Update 2018: Uhhh these early reviews from my youth burn my eyes so. Vampyr is too sublime a film for the quality of review below to do it any kind of justice, yet there is never enough time to revisit even such a foundational film in writing. (I mean, it is only the banner image of my website!) Of course, part of the reason that I don’t have time to fully explain the film is that a work like Vampyr so capably resists any definition or sedimentation. All these years later, my favorite thing about it remains that, despite its heavily imagistic texture, Dreyer’s conjuration seems to resist imaging, to thrive primarily below the perceptual barrier, like a shadowy outline or impression discarded on an abandoned wall.
Dreyer’s work is quite pragmatic in this sense; its images burn into our brain not with the tendentious force of a grand theory but with a worrisome in-definition, a sense in which the images aren’t solidified enough to “represent” anything. They dislocate us with their refusal to additively mount-up as most films do. Instead, they seem to unfurl outwards without emanating from any perceived essence or center, not even a portal to hell. Thoroughly estranging in its refusal to declare, the only thing Vampyr mounts are moments of severe uncertainty, curiosity, active deconfiguration, ultimately effusing a bewildering refusal to illustrate certainty to us, a prophetic inclination to decline revelation. Instead of subterranean tunneling toward essence, Dreyer’s films hover over unstable, constantly fluctuating foundations, in this particular case witnessing space as a diaphanous flutter while remaining thoroughly removed from it.
In this sense, the film’s modality is truly singular, resistant to any definitive statements. Despite frequent comparisons to German Expressionism, the film’s contours actually incline quite a ways away from that estimable Weimar tradition. Absent in Dreyer’s phantasm are any of expressionism’s aspirations to manifest the latent, to tear apart the exterior surfaces of the world and extract the psychological interior beneath. Vampyr holds no psychological pretensions, no suggestion of access to the furthest reaches of the human mind. Perhaps because psychology can so easily tilt from modernistic advance guard of the mind to rote regurgitation of heavily prescribed, obviously underlined meaning emboldened in cinematic boldface, carefully keyed to “tell us” what the characters are thinking and feeling, Vampyr’s resistance to the sublime actualization of crystalline imagery is all the more intoxicating today. Its meaning seems not locked in a time and a place, to have been actualized on the screen in the film’s present, but to come from some far gone past, or some alternate plane, and whisper into our future.
To the extent that this is frightening, it is quite a different psychic turmoil than Weimar Expressionism usually offers. If Expressionism tortures us with the realization that our psychological selves will never be as complacent and composed, as whole, as they seem on the surface, Vampyr terrorizes us with a more spectral appreciation of a more fundamental indefinite(ness), one which cannot be reconciled by “telling” us what psychologically dwells beneath that surface. Dreyer’s later films advance this question further, but already in Vampyr, his films seem not sculpted for accessible meaning, but rather divined, even necromanced, from another system of meaning entirely. A system, in this case, where characters are not so much inlaid with psychological architecture – the work of the film being to unpack this architecture as the “core” of the person – but iconographic. They are figures in the wider montage of an artist.
So if Vampyr’s images rhyme with the rest of the world, they are nonetheless all their own, allowed to freely resonate and reverberate on their own terms and at their own frequencies as a portrait of a specific imaginative location. Without any fashionable post-modern opacity, Vampyr lurches about alarmingly at a sinister, slothlike tempo, struggling to represent the seemingly unrepresentable, to visualize a seemingly occult knowledge that seems to be obscuring itself as it comes into being. Not because the film is trying to confuse us, but because it seems to have tapped into a genuinely uncomfortable, unsupportable base, to encrypt a truly ephemeral sense of ontological decomposition, to truly and unabashedly ponder cinema’s fundamental aspirations toward knowledge and truth.
