser, writer and traveller who gave the women he made love to the kiss of life – someone who died not long after the French revolution and who seems very much a man of his time, of a time consistent with Talleyrand’s remark: “he who did not live in the years before the Revolution cannot understand what the sweetness of living is”. Dracula (Eliseu Huertas) is a fin de siecle fictional creation suggestive less of the revolution to come and the liberation of the people, than the intermingling of blood through different races and creeds, with Dracula the ultimate foreigner. What would seem to interest Serra is seeing in these figures quite different approaches to existence. We might be watching Casanova near the end of his days, but he is someone who has certainly lived. Late in the film the servant, who had previously been Dracula’s, contrasts the lifestyles of his masters. “He never left the castle. He was very boring. The second one is different. He is always travelling. To Rome, Italy, Russia…he has written several books”. Dracula can’t even speak properly, he insists.

Yet Casanova (Vicenc Altaio) isn’t presented here as a figure of great charm; more as someone who can suggest the possible: the escape from boredom. A person who can indicate excitement in the place of ennui needn’t be beautiful and charming: they must be interesting and atmospheric: they must indicate worlds beyond the experience of the one they are seducing, and hint at these worlds (hence the atmospheric) in the process of seduction. Soren Kierkegaard in Either/Or says: “one annuls it [boredom] only by amusing oneself – ergo one ought to amuse oneself.” This could be Casanova’s credo, but that doesn’t mean it would be the perspective of those he seduces. As Casanova says in the film:“I don’t have the experiences; it is they who have the experience. I don’t think about them. They think through me.” We could formulate it thus: they have experiences; Casanova has amusements. An amusement is swiftly forgotten; an experience long remembered. He alleviates his boredom with assignations that give him something to do; they have encounters that leave them with something to think about. Boredom is countered.

Serra’s film counters boredom quite differently, and very aesthetically (as in reference to the fine art of painting), yet also cinematically. It is as though the film wants to find a form in which to suspend itself between life and death, finding an appropriate pace for being suspended between these two poles. Serra finds it drawing upon the still life. If in painting the three main forms available to the artist are the landscape, the still life and the portrait, while the former suggests the absence of human life, and the latter its obvious presence, the still life usually gives the impression of absent presence. There is a Marie Celeste quality to the still life (or a still life quality to the Marie Celeste): the sense of the human having just left the scene. If we think of Rembrandt’s Still Life of Apples, Van Gogh’s Still Life with Grapes, Lemons, Apples and Pears, Monet’s Still Life with Apples and Grapes, Cezanne’s Ginger Pot with Pomegranate and Pears, we notice that of course these things don’t happen simply to be there: they have been placed there quite carefully and specifically. Now with the portrait we sense this human agency in the gaze of the subject, and in the landscape we know of course that an artist has painted the picture, but the arrangement, the placing of subjects (as in the portrait) and objects (as in the landscape), is absent. Part of the haunting quality of still lifes is that absent presence, an arrangement made but a person missing.

Filmmakers have used the qualities of the still life in different ways. Some have taken it quite literally: like Greenaway and perhaps Jarman. Others have used it very cinematically with little debt to aesthetic history. Ozu, Bill Douglas and Terence Davies for example. If Greenaway employs Dutch still life images, he does so to align “his cinematic art with an art that (according to one school of interpretation) constituted an aesthetic space where allegories and symbols were employed to enrich material objects with additional meanings.” It is indebted to painting, but we might wonder whether it enriches cinema. Ozu, Paradjanov, Douglas and Davies do not derive their still lifes from painting, but create a cinematic equivalent. One can think of the moment in Distant Voices Still Lives, where we hear a woman singing on the soundtrack as we witness images of empty stairs and doorways. In My Way Home we see a bowl of fruit for a few moments before hands enter the frame and pick up the bowl. This isn’t so much a nod and a wink to painting, but consistent with the rigour of Bresson – who insists that cinema needn’t be a frame constantly established by the immediate coherence of screen space, but can surprise us by cutting to a close up and leaving us wondering where the close up fits into the series of shots.

