ND/NF Interview: Albert Serra
“[Story of My Death's] eventual fictional encounter between Casanova and Dracula represents a key moment in European history: the transition from the Age of Enlightenment to that of Romanticism,” wrote Manuel Yañez-Murillo about Albert Serra's latest film, in the March/April issue of FILM COMMENT. “Anticlerical, anti-monarchist, and admiring of Voltaire and Montaigne, Serra’s Casanova serves as a spokesperson for the dying 18th century: a man committed to knowledge and a form of pleasure in which joy and decadence converge. Casanova’s expressive exuberance—embodied in the voice and gestures of Vinceç Altaió—lifts Serra’s cinema to new heights of structural complexity and philosophical density, expressed in a series of rambling yet lucid dialogues. On the other hand, the character of Dracula—played by artist and ‘supernatural biker’ Eliseu Huertas—is closer to the iconic, hieratic figures of Serra’s previous films, although he is a messenger of evil and darkness as opposed to virtue and innocence.”
Story of My Death screens March 26 and 29 in New Directors / New Films. The following interview by Ángel Quintana originally appeared in the film journal Caimán Cuadernos del Cine and is used with permission.
Where did the unconventional cross between the myth of Casanova and the myth of Dracula come from?
Everything began after Birdsong . It came out of the possibility of shooting in Romania—I immediately thought of Count Dracula. I amused myself doing something with the theme, even though I must confess I had never been interested in vampire stories. On the other hand, I had been reading the memoirs of Casanova and discovered that, behind his misfortunes, there was something that defied the rationalism of his era. I understood the cross between Casanova and Dracula to be a cross between the sophistication of the Enlightenment and the dark and esoteric side of Romanticism.
Initially you considered Josep Maria Flotats, a veteran of stage and screen, for the character of Casanova, in order to introduce a professional actor to your world of nonprofessionals. Why did you turn him down?
I had been speaking with Flotats and saw that he was a very good person, but I also understood how difficult it would be to integrate him into my “troupe.” In my shoots I need to create a very concrete environment, a kind of collective participation. I met Vicenç Altaió, who is a poet and a person with a great artistic sensibility, and he connected with [the other actors], and because of that I intuited that he would be the perfect Casanova. His presence introduced a very theatrical diction that served me very well.
Story of My Death feels like your most narrative, most constructed film yet.
I wrote a screenplay in order to ask for financing, but at the same time that I was looking for financing, I learned that support was coming in from different regions of France. That aid seemed to suggest that I had to shoot in French locations, which would mean stretching out the first part of the screenplay. The screenplay was modified, but without taking a fixed direction. Until I began shooting, the film hadn’t begun to take a narrative form. Initially it could’ve become many things and gone down many roads.
In the first part of the film, for the first time in your work, the dialogue sounds really elaborate and well-prepared. Did that change how you worked with your actors?
When I see films with professional actors, I get the feeling that they are waiting for what they have to say next, and the film loses its spontaneity. Vinceç Altaió didn’t like to memorize his lines because it separated him from the job of being Casanova. He wanted his personification of Casanova to permeate the atmosphere. Since Vincenç is a man of letters, he spent many months reading everything he found about Casanova. Sometimes he would discover something curious and incorporate it into the dialogue.
Casanova and Dracula are two tales that have already been told many times in film and literature. Did you worry that your film would generate a play of references with other films?
It was a difficult challenge, but I succeeded. The key was finding an equilibrium between the natural and the artificial—creating another iconography. Casanova is old, decrepit, his instances of sex exaggerated. Dracula is sinister, but he acquires an abstract dimension. The important thing was establishing a bridge between the two worlds that divide the film, without causing an interruption. The spectator must undergo a process of immersion that brings them closer to a progressive form of denaturalization—to the break-up of every quotidian element—in order to confront the evil and the horror in visceral form. It’s a film that leaves the realm of life and slowly reveals its desperation. At the end there is no life, only shadows.
At the screening of the film in Locarno, one critic maintained that the film had a tragic dimension…
The most tragic character is Casanova’s son, Pompeu [Lluís Serrat, who played Sancho Panza in Serra’s Honor of Knights (06)]. Somehow this innocent person becomes a victim. In the first part he has money problems, later woman problems, and at the end mental problems that cause him to lose his innocence. His character symbolizes the road down the loss of purity that the film lays out. Whereas the figure of Casanova implicitly offers a reflection on hypocrisy. He doesn’t know when to check his desires, and he becomes a victim of his own fate.
How were you able to synthesize more than 400 hours of footage in editing?
The film was born when I saw the material and began to order it. The first time that I began to envision an outline of an edit, I was surprised by the consistency of the characters. During shooting it was impossible for me to have any precise impression. I only made notes of ideas for dialogue, so that the actors read aloud during slow moments. In the editing I put the finishing touch on sentence fragments that had been said in a specific moment, together with others that didn’t have anything to do with the others. The editing of Story of My Death was genuine agony that lasted almost a year-and-a-half.
The film is extreme, it’s full of possible paths, of scenes that could have their coherence isolated, but these were sacrificed precisely in order to create a coherent ensemble that results in something truly stunning.
Why does the film feel so saturated? Perhaps because it’s the first time that you worked with an original soundtrack?
The sound is a basic part of tapping into the spectator's feelings of powerlessness and provoking their fear. Dracula’s screams are blood-curdling. Whereas my previous films came from a process of “hollowing out,” Story of My Death comes out of a process of overloading. The final section is based on throwing together the horrific, the metaphysical, and the humorous, with the desire to decompose the image until it’s in a realm closer to video art. The film is like a voyage that transports the spectator to the unknown.
Translation by Violet Lucca.