True to its title, Albert Serra’s new film approaches death as both narrative endpoint and formal focus, its initial vivacious mischief giving way to a Manichean fable about the waning of the light. Split into relatively discrete halves, each possessing its own distinct style, it slips from a bawdy, jovial tale of rumpled courtesans and layabout poets to one fixated fully on doom, immured in shadow-clogged compositions within the ancient, chilly darkness of the Carpathians. These halves may appear at odds with one another, but there’s nothing jagged in their coupling. It’s merely the latest funky pairing of opposites for Serra, a merry prankster whose seemingly facetious structural choices actually disguise the wealth of challenging contemplation going on beneath them.
Whether shaking up the staid rhythms of the glacially paced docu-portrait through musical intrusions in Crespia, or stripping the holy luster from the Three Kings legend in Birdsong, the Catalonian director has made a habit of this kind of provocation, seeding abundantly rich discourse within concepts that seem trite or modest at first glance. He locates the innate tension in dry, familiar stories, identifies tonal opposites for those stories’ original motifs, then pits one side against the other, allowing that stress to expand and shade the original meanings. Composed and magisterial, Story of My Death continues this approach, exploding its musty period-piece trappings through a pungent mix of pictorial prettiness, didactic dialogue, and puerile humor, encasing all these elements within a sort of bizarre monster-meet-up structure seemingly pulled from a ’50s B movie.
The showdown here occurs between Casanova (Vicenç Altaió), the famous lover, epicure, and man of reason, and Dracula (Eliseu Huertas), the romantic prince of darkness, a figure existing beyond rational explanation. Positioning each as the standard bearer for a specific philosophy, the film functions on a macro level as classical allegory, animating the late-18th-century shift from the rational to the romantic. But this progression from one school of thought to another is only a lead-in to the deeper patterns Serra is charting, using this shift to examine the correlative flows of natural and ideological cycles, the twinned natures and seasonal shifting inherent in all things.
The story first follows Casanova, a garishly painted dandy who, like the rigid 18th-century world he inhabits, is a bit past his expiration date. A clown whose ridiculousness amplifies the absurd pageantry surrounding him, he struts around his ornate French chateau, cackling over his own antics, sporting two-day stubble beneath his over-powdered face. Rutting with peasant girls while lording over a manor full of atrophied museum pieces, he’s both overabundant life and shriveled death incarnate, his carefree attitude to both modes communicated in the way he messily wolfs down whole pomegranates, or animates a goose by pouring wine over its stuffed corpse.
Eventually Casanova heads east, into a timeless, rustic world that at first seems accommodating to his crass behavior. But things soon turn sinister. That change is embodied by the appearance of Dracula, whose conception here hews closest to Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu: stiff and grotesque, but with a dash of Rasputin sexual charisma and prone to chilling, randomly uttered screams. Where Casanova thrives as a merry parody of the effort expended by Rationalism toward elevating and costuming base impulses, Dracula stands as the inverse, the allure of death harnessed toward a dark, dangerous virility. Casanova (whose autobiographical Story of My Life provides an ironic basis for the title) is lewd and lovable, but his form of jovial parasitism is no match for that of the coldly emotionless Dracula, and our hero’s death functions as the final passage from a fusty world founded on repression to one harnessing the full power of feral energy.
Yet there’s no sense of finality in this transition; it’s just another segment of an eternal cycle, the ebb and flow of repression and release, a tension which plays out here on several levels at once. It’s key that, despite their differences, each half of the film contains equal measures of light and dark, food and feces, life and death. In the first, those connections are forcibly downplayed, the rococo interiors freezing natural imagery into something beautiful but lifeless, the light enclosed in candles and lamps. But as things progress, the nature of that light changes, shifting from dim but neatly lit boudoir scenes, reminiscent of a Caravaggio tableaux, to roaring campfire beacons that leave the frame subject to large swaths of darkness. Serra uses chiaroscuro in the same manner as the Expressionists, to demarcate spaces between light and shadow while confirming the entwined relationship of these two poles, drawing his two opposing figures into an ever-tighter spiral. This establishes Story of My Death as a film that dances blithely around the darkness of decay, a reminder that fruits peak in sweetness just before they start to rot.
The result is something which manages to work in parody of itself without diminishing its serious impact, that comic spirit only thickening the miasma of ideas floating around the coarse action. A late scene detailing the transformation of shit into gold may seem like just another crude joke, but it’s also the murky mirror to an earlier one, where Casanova craps in a porcelain chamber pot propped atop a golden throne, then gleefully admires his own waste. If Serra were simply pitting one philosophy against each other, his slow scenes would be flat dioramas in service of a dry didactic purpose. But by using that basis to convey a deeper sense of cyclicality, by incorporating within his narrative momentum a twisting corkscrew of good and evil, the liberation of light from its cages and a resurgence of bald-faced human beastliness, he pushes beyond ideas toward something legitimately mystifying and magnificent. In Story of My Death, the tendency of all things toward decay isn’t a cause for despair, it’s just another confirmation of the vivid life force hiding inside them, another excuse to revel in the fun, frightening spectacle of their undoing.