Is Serra closer to Douglas, Davies and others than to Greenaway? Does he draw upon painting as if cinema is an inferior art form, as Greenaway would often proclaim in statements like: “I don’t want to be a film-maker. I think painting is far more exciting and profound.” (Guardian) Or does he see in cinema the capacity to sculpt in time, in Tarkovsky’s phrase, to work with blocks of space-time, as Gilles Deleuze would say? One thinks it is very much the latter, so beautifully evident in the film’s opening scene. Here we see various characters sitting around eating dinner outside in the darkness by candlelight. As the other characters melt away, the candle wax drips, and the poet who has been discussing the difficulty of creation starts necking with the woman next to him. As they get close the music comes in: a soundtrack that captures a yearning words might obliterate but that music in film, when used in a particular way, captures so astutely. If numerous filmmakers are understandably resistant to non-diegetic music, then there are certain moments where a feeling cannot easily be expressed without it. Many a film insists on non-diegetic music to underscore the emotion in the scene, evident in a romantic comedy that no matter if it has spent an hour and a half moving towards the couple getting together, no matter if when they hug and kiss there are reaction shots to friends and family looking on, the music is still utilised. The same is evident in plenty action films where a chase sequence will contain grunts and groans, loud noises and explosions, but still the music will insist on telling us not only what the characters are doing, but what we are feeling too. This is manifold tautology, as the film says the same thing with several different means working simultaneously.

One reason non-diegetic music is frowned upon (Kiarostami, Handke and the Dardennes are contemporary filmmakers who hardly ever use it), resides in its constant use, abuse and misuse. Serra, like Philippe Garrel, like Gus Van Sant, like Bela Tarr, knows how to utilise it for reflecting inner states that can’t easily be expressed in another form. It would be beside the point to ask the figures in an action film or at the end of a romantic comedy what they are thinking and feeling: it has very clearly been expressed. That is partly why there is no need for the music that is nevertheless deployed. But in other films, in films searching out a certain expression of the soul, it becomes a necessary means by which to communicate a feeling hidden in the folds of the self. As these two bodies form one mass in weak light, so Serra captures a feeling that we can hardly even credit to these two figures who remain all but unknown to us. He nevertheless registers what cinema can exemplify so well: the privileged moment of time passing meaningfully but without insistently offering meaning. One reason why non-diegetic music can seem superfluous in a film is because all the meaning is already clearly conveyed. In Serra’s film we cannot say what is going on exactly, but we can sense the importance of the moment partly because the music suggests a feeling not easily expressed. This is quite different from an action offered, where the expression is the action. In this sequence, the expression is no more than a hint of a feeling.

We could of course find its meaning in potential reference. The couple coming together resemble figures in Klimt’s The Kiss, while the leftover items on the table could call to mind any number of still life paintings. However, if we believe that Serra is working with properly cinematic images, it is important to distinguish between the image that borrows from painting, and the image that replenishes the Image. Film is caught in something like a temporal paradox here. The art of painting of course precedes cinema by many centuries, but film is the art form that can capture the image which preceded its re-presentation as art object. When Serra shows us fruit, meat, or candles on a table, these were things painted long before they were filmed, but film shows them to us as they have always been (it presents them to us via a recording device), while painting re-presents them with paint, canvas and a clear human intervention. One of the dangers of privileging art over film, as Greenaway does, is that instead of an older tradition getting invoked, a weaker image is created: one that passes through painting and the recorded image rather than seeing the image as something that precedes painting and that cinema can see more directly, even if it doesn’t ignore the painterly world out of which our perception of images has been created.

In The Future of the Image, Jacques Ranciere discusses the difference between Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar and a TV show which has no artistic pretensions: a quiz show is the example he gives. What is the difference he muses over the Same (a TV-style image) and the Other (an image like those we find in Bresson). This has nothing to do with the technology: watching a Bresson film on television doesn’t turn it into a quiz show. Even if the image we see is in many ways diminished, it still retains an aspect of its complex Otherness: its originality as Bressonian image. The TV show may have a director but any qualities he or she possesses will be absorbed into the expectations of the televisual. Talking of the beginning of Bresson’s film, Ranciere says: “in these credits and three shots we have a whole regime of ‘imageness’ – that is, a regime of relations between elements and between functions.” Ranciere sees in Bresson’s film properties so resonant, so aesthetically integrated into seeking out distinct perceptual possibilities, that it finds not so much its source but a shared fascination with image construction in Flaubert. “It forms part of the novelistic tradition begun by Flaubert: an ambivalence in which the same procedures create and retract meaning, ensure and undo the link between perceptions, actions and affects.” This doesn’t mean that Bresson is offering a nod in the direction of Flaubert, more that Ranciere sees that Bresson’s problematic in film form isn’t too different from Flaubert’s on the page. In other words, Bresson’s images pass through the aesthetic as perceptual possibilities; they do not pass through the literary as homage.

