Thursday, July 18, 2024

Movie Review: ‘The Vourdalak’ is an Enchanting Journey to the Edge of Camp

Director: Adrien Beau
Writer: Adrien Beau
Stars: Kacey Mottet Klein, Ariane Lebed, Grégoire Colin

Synopsis: Lost in a hostile forest, the Marquis d’Urfé, a noble emissary of the King of France, finds refuge in the home of a strange family.

“The forest seethes with danger.”

In 1839 Russian author Aleksey Tolstoy’s The Family of the Vourdalak pipped Bram Stoker’s 1897 Dracula to the vampire post by quite a few years. In fact, many people did, including a certain doctor for Lord Byron – John William Polidori – with “The Vampyre” published officially in 1819. Alexandre Dumas wrote three vampire fictions including “The Pale Lady” in 1849 set in the Carpathians. Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Carmilla” was in 1872. Tales of revenants and bloodsuckers, both fine and ill-mannered, have captured the imagination for many a year.

Adrien Beau’s debut film is a wonderful throwback to a magical period; 1960s and 1970s Hammer Horror. The edge of camp comedy of Le Vourdalak contributes greatly to its charm. Watching the film is stepping into a dream of folklore past but with the winking irony that perhaps was never intended by Tolstoy. Beau’s retelling of the story imagines just how a foppish courtier would behave if he was presented with something that existed beyond his Enlightenment comfort. 

Marquis Jacques Antoine Saturnin d’Urfe (Kacey Mottet Klein), an envoy from France, seeks the house of Old Gorcha as refuge after the loss of his horse and luggage. He is certainly not ready for a ludicrously powdered and wigged creature in the blood-soaked forests of Serbia during the unending war with the Turks. Nor the seductive beauty of the family who inhabit a crumbling manse, Sdenka (Ariane Labad) and Piotr (Vassili Schneider). For Jacques Antoine, Sdenka’s beauty is a treasure – exotic and wondrous. In time, the gallant will try to seduce her for surely one such as she will be dazzled by his sophistication.

Jegor (Grégoire Colin) is the eldest son of old Gorcha. A man with little imagination as he is too busy with war and protecting his wife Anja (Claire Duburcq), son Vlad (Gabriel Pavie), and his two feckless siblings. Gorcha is absent, having left to hunt down a notorious Turkish raider. He warned his family that if he were not to return within a set period of time, they were not to allow him entry to the home for he would have become an accursed and foul creature – a Vourdalak.

Jegor is a skeptic who does not believe in the mythology of the devouring Vourdalak. His family, including his wife, are more susceptible to folkloric evils. Anja is already on the edge of incipient hysteria having to deal with the shame of Sdenka’s seduction by her now murdered lover, and Piotr’s perceived effeminacy by both Jegor and Gorcha. While preparing a hearty meal which the Marquis can later barely swallow (oh, but his manners would never insult a hostess), Anja fills him in on their numerous familial woes. 

There are no horses ready for the Marquis to use immediately so he must lodge with the family for at least a day and night. During that time, he tries to take advantage of Sdenka (far too wily for he) and when he fails with the direct approach of trying to rip her clothes off, he instead turns his hand to impressing her with tales of the French court and the wider world. Fearing after the murder of Jovan her lover she will never go beyond her family’s property, Sdenka allows the Marquis to tell her more while maintaining an elusive and melancholic distance. It is not her fate to leave, she tells him. “I do not believe in fate,” he replies “Naturally, you do not have one,” is her answer.

Old Gorcha indeed arrives back at the home, and it has been too long. The trick Beau plays on the audience is to present Gorcha as clearly an undead monster (a fantastically constructed giant puppet which Beau himself voices) but who acts in death much as he did in life. A blustering bully who makes his adoring son Jegor feel inadequate. A man who rejects his youngest son for his uselessness, and who cuts down any he feels believe themselves his better, including the Marquis. Yet, on a quick turn he can be a boon companion. 

Shot on super 16mm film Adrien Beau delights in the beauty, horror, and absurdity of his tale. Sdenka and Piotr are aware that their father is now a Vourdalak and make plans to end him with Hawthorn flowers, garlic, and stakes made from a tree in the forest. The Marquis presents his small but nimble rapier. Of course, all are doomed but the manner which Beau brings you to each demise shivers with wickedness. 

The wonderful tactility of Beau’s film comes from what feels like a study of the wonders of Konstantin Yershov and Georgi Kropachyov’s 1967 Viy mixed with a reverence for Jean Rollin, Roy Ward Baker, Robert Young’s dreamy Vampire Circus, and Roger Vadim’s erotic gothics. Although deliberately cleaner than Rollin, Vadim, and Hammer – there is something specific about the way Sdenka’s modest shift seams up at Labad’s nipples. Adrien Beau is beguiling with the power of suggestion and settling into the cinematic unconscious. When he is being funny, he isn’t being flippant. When he is being playful, he expects you already know the game. And thus, when he moves into dread, he knows what unsettles.

The Vourdalak is a precise enchantment crafted by a director and a team of actors who pull you into their strange web and delight in teasing with genre treats. A cinematic reverie beyond time and a vampire classic.

Grade: A

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