05 May 2010

Delpy’s ‘The Countess’

Julie Delpy as Erzebet Bathory

Writer–director Julie Delpy’s third feature, The Countess, is in almost every way more ambitious than her previous film, 2 Days in Paris, which I both admired and enjoyed. 2 Days was intimate in every way, a mostly lighthearted Franco-American culture clash starring Delpy, her ex-boyfriend (Adam Goldberg), and a tight-knit group of her family and friends. You very much got the feeling that what Delpy put on the screen was something she and these same people had enacted in real life, before she and Goldberg broke up. Yet she’s so smart that she maintained a constant balance (or tension) between sympathy and objective distance. She certainly didn’t let the French off the hook for anything, as almost any other filmmaker in this country would have done.

The Countess seems at first like a completely different kind of movie: it’s a period costume drama, and much of the time, it looks like one of the “tradition of quality” movies that the Nouvelle Vague critics railed against. It’s the story of Erzebet Bathory, the most powerful woman in 17th-century Hungary, who was convicted of vampirical serial murders: killing virgins for their blood in an insane attempt to remain young and beautiful. Delpy stars as Bathory, and this time she’s cast actors who (to my knowledge, anyway) weren’t previously part of her real-life inner circle.

Cougar Town: Daniel Brühl and Julie Delpy

The costumes are indeed the first thing you notice, and they’re sumptuous, all brocade and beadwork, with fantastical jewelry: the royal courtiers all look as if they’ve stepped out of portraits by Bronzino or Holbein the Younger. They’re the inspiration for one of the movie’s rare laugh lines: in a dinner-table debate with a Cardinal over the strengths of women, Bathory observes that she does have a weakness for beautiful gowns and jewels, “But that is a weakness that you share, Cardinal.”

Almost immediately, Delpy begins to work against the costumes. The color of the cinematography is muted, with none of the Technicolor richness that other period dramas revel in, and the digital camerawork provides flat, dull images. Since the rest of the photography — composition and movement — is so adept, I presume that the drabness was a conscious choice. You feel as if you’re looking at plates from a very old book, before color printing had advanced to its present-day proficiency. Yet so much of the rest of the movie serves Delpy’s goals so well, that she really could have afforded to give us more lushness, and thereby toyed with our expectations more.

Far from historical pageantry, The Countess is an intimate chamber drama, perhaps even more intimate than 2 Days. And Erzebet is very much a 21st-century woman whose great misfortune is to live in the 17th. She’s richer than the king and more powerful than any other courtier, so that, when her husband dies, the men can’t wait to see her remarried — or brought down.

William Hurt

Rather than marry her cousin, Gyorgy Thurzo (William Hurt), she seduces, sleeps with, and falls passionately in love with his 21-year-old son, Istvan (Daniel Brühl). Dad has other plans for Junior, however, and ships him off to Denmark to marry a wealthy merchant’s daughter; he intercepts all letters between the lovers, and even forges a letter to Erzebet that persuades her she’s too old and ugly to be loved. Over the objections of her confidante and bedmate, Anna Darvulia (the wonderful Anamaria Marinca, of 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days), Erzebet determines that bathing in the blood of virgins will keep her eternally young. The body count rises to some 600 victims before she stands trial, losing her wealth, power, and freedom. She’s walled up in a chamber for the rest of her days.

But as Brühl’s character reminds us in the framing sequences, history is written by the victors — and Erzebet was the loser in this story. It’s implied that Thurzo poisoned her husband, and though the gory drama we see enacted later is in almost every detail what Hungary’s Male Power Establishment wanted people to believe, we can easily see that both King Rudolph II and Thurzo had a great deal to gain from Erzebet’s downfall. (Even when Gyorgy proposes to Erzebet, it’s in terms of material advantage, and basically that’s all he has on his mind at any point in the film.)

Let us prey.

As a screenwriter, Delpy is better here at plot and suspense than she is at the actual dialogue, which often sounds like warmed-over Masterpiece Theatre hash. Let’s face it, it’s hard enough for native-English speakers to write this stuff. Delpy makes no mistakes, yet the speech seldom feels idiomatic.

Like Delpy, Daniel Brühl and Anamaria Marinca speak excellent English with a faint accent, and this seems to have authorized William Hurt to put on an accent, too. It doesn’t quite work — for one thing, nobody winds up with the same accents — but apart from this, Hurt is at his crafty best. There’s always been a strong current of malevolence, even violence, in his acting; back in the day, this made him more interesting to watch than the run-of-the-mill blond leading man. Now balding, bearded, and heavy, he’s still keeping the nastiness in check, just as he had to do when he was playing good guys. His Thurzo is precisely the wrong man for Erzebet to cross.

Anamaria Marinca and Julie Delpy

I could have used somebody prettier in the role of Istvan, an essentially passive figure who has little to do in the film. Though he does a perfectly decent job, and he’s credible as a 21-year-old, presumably Brühl’s participation was a requirement of the several German entities that helped to underwrite The Countess. Marinca fares better as the voice of reason, whom all the others presume to be a witch.

As her own leading lady, Delpy is superb, delivering the rangiest, most demanding performance I’ve seen from her. Yet Erzebet’s character is quite a lot like Delpy’s: intelligent, strong-willed, passionate, multilingual. The only differences here are slight, namely those costumes and the fact that Erzebet gives a damn whether she’s beautiful. I couldn’t help reflecting that, in all of her best work, Delpy has pretty much played herself.

Granted, there’s nobody else I’d rather see in the role of Julie Delpy, but she’s so insightful, she might bring something valuable to roles that don’t resemble her. Since her next project appears to be a New York-based sequel to 2 Days in Paris, I’ll have to wait a bit longer to see her branch out — but I’m looking forward to that.

With her father (in the role of her father), in 2 Days in Paris

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