'The Countess'

Wacky tale of a woman who killed virgins for their blood.

A 16th-century noblewoman turns to an unusual moisturizer for comfort after she’s been abandoned by her much younger lover in “The Countess,” multitasker Julie Delpy’s stab at a biopic of Erzebet Bathory. Marred by unnatural English dialogue and a plethora of different accents, this wacky tale of a woman who killed virgins for their blood to keep her skin wrinkle-free in a pre-Botox age might get some traction in a dubbed version in Central Europe, where it is set, but won’t make it past the Europudding label elsewhere. Pic’s best chances are as a cult item.

Bathory is sometimes dubbed “the Blood Countess” on account of her fame (or infamy) for bathing in virgins’ blood to retain her youth. Like the recent “Bathory” by Slovak helmer Juraj Jakubisko, the pic tries to have it both ways, reveling in the gothic horror aspects of the story but also suggesting the countess might have been the victim of a conspiracy. And as in that film, the psychology of the title character is the pic’s biggest victim.

After an opening heavy on exposition, the plot finally springs into motion when the husband of Countess Bathory (Delpy) dies. Attending a dance as a widow, she meets the young Istvan Thurzo (Daniel Bruehl), and a love affair develops. But the scheming Count Thurzo (William Hurt) sends his son abroad to get married there, and Bathory remains behind, heartbroken, not knowing why Istvan abandoned her.

Already revealed to have a cruel streak and convinced that the age difference might have something to do with Istvan’s departure, Bathory starts applying the blood of young virgins to her face in the belief it will keep her from aging.

Though some individual moments work, Delpy’s screenplay lacks psychological connective tissue. It never becomes clear why a powerful and intelligent woman was brought to her knees by a cute kid, only to turn murderous and possibly insane when deprived of her object of affection.

But the pic’s biggest hurdle for English speakers is the dialogue, which oscillates between faux-Shakespearean grandeur and contempo street talk, and is delivered by an international cast in a hodgepodge of accents.

In “Before Sunset,” which Delpy co-wrote, and her previous directorial effort, “2 Days in Paris,” the small cast of contempo characters was close to her own experience, and the off-the-cuff philosophizing and banter felt true. But a historical drama with a large cast and a plot-driven story — especially one as outlandish as this one — requires a strong, coherent vision and sense of purpose that “The Countess” sorely lacks.

As a thesp, Delpy fares only slightly better, while the unlikely father-son pairing of Hurt and Bruehl is just odd. Anamaria Marinca (Berlin competition entry “Storm”), in the small role of a potionmaker and Bathory’s spurned lesbian lover, is the cast’s only bright spot.

Shot on various locations in Germany, the pic looks handsome in an austere way, with only Pierre-Yves Gayraud’s costumes adding some extravagant touches. Lensing by d.p. Martin Ruhe (“Control”), in very composed shots and muted colors, is aces and confirms him as a name to watch. Delpy’s work on the classical but effective score might be her finest contribution to the project.

The Countess

Germany-France

Production

An X Verleih release (in Germany) of an X Filme Intl. presentation of an X Filme Intl. (Germany)/Celluloid Dreams Prods. (France) production, in association with X Filme Creative Pool, Fanes Film, with the participation of Social Capital Films. (International sales: Celluloid Dreams, Paris.) Produced by Andro Steinborn. Executive producers, Skady Lis, Christian Baute, Chris Coen, Martin Shore, Gordon Steel. Co-producers, Hengameh Panahi, Matthew Chausse, Christopher Tuffin. Directed, written by Julie Delpy

Crew

Camera (color), Martin Ruhe; editors, Andrew Bird, Julie Delord; music, Delpy, Mark Streitenfeld; production designer, Hubert Pouille; costume designer, Pierre-Yves Gayraud; sound (Dolby SRD), Dirk Bombey; associate producers, Stefan Arndt, Manuela Stehr; casting, Anja Dihrberg, Jacqeline Rietz. Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (Panorama), Feb. 9, 2009. Running time: 99 MINS.

With

Julie Delpy, Daniel Bruehl, William Hurt, Anamaria Marinca, Sebastian Blomberg, Charly Huebner, Anna Maria Muehe, Frederick Lau, Adriana Altaras, Andre Hennicke. (English, French dialogue.)

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