Ever since the highly acclaimed Honor de Cavalleria debuted nearly ten years ago, Catalan director Albert Serra has earned a front-row seat at a coterie of maverick modern-day auteurs beloved of film critics, alongside equally leftfield contemporary directors such as Pedro Costa, Léos Carax, Jean-Marie Straub and the late Danièle Huillet or the found-footage duo Yervant Gianikian & Angela Ricci Lucchi.
Unlike Messrs. Carax or Costa, though, Mr. Serra has been treading a very fine line between the impenetrable and the poseur, his melding of Terrence Malick's lyrical naturalism and Robert Bresson's ascetic austerity intriguing on paper but usually underwhelming on screen. There's always been too much a sense that the Catalan director's cinema is a collection of well-disguised auteurist tropes, smugly passed off as radical filmmaking but in fact aimed straight at the orthodox centre of a certain type of "art cinema" meant to make specialist audiences feel good about their smarts.
Mr. Serra can be a wonderful pictorialist in his images, often shot on location in natural lighting with consumer cameras and non-professional actors, without a set script and reacting often to the moment, suggesting a sort of cinema-povero-vérité. In Story of My Death that idea is taken to breaking point with its numerous nocturnal scenes, Jimmy Gimferrer's lensing evoking a failed no-budget attempt to emulate John Alcott's sterling work on Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon - the murkiness of the digital cinematography is such that for long stretches the viewer is left clutching at straws as to what is happening and whom is in the frame.
As in Mr. Serra's previous takes on classic literary myths (Don Quijote in Honor de Cavalleria, the Three Wise Kings in El Cant dels Ocells/Birdsong), Story of My Death is a series of loose episodes starring historical figures. Here, it's famed seducer Giacomo Casanova (played by Catalan art historian and curator Vicenç Altaió) and his valet (Serra regular Lluís Serrat), during a trip beginning in Switzerland and ending in the depths of Transylvania as Casanova's paths cross those of count Dracula (Eliseu Huertas) - not that you'd know, since neither name is uttered during the film's two-and-a-half-hour length, and all is so dimly lighted and elusively presented that it's hard to make ends or tails of what exactly is going on.
There may be allusions of mind versus body, thought versus action, reflection versus spontaneity, but all of it is infuriatingly left at the viewer's discretion, to a greater, more flamboyant extent than in his previous work. This gives off a strong sense that Mr. Serra is setting the bar deliberately high in order to "filter" only the ones that are willing to put in the hard work his cinema demands: his long, almost unbearably slow takes, the lack of traditional narrative arc replaced by an apparent make-it-up-as-you-go-along free-form structure, seem designed as a pass/fail test to keep away the undesired. It's almost as if, instead of inviting viewers into his peculiar universe, the director is striving to keep them out and allow only the "chosen few" in.
That nothing much happens throughout the two and a half hours of Story of My Death shouldn't be a problem if you're a gifted filmmaker; the problem with Mr. Serra is you never know if the gifts are truly his or merely the well-played tricks of a preternaturally aware confidence artist. In either case, Story of My Death only re-shuffles the cards some more.
HISTÒRIA DE LA MEVA MORT
Spain, France 2013
Cast Vicenç Altaió, Lluís Serrat
Director, screenwriter and editor Albert Serra; cinematographer Jimmy Gimferrer (colour, widescreen); composers Ferran Font, Marc Verdaguer, Joe Robinson and Enric Juncá; art directors Sebastián Vogler and Mihnea Mihailescu; costumes Lourdes Pérez and Rosa Tharrats; producers Montse Triola, Thierry Lounas and Mr. Serra, Andergraun Films and Capricci Films in collaboration with Televisió de Catalunya
Screened May 14th 2014 (distributor press screening, Medeia Monumental 3, Lisbon)