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Elegy for Transgression: The Anti-Period Pieces of Albert Serra

One of the most distinctive filmmakers of costume dramas, the Catalan provocateur favors mundanity and decadence over epic productions.
Alonso Aguilar
Above: Honor of the Knights
Despite his infamous reputation as an iconoclastic provocateur, the films of Catalan director Albert Serra always seem to come from a place of sincere allurement. The big-wigged canonical figures that have spearheaded his endeavors since his breakthrough in 2006’s Honor of the Knights (then Don Quixote, later the Biblical Magi, Casanova, Dracula, and Louis XIV) are, without exception, stripped of their mythical flare and reduced to their most primordial essence. Shown decadent, aimless, and impotent, Serra’s camera lurks behind the characters in an invasive manner that favors framing corporeality and minutiae over traditional characterization. The most basic elements of these iconic on-screen presences are more than enough to showcase a deeper and underlying existential turmoil.
Such thematic through lines can be traced all the way back to the filmmaker’s aforementioned riff on Cervantes. Surprisingly in tune with what is generally considered “the first modern novel,” Serra’s deconstruction of The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha maintains the original source’s central conflict of archaic ideals at the face of a changing society, albeit in a considerably more gaunt presentation. What the Iberian auteur does with The Knight of the Sorrowful Face (and that will later become his staple) is work with mere immanence, taking for granted the preconceived notion the viewer has of a benchmark for the character, and letting that relationship be explored through unfiltered mundanity and the industrious passing of time.
At its core, Quixote’s dear hold for the last remnants of his romantic conceptions of chivalry mirrors the “grand moments” of The Three Wise Kings as they venture to their destined encounter with the Messiah in Birdsong (2008), and the now-decadent Sun King of France as he forges his own lucid eulogy while watching his legacy cemented in history in The Death of Louis XIV (2016). Naturally, as the transgressor that he likes to be seen as, Serra puts forward no interest whatsoever towards these junctures already ingrained in collective unconsciousness. There’s no glamour at all in these portrayals, and instead the films opt to minimize the protagonists amidst expansive panoramas, overwhelm them in suffocating frames of negative space, and have them (sometimes literally) stumble their way around in the most banal of circumstances. They’re as futile and over their head as everyone, and seeing them exist unceremoniously becomes the Catalan director’s way of dealing honestly with their abstract concerns.
In Serra’s eyes, the artist works from behind the camera; whatever comes in front of it manifests itself at its own will and can’t be cast to fit ulterior artistic motives. Aesthetics are then based in subtraction and disengagement, and wherever possible, actively reject any subjectivity. As a true modernist, “the text is the artwork,” and that extends to the director’s withdrawn attitude towards the past. Instead of recreating through memory and evocation, Serra’s baroque use of lightning and lush digital textures encompass elliptical vignettes in their present tense. No concrete ideas come beforehand, lives are transpiring in real time; in front of the eyes of the viewer, meaning is presenting itself spontaneously.
Above: Story of My Death
These notions of “happening” have put the winner of Locarno’s 2013 Golden Leopard in a middle ground between arthouse filmmaking and gallery work, a distinction that has become more and more diffuse as his projects reach new levels of ambition. In 2012 his 12-hour installation for Venice Biennale, Singularity, explored the relationship of modernity with technology, and in 2015 he upped the ante with the gargantuan 101-hour Three Little Pigs for Volksbühne Berlin, a reflection on Europe’s cultural identity by way of conversations with Goethe, Eckermann, Hitler, and Fassbinder. But perhaps the most insightful work in terms of his artistic vision is 2010’s The Names of Christ, for Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona. In an episodic 14-part structure spread along three hours, Serra uses a 16th century theological manuscript as the basis for what is clearly a meditation on his own work: a study about the difficulties of visually representing abstract concepts.
In the earlier output of the filmmaker, the trembling foundations of orthodoxy were seen through their incidence in individuals. Even if not described as such, just by itself the canonical reference of Quixote and Sancho in Honor of The Knights or the Magi in Birdsong made them vessels for traditional values of faith and morality, thus shaken to the ground by their worldly and aseptic portrayal. His later projects, though, have sought to scrutinize the effects of these same type of “great narratives” with a new focus on collectivity.
In The Death of Louis XIV it meant seeing the crumble of 18th century French aristocracy as it witnesses its until then omnipotent ruler turn gangrenous and physically worthless in real time, while recent provocation Liberté (2019), set in a later stage of pre-revolutionary zest, shows the workings of a hedonist utopia based on sexual debauchery; a hidden path in the dark forests shielded from the binds of a puritanical society, where ideas seem to be more outrageous than their actual physical manifestation.
That leaves Story of My Death (2013), the very unlikely crossover between famed womanizer Casanova and the lustful undead himself, Dracula, as a kind of conceptual bridge between his “two phases.” There, Casanova’s rational understanding of desire, as subversion and intellectual duty, clashes with the more mystical seduction of the Transylvanian Count. Per mere scenic magnetism, one is drawn to these flamboyant personas, but the real protagonists are actually the young virgins, target of both decadent libertines in question. Notoriously more interested in the opaque charm of Dracula, they signal towards a not so subtle shift of society from critical thinking to a return to romanticism, preluding, in a way, the perceived need of transgression predicated by Liberté (and Serra’s art in general), and making the latter feel even more like a culmination of the Catalan director’s oeuvre so far.
Above: Liberté
In this latest work, as the fugitive libertines realize that their subversive ideals are impossible to spread, they seclude themselves in a microcosm of their own design. Here, even if liberated of bourgeois demure, their never-ending barrage of exploitation eventually is unveiled as stultifying. Are these moral agitations actually cathartic? Are they just done in contrarian intent? To be expected in un film par Serra, answers don’t come up, but if the elegiac tone is indicative of anything, it might be of a genuine moment of self-reflection for the artist.
A vocal follower of Andy Warhol’s cinematic contraventions and Straub-Huillet’s unfiltered authenticity of the images, Serra’s expression has always come from a passive sense of wonder; an avoidance of affectation that, as his gullible protagonists come to experience, lets the unknown consume absolutely. But in Liberté, after the night ends and the sun begins to rise in the deep Prussian forest, is there anything left to see? Anyone left to provoke? Only when the potential allure of the new dawn presents itself shall we ever know.

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