This is partly why we might believe that Greenaway’s images cannot renew film as we believe those of Serra, Tarr and others so readily can. If Greenaway regards painting as a higher art form than cinema, then all film can do to justify its own status is resemble another art. Ranciere’s point is much subtler, and much more useful: there are perceptual problematics constantly at work in our relationship with the world; how best to confront them? We might believe that the moment where the couple caress, kiss and hug is a reference to Klimt, but better to see it as a question of intimacy that both Klimt and Serra want to address. This removes two things: an aesthetic hierarchy, and a begged question. We don’t privilege one art form over the other, and we don’t assume that Serra’s ‘meaning’ lies in homage. The numerous moments where the image shares similarities with the still life means that we continue to search for a meaning in those images. We might be able to say that Serra shows the influence of the artists we have mentioned, but this would only tell us that the critics know art, and the filmmaker knows how to pay his respects to it.

What might be fair to say is that a film aesthetic that knows nothing about art, that has no interest in the problems of aesthetics over the many centuries, is an impoverished form, but the flipside problem that Greenaway represents is that cinema is of little consequence next to art. But better than either extreme to see film as part of the problem of the Image: of trying to examine our existence in the world.

What is Serra’s problem, if he is more than “a deeply boring Catalan”, someone whose style represents a “soporific burlesque of cocksure alpha confidence”, according to Nick Pinkerton in Film Comment, expanding the insult into a full length article on the film in Reverse Shot? For Pinkerton in the latter journal there isn’t much of one at all, or at least none that the dozen or so reviews he read praising the film managed to nail. In The Reverse Shot piece Pinkerton says that for a certain type of filmmaker on the festival circuit: “Your currency is the letter of introduction, your etiquette upon arrival your proof of belonging. Instead of which spoon to use for dessert and which to use for soup and how to dance a quadrille, “etiquette” in rarefied film circles is a matter of conforming to a number of aesthetic choices that confer proper breeding, a.k.a. influences. This extends to camera movement (as little as possible), non-diegetic soundtracking (same), duration (trying), lighting (naturalistic), performance (ditto, and possibly nonprofessional).” But how fair is this to the film that Serra has made, with its use of diegetic music and its far from naturalistic lighting for example?  “Because you have a smaller camera, you can do this, you can do that,” Serra says. “If one actor is inspired, I can focus there. It’s more atmospheric, this approach. It’s not about what you have in mind, it’s more about what you have in front of you. Not what is behind you, in your mind. It’s about being sensitive to the atmosphere, because you can catch everything. So this change, from the world in the mind of the filmmaker to the 360 degrees of the world around him, makes everything possible. (Bomb Magazine)

While Pinkerton appears to want to know what all the fuss is about, perhaps we can say that what the film is saying is inextricably linked to how it is saying it. Nothing new in this of course: isn’t that central to any aesthetic activity: that the artist finds a form in which to explore something that can’t easily be offered in any other manner? But in so technological an art form as cinema, what can be explored is sometimes reliant on the means by which one can do so. Three very important examples of innovation in technology allowing for originality in form are Vertigo, The Shining and Russian Ark. In each instance, the filmmaker created or worked with a technique that wasn’t available beforehand. In Vertigo, Hitchcock innovated with the push/pull of the zoom in and tracking out to suggest acrophobia. The Shining took full advantage of a recent invention, the steadicam, to create smooth shots with a hand held camera. Russian Ark adopted the computer file to film an entire feature in one take. A film magazine could only film for ten minutes; a computer file of course can do so for hours. When interviewed, Serra talks a great deal about this relationship with technology. Yet this isn’t because he is especially fascinated by innovation; more that he wants to make the process simpler. “When it’s 35mm, or even now with these big digital cameras, you have to prepare shots. Cinema is drawn in shots. The camera is heavy, you can’t move it, you have to prepare everything. If somebody moves, it’s already out of focus. With digital cameras, these things disappear. It’s easygoing, and then you can think in scenes, or even in just one scene, instead of in terms of shots.” (Bomb Magazine)