Original reviews from 2014:
Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1932 film Vampyr approximates surrealism, tone-poem, and expressionist nightmare, but it mimics none of these – it is, more-so than perhaps any other film, its own work of piercing beauty shot-through with decay and a whispy breathiness. It was and is certainly an early horror film, and its effect is very much like that of horror, but it also perhaps the most giddily abstract horror film ever made. I would say constructed, but even the word “made” sounds wrong – it’s the kind of film which doesn’t seem to have been produced or thought-out but simply remembered or evoked. It exists in its own way, as if on another plane with someone fazing through.
The narrative, insofar as it exists, is of a man (bearing a different name depending upon the version of the film seen, but generally called Mr. Gray and played by Nicolas de Gunzburg) venturing to a small village named Courtempierre, apparently on a trip to make sense of strange happenings. And happenings he does find, including most famously a man walking around the river with a scythe for reasons we assume must be more than simply to enjoy the sounds of the stream bubbling by. But the most important is an elderly man (Maurice Schutz) who gives Mr. Gray a package to be opened upon the elderly man’s death. Gray eventually arrives at the old man’s cottage lived in by his daughters, one of whom is sick. The old man, of course, is killed soon enough (by some malevolent force we do not yet understand), and Gray opens the package to find a book on vampirism, which he, you know, inevitably uses to figure things out.
Except of course, that’s not really the narrative, nor is it replaced by any other plot. It is merely a nicer way to say “Mr. Gray walks through town and explores”. That sounds reductive, but the essence of the film lies in this very fact, for it exists not in reality but in a landscape of the mind populated by some of the haziest, most stunningly perturbed and ethereally damning images and sounds to be found in any film. The plot, in its truest form, is us looking around. Most famous, of course, is the scythe-man who exists at once as out-of-time enigma and depressingly earthy corruption. But other sights abound, namely shadows which move on their own. Many of the effects are dated, with shadows played like black holes drawn onto the set, but this only adds to the film’s otherworldly crawl. Indeed, the town itself is intentionally shrouded in a certain smoky transparency of non-reality– it is not a real village but a figment of one struggling to remain and always threatened by the malevolent forces of the mind looking to remove it from its impression upon the world.
It’s tempting to call the film expressionist, seeing as how it came out only a few years after the most fertile period for German Expressionist filmmaking. It has the shadows, the mindscape imagery, the firm commitment to dreary mood and atmosphere above logic. But it is not per-se an expressionist film. Those films emphasized angular artifice, hard lighting and eternal blackness along with sharp imagery. Vampyr is quite a bit more impressionist – it exists not as a battle between the whitest whites and the blackest blacks meant to emphasize a certain tension, rigidity, and firmness, but as an amorphous hazy impression, like it was less filmed and more-so remembered with the foggy details of the minds or drawn with a pencil placed not firmly enough upon the paper (apparently Dreyer had every shot filtered through a piece of gauze in front of the camera to sap out some of the solid presence of the light and dark and leave something more achingly half-there and fuzzily impressionable in its place). The entire film, the location, the characters, the events, threatens to be whisked away. While other films spend their entirety demanding to be seen in an attempt to look crystal-clear, this one hints and suggests with a severe frailness echoing a sickly decay. It slides perfectly, like a bony glove, over the film’s tone.
And this is to say nothing of the film’s audio curiosities. The score, for one, is penetratingly inhuman. It doesn’t just play over the film – it permeates every orifice of its existence and sticks to the very celluloid. And it quite literally does permeate the film’s running length, taking over the minimal dialogue (this is a sound film, although the dialogue is de-emphasized in favor of inserts to enhance the artificiality of the situation). And a word on the dialogue: it’s generally not well, befitting the film’s malnourished nature. And the main actor’s performance enhances the poorness of the dialogue; he seems rather uninterested in the whole film (in a stark contrast to the giddily over-the-top pyrotechnic physical acting often displayed in silent acting). Conventionally, this would be a flaw, but here the malaise of the acting coats the film’s gloomy distance in a tarnished paint – it’s like we’re not seeing a human perform so much as a ghoul dug up from a grave and propped up with wires. If that wasn’t enough, the puppeteer went off on his lunch break leaving the protagonist to hang with his own dried-up loneliness. He is not a hero, nor an agent, but just someone who observes a world that passes in and out of him without much reaction, an impression of a human rather than an actual human.
