Story of my Death – Albert Serra (2013)

After his great films Honour of the Knights (2005) and Birdsong (2008), Albert Serra’s Story of my Death (2013) was a highly anticipated film among critics and viewers alike. Serra is one of the key players in Slow Cinema, and distinguishes himself from other slow-film directors by loosely adapting stories of literary/fictional importance: there’s Don Quixote and Sancho on his way to who-knows-where, there are the Three Kings on the way to find baby Jesus, and Story is a film about Casanova. And Dracula. Yes, Serra was rather experimental in putting his characters together.

Story of my Death is a play on Casanova’s actual book, Story of my Life, which he wrote at the end of the 18th century. Early on in the film, Casanova says that he wants to write his memoirs, but he is never seen writing. He’s dreaming of writing. He himself says at some point that he’s obsessed with words. So great is the obsession with words that he wants to write a dictionary of cheeses. Just from this, you can gather that Serra has infused his new film with his usual sense of humour. It doesn’t make you laugh out loud. It’s a somewhat subtle quality of his films. They make you chuckle in silence. It’s one of the things you cannot find in other films that are under investigation on this blog.

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I don’t want to go into too much detail about the content of the film, but there are a few things I’d like to say with regards to its aesthetics. First of all, off-screen space is really important in Story. Weirdly enough, the film’s off-screen space is not a complex construct. There are merely a few parts of dialogue between characters that happen off-screen. Still, I found it fairly interesting. Reaction shots are hardly ever used in slow films, so this shouldn’t be a surprise to me at all. And yet, it is. I think this was the case because Serra hasn’t used off-screen space to such an extent before. I found it to be a real novelty, which worked well. Somehow I expected something from the off-screen space. Maybe it was because I knew that Dracula would show up at some point. Dracula, by the way, is a superb character in this film. So is Casanova. Serra’s representation and depiction of both is brilliant and, I find, with Story, Serra has reached a high in his study of characters.

Overall, the film is rather dark, judging from the lighting used in the film. Again, it kind of fits to the Dracula theme. In fact, the film gets darker towards the end of the film, and especially when Dracula has made his appearance after an hour or so into the film. I would have liked Serra to stick to those dark shots, because they’re all lovely. Beautiful artistic compositions, which generate an atmosphere that always made me wonder how I should feel. Darkness is often equated with evil, but Serra’s shots had a strangely cosy and warm feeling to them. Whenever the film cut to a scene in broad daylight, in bright sunshine, the film lost parts of its quality. They somehow didn’t fit in there, and disrupted the lovely contemplation of the night.

Speaking of contemplation – unfortunately, I have say something that makes me rather sad. This post can be read on my Slow Cinema blog (though I will reblog it on Viewing Film), but, in fact, Story of my Death isn’t a slow film in its original terms anymore. I have decided to upload the post here as Albert Serra is an icon in Slow Cinema, so I thought it would be appropriate to include his new film here, and say at the end that Serra is seemingly moving away from Slow Cinema. Don’t get me wrong, Slow Cinema is actually something that happens naturally and is hardly ever a deliberate choice. The long-takes are in place because the directors find them to be more appropriate in relation to their subjects, for example.

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It appears as though Casanova and Dracula didn’t make for a good slow film. The film is slow, but I would not categorise it as Slow Cinema. It is a “normal” arthouse film, which tend to be slower and longer than popular films. There are some striking long-takes in the film, but overall, the cuts happen fairly quick compared to his other films. There is no interest in the relationship between nature and man, which had been an interesting part in Serra’s earlier films. The outdoor space was important, if not more important than the characters. Not quite as much as in other slow films, but the general tendency was there. Empty frames are rare, too. Compared to his previous films, Story feels rather crammed, and because it is mainly set indoors, I missed the (virtual) breathing space. There’s also a lot more talk in this film than in his others.

So, while his film is great – although it dragged on a bit in the middle which made me think that the film could have been a bit shorter – it is not Slow Cinema, which is worth keeping in mind for further studies of Serra. With Story to his credit, it appears as if he’s not a director who sticks to Slow Cinema aesthetics, but is rather flexible in what he does. Grouping him together with others like Lav Diaz, Béla Tarr, or, say, Nicolás Pereda would be wrong, in fact.

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