It is as if Serra doesn’t want to make cinema; he wants to create images. We might appear to be just playing with words here, but if we keep in mind our earlier remarks from Ranciere’s The Future of the Image, we can see that cinema in its conventional sense wants to work within a film vocabulary; Ranciere talks instead of a perceptual range that can see similarities between Bresson and Flaubert. Serra would seem to want to make films that don’t borrow from painting, yet share something of their atmosphere. This can only be done through utilising digital, but at the same time only at a stage in digital technology when the technology is vivid enough to capture in the number of pixels the colour and resolution the filmmaker is looking for, and where other changes can be done in post-production. When Godard made the brilliant Eloge de L’amour in 2002, he compared the digital work to Fauvist paintings: he wouldn’t have been able to find the resolution required to capture the equivalent of a Rembrandt. When Serra was being interviewed by fellow filmmaker Ben Rivers, Rivers would talk about only working on celluloid, and that he liked the constraint of working on film. Serra reckoned: “for me, it’s the same thing, but opposite. I like the constraints of shooting digital. You don’t have a beautiful image, for example.” Rivers said: “this isn’t quite true, because your film is beautiful” and Serra insisted “but that’s at the end, after a lot of work. You have to spend a lot of money in post-production.” If we’ve noted that Hitchcock, Kubrick and Sokurov would not have made certain films without the technology, Serra goes as far as to say he wouldn’t be making films at all without digital cameras. “I would never have been a filmmaker without digital, it would have been impossible.” (Story of My Death DVD Notes)

What are we to make of some of these claims, and how do they link up with our bigger argument about the image that we feel certain filmmakers replenish by neither borrowing from the others arts, nor feeling that film is an art form unto itself? If Greenaway is someone who reckons cinema is less important than painting, and Bresson (in Ranciere’s eyes) works as if cinema is an art form that continues perceptual possibilities already evident in literature, then Serra’s need to work in digital suggests he is closer to Bresson than to Greenaway: that he wants to use painting only as an act of creative coincidence rather than homage: he wants to create images.

There are two great meal sequences in the film (and one great evacuation scene we will discuss shortly), both shot outdoors. The first we have already talked about and that takes place at night; the second in fading daylight. The first is in Switzerland; the second when Casanova goes to the Carpathian mountains. Here Casanova charms the various women at the table, talking about his travels and his sexual conquests, all the while the devout father who is hosting Casanova and his servant looks on, or rather observes intently. He looks like he is observing out of a mixture of feelings: envy, dismay, disgust, dismissal, protectiveness. There is one particular shot, almost Bergmanesque in the way it captures two faces in the one frame, where the father looks on as Casanova talks. The father is in the background looking frontally in the direction of Casanova and the camera; Casanova is seen in profile. It captures very astutely the nature of many a dinner sequence where people are occupying the same space but clearly preoccupied with different thoughts. It is something cinema does so well partly because film is an extractive rather than an expressive medium. If in a novel we can have a dinner table sequence, the writer might say there were eight people around the table and then focus on just two of the characters present. But in cinema if the filmmaker focuses so exclusively on two of the participants it might seem odd; that if we don’t see any of the other half dozen characters again it is as though they have all gone home. Usually filmmakers will film the sequence so that even if two characters are prominent within the sequence, the other characters are still relevant to the mise en scene. Filming dinner scenes might remind us of Siegfried Kracauer’s remark: “does film make one see and grasp something that only cinema is privileged to communicate?” (Theory of Film). Is cinema the best art form for doing dinner? When Kracauer quotes Luis Bunuel’s comment “I ask that a film discover something for me” neither would probably have dinner in mind, yet few directors more than Bunuel has been fascinated by dinner sequences. The Last Supper scene from Viridiana, the guests unable to leave the dinner party in The Exterminating Angel, the dinner arrangements that keep getting postponed in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, and the reversal in Phantom of the Liberty, where people eat alone and defecate in company.

In Figures Traced in Light, David Bordwell looks at the formal complexities involved in dinner table sequences in film, and quotes actor Kevin Bacon saying: “it’s a real pain in the ass to shoot dining room scenes because you’ve got to go all the way around the room with coverage.” Would a novelist be likely to talk with such exasperation about getting people round the table? Hardly. If Hitchcock proposed the essence of cinema was the chase; numerous other filmmakers would be more inclined to indicate it lies in the dinner sequence, and even Hitchcock himself would admit that he had his own immensely complicated moment with a dinner party scene in Under Capricorn where the actors were on seats that would fall backwards to allow the camera a smooth craning shot along the table. In the two sequences in The Story of My Death, the director finds in these scenes a certain property of film that suggests cinema can discover life. One might be able to do a dinner scene in theatre rather more easily than a car chase, but it is as though the technical essence of film resides in the chase sequence, as Hitchcock proposes, but that the ontological essence of cinema rests on the dinner scene. A few great directors have done chase sequences, but most have wonderful dinner moments: Bergman in A Passion, Cassavetes in A Woman Under the Influence, Scorsese in Raging Bull and Good Fellas, Hou hsiao-hsien in Flowers of Shanghai, for example.