Vampyr is not a film that could have been made today. It violates many basic laws of the cinema, with conventionally bad acting, dialogue, and visual film stock. It exists not as reality or narrative or sanity but as the impression of a nightmare – the story is the very flow of image to image in itself, the very act of filmmaking. I could try to explain the subversive or sub-textual appeal of such a film, or go on about how important it is to have such films in the face of narrative ones. But the film’s pure imagery, distant from any context, speaks for itself. Scary is applicable but it isn’t the most fitting word here. Haunted is over-used, but certainly fits. I’d go with the aforementioned sickly for its reflection of the very shot-through nature of the film itself, its perpetual decay, its barely-there nature, and its existence not only as physical reality but as a state of mind. Despite what would be considered flaws to today’s audiences, or in fact because of these flaws, the film plays like an alien piece of work that approximates our dreams and nightmares. It is as affecting and hauntingly ghostly as any film I’ve yet seen – its raw visual and aural appeal remains unmatched, and at some basic level, this is the best thing that can be said about any film.
It’s a slice of wry poetry that Luis Bunuel’s most anarchistic, scariest, and most unnervingly radical film also happens to be one of his most narratively straightforward. The narrative, as it is, finds a young nun, Viridiana (Silvia Pinal), about to take her vows, visiting her only living relative, an uncle Don Jaime (Fernando Rey), on the request of the convent. While there, he finds she resembles his deceased wife and takes to falling in love with her, before attempting to rape her, changing his mind, and hanging himself. This is the first half of the film, with the second half exploring Viridiana’s now awoken sexuality and her desire to repress this by forming a house for the poor in Don Jaime’s house, which she has now inherited. Jaime’s son wants to turn it into a farm to feed for earthly pleasures. But if the film is conventionally easy to follow, its mysteries and impact are at once readily available and all the more enigmatically, unnervingly cryptic for that very fact. It’s as if, knowing audiences would expect him to screw with them, Bunuel did exactly that precisely by pretending not to screw with them, and then using this very fact to screw them more deeply than he ever had before.
The fundamental theme of the film, of course, is resolutely classical: a woman struggling with faith and insecurity. But the tone, the relentless nihilism of it, was almost unheard of in a film this explicitly political. Nihilism had been explored in other genres, of course – film noir breathes the stuff for air – but while those films emphasized abstract, angular nightmares and sub-textual fear, this one is rather a bit more explicit in its indictment of the Catholic Church. Visually and aurally, the film is openly, and unsubtly, engorged with religious imagery here mocked and turned on its head. Early on, Don Jaime’s own sexual longing for his niece is constructed in visually religious terms, explicitly and subversively connecting repressed sexual desire with religious guilt and exploring the inadequacy of the latter to cover up the deeply human former. In the meantime, Viridiana has difficulty milking a cow for the implicit fear of the flesh it reflects – she doesn’t say this, but visually Bunuel cuts directly to an uncomfortable close-up of her grabbing the cow’s udder so that we can’t see the cow on the whole, nor her – the image is transformed into the amorphous sight of a hand grabbing a vague phallic object, perverting her actions and reducing her identity as a woman of the cloth with wry, naughty, smirking pleasure.
