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Festival Gems: Albert Serra's "Story of My Death"

Death is another element of inquisitive art in Albert Serra's rewardingly bizarre anti-period piece.
Albert Serra's Story of My Death is playing on MUBI in most countries in the world through December 14, 2015.

Two different stories (or, more precisely, two different philosophical epochs) coincide at a boarding house in the Carpathian woods in Albert Serra's rewardingly bizarre Story of My Death. In the first, an aging aristocrat eventually revealed to be none other than Casanova himself (played by Vicenç Altaió) lolls around in sumptuous Swiss chambers, gleefully indulging his every epicurean appetite—munching on seeds and sweets, exploring the regions under a maiden's gown, pelting his servant with arch pensées, and giggling at the chamber pot he's just strenuously filled. In the second, restricted interiors give way to vast Balkan vistas, the roaming grounds of a Dracula (Eliseu Huertas) who looks like a Latvian Orthodox elder and sounds like a Sixties guru. ("We go way beyond," he tells a curious lass about his castle happenings.) The transition between them is perhaps the film's lyrical high point: The camera rides along with Casanova in the back of a wobbly horse-drawn cart, and the sudden movement in the middle of so many deliberately static tableaux achieves a magical effect. "The stairs of poetry are very steep," laments a blocked writer early on, though the trajectory of Story of My Death is horizontal rather than vertical, a move toward Mitteleuropa and, as the Catalan auteur has declared, away from rarefied Rationalism and into stormy Romanticism. One vanishing roué's tragedy is another's comedy in Serra's cerebral anti-period piece, a string of captivating-lugubrious digital compositions with a lambent natural light that progressively darkens, as if wrapped more and more within the Transylvanian Count's cape. (Some of the later images turn so inky that only slivers of light separate characters from backdrops.) The precedents are clear—Straub and Huillet, Jesús Franco, Peter Greenaway—yet the saturnine ebullience evident in every frame, as well as the sense of cinema as slow-motion eclipse, are distinctively Serra's. One century engulfs another, but the closing mood is one of openness, of curiosity for what chaos lies ahead. For Serra, death itself is less an end than another element of inquisitive art. As a character along the way simply puts it: "One has to experiment."

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