The two dinner scenes in The Story of My Death capture the mood of a work that explores the body while at a certain type of rest. If the car chase is an extreme example of the body in its sympathetic nervous state: in its fight or flight mode; the dinner scene is usually a cinematic example of the parasympathetic condition, where the body can relax, eat and digest. The whole film is a reflection of the latter over the former, with Casanova a parasympathetic figure rather than a sympathetic one. He lives in a state of relaxation, his tone calm, his body always ready to imbibe, copulate or defecate. Is this why the film devotes a couple of minutes to Casanova taking a bowel movement? As if it has to explore all the parasympathetic features. Should we perhaps get rid of moral terms like sympathetic and unsympathetic when describing a character, and replace them with sympathetic and parasympathetic instead? Romantic heroes are more inclined to the parasympathetic; action figures and villains to the sympathetic. It is as though Serra wanted to bring these two figures of Casanova and Dracula not so much together (they never properly meet), but to explore them in the same film, to examine an aspect of desire as discrete or intermingled. Casanova is the ultimate bon vivant, a man who can take his pleasures as they come, and sees food, drink and sex as separate activities, all pleasurably practised. Dracula doesn’t exactly do dinner: food, drink and sex are all part of the same dread: the fear of their absence his permanent demise.

Of course we can also see that Casanova represents sex as pleasure, with the taking of the farmer’s daughters part of the joys of the flesh and not the failure of seduction leading to one’s own death. Casanova might be late eighteenth century and Dracula late 19th, but, if they are such important figures in our culture, it isn’t their historical specificity that counts. It resides in their mythic importance: one existed, while the other was a fictional creation, but myth works with both fact and fiction. Casanova is the mythic character who could be seen to capture the pre-Aids sexual freedoms; Dracula the figure who represents better than most desire as risk. These are characters who offer very different modes in the world: not quite Kierkegaard’s Either/Or (though Dracula here does look like an Orthodox priest rather than a dashing count), but someone for whom pleasures are troublesome. In between these two men is of course the farmer, someone much closer to the man of God and happy to accept the odd flagellation, but someone who cannot carry the mythic resonance the director seeks in putting Casanova and Dracula in the same film.

Cinema throughout its history has offered us many thousands of romantic heroes; many, many murderers, but few films have thought to bring the two types together in such a suggestive way as Serra does here. He subdues the qualities of both, partly by removing the tension involved in seduction and murder, and replacing it with the equanimity we expect from the still life. Serra’s is a film of moving images, but they move with the pace demanded not of the story, but of the painting. Yet this isn’t to indicate homage; more to paint with light, and also with time – and to suggest the sympathetic state. Photography in Greek is writing with light; the proper use of cinematography is painting with light and colour through time. The assumption many have of what film happens to be isn’t a given of the form; it is closer to a prejudice of expectation. Most films tell stories and do so with a sense of time that is subordinated by the needs of the story. Serra looks to show time rather than tell a story, to use something of the ontology of painting as observation (we can look at a painting for minutes at a time) but for the purposes of being part of the regeneration of the image. It is as if storytelling while so obviously and usefully having its place in cinema, can also remove too many of the possibilities in the image by its need to tell a story over showing us images. If we rid ourselves of the desire for the images to serve the story, and replace it with a respect for the film to work in blocks of space-time, we can feel our way around an audio-visual experience without insisting that it either gets on with it in narrative terms, or pays necessary respect to the fine art that it may ostensibly resemble.

If we decide that the marvellous opening scene is chiefly a series of nods to Munch and Klimt, Claesz or Van Beijeren, we have not absorbed Serra’s atmospherics, we have announced our own cultural superiority to the images in front of our eyes for those we remember from art galleries. By the end of the film The Story of My Death asks us not to look into the images for others representing high culture, but into what we can barely see in front of our eyes at all. Like much of Philippe Grandrieux’s work (including Sombre and Un Lac), scenes from Pola X, Trouble Every Day and Eloge de l’amour, Serra practises near the end of the film a crepuscular obscurity that means we cannot easily see the images themselves. Rather than a twofold clarity where we see clearly both the image on the homage, Serra wants us to look at the image that we can hardly discern. Accepting the atmospherics of cinema as an audio-visual medium, means that sometimes we have to hear what we can’t easily see as we make out the dogs slobbering over Casanova’s dying body, as Dracula gulps down a goblet of blood. The film opens on the light from candles in the dark, and ends on a darkness that relies on the faintest glow of the moon as the soundtrack becomes ever darker and more portentous. The eye gives way to the ear as the credits come up and we no longer feel we are in an age of enlightenment, and Casanovan joy, but a Draculan nightmare. Different modes of being indeed, and suggestive of very different atmospherics.

©Tony McKibbin