Wednesday, 7 December 2011

What Dreyer did next... Vampyr (1932)

Carl Theodor Dreyer's Vampyr – Der Traum des Allan Grey, is surely one of the most eerie films ever made. Its haunting qualities are all the more remarkable for having been conceived in the aftermath of Dreyer’s monumental and hyper-real Joan of Arc. If Dreyer fancied a change of pace he certainly achieved it…

Originally conceived as a silent, Vampyr was filmed largely in 1930. Its "muted" and incomplete use of sound serves to create an unnatural atmosphere and the superb cinematography does the rest. The "quality" of the film print is often questioned, but Dreyer, working with some of the same camera men as on Joan, opted for a gauze-filtered, "distance" to under-pin the unreality.

In Joan all was clarity and close up but Vampyr is more ambiguous visually; it's just not as easy to see.

Strangely... the use of a number of non-actors, most notably Julian West (aka one of the film’s main financiers Nicolas de Gunzburg), also supports the viewer disconnection. West's
limited expression leaves us as short of natural reassurance as the sound.

If Joan was stark, unavoidable and as painfully interpretable as Maria Falconetti’s agonised close ups, Vampyr is willed as obscure by its director. It’s an uncomfortable fantasy but one that is grounded by the main character who is as distanced from the true meaning as the viewer. At one point he splits in two; is his spirit flying off to experience the next stage of the narrative or is this dream? We make our own mind up but we’re alone in the dark as much as he.

West plays Allan Gray, a directionless young man whose interests in the occult have loosened his grip on reality. His travels bring him to a lonely hostel where he encounters a ghostly apparition followed by a man who pleads with him to save his daughter’s life. The man hands him a book on vampires, "to be opened after my death” and asks him to use it to save his daughter.

Gray follows his entreaty and makes his way to a nearby house where he meets the man and his daughter. There follows further confusion as the man is apparently shot by a shadowy figure, though sound we hear not, nor smoke do we see…

Gray stays on as a guest of the house, as the man's eldest daughter Léone (Sybille Schmitz) begins to turn ill and is confined to her bed by a mystery ailment. He begins to read the book and to find out more about vampirism... So far, so familiar to those who have seen the Hammer films and other representations of J Sheridan le Fanu’s work.

There is a mysterious local hag, Marguerite Chopin (Henriette Gérard) who seems to have power over many people. The local doctor - the dead spit of Jack MacGowran in Polanski's Fearless Vampire Killers (co-incidence? I think not!) - is her main accomplice. Played by Jan Hieronimko, an American university professor spotted by chance in New York, he is superb and another unsettled presence. They are supported by other minions, some who appear simply as shadows, their missing limbs merely another absent part of their solid forms.

As Guillermo del Torro says in one of the excellent Eureka! commentaries, this is one of the few films to go back to the original ideas of the legend, with the vampires being "hungry shadows" who feed on the living... the young, the weak-willed and the vibrant.

The youngest daughter, Giséle (Rena Mandel) is kidnapped by the doctor and Gray sets off to rescue her. He sits down on his way and his spirit appears to leave his body (is this the "dream"?) and goes off to where the girl is held. At this place he sees himself buried in a coffin with a glass panel. This is the most iconic moment of Vampyr and the one I well remember from my old book of horror movies. It still has a shiver-inducing power now… but is that West's body in there or his soul?

But in spite of this vision, Gray’s character manages to save the girl and they join up with his body and as they escape the other villagers defeat the vampire in the traditional way (stake through the heart and into the ground: textbook coup de grace!) whilst the village doctor is suffocated by flour (engulfed by the white in the same way as the characters are flooded with pale fog and bright light at the end).

Gray and Giséle walk to safety/redemption through the elegiac natural scenery of the woods into the light.

If this was a dream... how could Gray rescue Giséle? If it was all a dream from the inn onwards, how did the man find him, how come the book was real and so on... The answer is that none of this matters. This is a fable for us to interpret mystically and theologically.

Vampyr is surprisingly atypical for a horror film in terms of actually having a genuine religious agenda. Del Torro highlights a Lutherian theme of redemption, not surprising given some of Dreyer's other work, in that we can be saved by divine intervention only when we accept our need for salvation.

Like many of the best "surreal" works (losely speaking), from Christopher Priest in books or David Lynch in films, not everything is explained or explainable. It doesn't matter; you don't have to square the circle and rationalise everything away, just take a meaningful amount of sense from the total abstraction of the work. It's the feeling more than conscious deduction that matters.

As with Gray, we cease to question the logic and have to just accept the experience itself. It is a spiritual journey and this maybe places Dreyer apart from say, Dali or Bunel in terms of the style and intent of his portrayal of the "fantastic".

This is an absorbing film and another major staging post in Dreyer's remarkable career.

Vampyr is available in quality DVDs from Criterion and Eureka. Buy it because you will want to watch it more than once! You will.

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