Symbolist? Arguably. Decadent? Certainly. Watching Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula (1992) again this weekend I thought it worth making note of some of these resonances. The real age of Symbolist cinema was the Silent Era from around 1910 onwards, something I discussed in more detail here. That being so, several films made since can be taken as Symbolist (more usually Decadent) productions even if this was never their original intention. Kenneth Anger‘s Magic Lantern Cycle comes immediately to mind, so too Sergei Parajanov’s The Colour of Pomegranates.
Bram Stoker’s novel was published in 1897 at the ebbing of the fin de siècle but vampires and vampirism were already recurrent Symbolist themes. Aesthetic magus Walter Pater wrote of the Mona Lisa in 1893, “She is older than the rocks among which she sits; like the vampire, she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave…” Dracula almost demands a Symbolist interpretation, and for now Coppola’s production is the closest we get. I’ve found this makes the film more satisfying in a way: you can ignore the shoddy performances by secondary characters and concentrate on the decor and details (and the tremendous score by Wojciech Kilar). Some of the following screen grabs argue my point.
Oh look, peacock feathers. I loved the artificiality of this film, the excessive palette, the obvious models and miniatures, the layering of images. The dissolve from a peacock feather to Jonathan Harker’s infernal train journey is a great moment.
Exhibit A for the Symbolist case: Dracula’s castle was based on Resistance, or The Black Idol (1903), a print by Symbolist artist František Kupka. I tend to think they could have done more with the interiors (there are some nice sculpted heads) but we do have a borrowing from Jean Cocteau in the monumental arms holding lamps from the walls.
Exhibit B would be the sultry vampire brides: Monica Bellucci (above), Michaela Bercu and Florina Kendrick (below). The fin de siècle collision of Eros and Thanatos is exemplified in the seduction scene with Jonathan Harker: costumes, colours and the women themselves are all pitch-perfect.
Florina Kendrick especially incarnates all the Medusoid femmes fatales of the Decadence with her serpentine hair. There’s an additional resonance when the three women appear near the climax of the film accompanied by music from Diamanda Galás. The track heard is from the Saint of the Pit album wherein Ms Galás recites various works of Romantic and Symbolist poetry.
Maléficia (1905) by Phillipe Wolfers.
Finally, there’s the absinthe scene. Moulin Rouge! had to satisfy itself with a Kylie Minogue Tinkerbell; Coppola gives us a dreamy wormwood seduction complete with hallucinations and reincarnated memories. Yes, Mina, sin is at the heart of it all.
Update: Evan pointed out something I’d missed, Dracula’s Klimt-styled gown, seen mostly at the end of the film. Enough of Gustav Klimt’s work qualifies as Symbolist to make this another significant motif.