But the film’s depiction of dark, repressed sexuality left unstated is not always explicitly connected to religion. Early on, we cut to a girl jumping rope, the camera only on her feet. Soon enough, a man’s legs wander into the frame, overtaking her image, and the camera pans up to reveal their faces. The man is Don Jaime and the girl his maid’s daughter, and while they are just talking, the ominousness of the shot of the feet, soulless and faceless, where we innately focus on the girl’s eerily saturated shadow, transforms the otherwise innocent conversation into something more sinister. This is all the truer when Don Jamie hangs himself and the camera fades to a slowly gliding image down to the same girl jumping rope again, accompanied only by his corpse now. Meanwhile, another man wearing an outfit similar to Don Jamie’s wanders in and grabs her in a similar manner as Don Jamie had in the aforementioned shot. The visual implication, that there is something deep and dark in their relationship, is never formally explored, and I do not know what to make of it, but it conveys a sense that he is a specter controlling her through a new body even in death.
Of course, the film is primarily about Viridiana, not Jamie, and the film curiously becomes “about” Viridiana by under-privileging her, even avoiding her, in shots. In the second half, where Viridiana becomes convinced that she can curb her own sexual desires and tensions by leading others like a shepherd tending to a flock, the film truly takes off. Right from the start, we have a battle between the “real” world and the religious world constructed visually in a series of cuts where Viridiana leads a prayer interrupted, not literally but visually, by images of work done to construct the farm. Bunuel cuts on action here – always giving us a hard edit to a shot of men at labor for the farm, while Viridiana is visually stagnant. The implication, here and elsewhere, is that she can’t control life around her even as her conception of elitist charity dictates that she must – regardless of any prayer she does, the work will continue on and continue to interrupt her efforts. At a base visual level she is constructed as a useless human being.
Later on we have a cross which guises a knife, a burning cross-cutting to a record playing a sacrilegious American rock song, and a Last Supper scene of wry debauchery and carnal pleasure. To Viridiana, the only thing the poor need is “moral guidance”, and she finds they rather ruthlessly refuse. For their poverty doesn’t need her sexual repression – look at what it has done to her after all, rendering her passive and obsessed – and it will not accept it. Of course, the film is less interested in demonizing the poor or sympathizing with them for engaging in debauchery – they are more a force of nature, constructed by the Earth to test Viridiana, and to expose her for her ineffective goodwill and her moral tensions (although the dirtiness and inhumanity of the paupers, especially for a man so far to the Left like Bunuel, is hard to dismiss and remains plenty problematic nonetheless). This Last Supper scene is a marvel of construction, with Bunuel again cutting mostly on movement and action to convey the world constantly moving and refusing to stop for Viridiana’s wishes, conveying her stagnancy and the stagnancy of the blind religious devotion propping her up. It cuts and cuts and cuts on all manner of action – people walking into the frame, leaving the frame, dancing, popping out of nowhere, spinning around, working, hobbling around drunkenly – but never to Viridiana, who remains trapped in her entombed religiosity, her inability to accept or understand the world around her. Because she cannot relate to the world, she appears in the film, especially during the second half, less than we might think, and when others move into and out of and around the camera, she remains still.
It has become almost impossible to discuss Bunuel’s film without a discussion of its production. A man of the sacrilegious Left, he left Spain amidst Franco’s oppressive right-wing regime and become a superstar in Mexico. It was only natural Spain would want him back, and this was his glorious return. Many of his disciples called him a sell-out, and he saw their anger and raised them one of the most anarchic, nihilistic, depraved, carnal, and devoutly, unsentimentally angry films he ever made. This was not an acceptance of the religious right, but a stunning indictment of their distance from the world and their inability to even consider the World on terms not their own. What Viridiana is left with, at the end, is to pass the time and to play cards, with the camera unnervingly panning outward to reveal her and those around her as the insignificant, small figures they are, surrounded by the opulent pleasures which construct and define them but which they refuse to admit they take part in. At the least, even in the film’s nihilistic view of all humans as functionally carnal and selfish, the paupers admit it and revel in it. In the meantime, Viridiana is left standing around to do nothing but speak to herself. Don Jaime’s son closes the film speaking to her, saying “Cousin, I knew someday you would shuffle the cards”. Finally, the only time Viridiana disavows religious moralism for simple everyday fun in playing cards, she can call something, however small and pitiful, her own.