Dir/scr/music: Julie Delpy. Germany-France. 2009. 94mins.


The tradition of the historical Euro-pudding at its stodgiest is revived in The Countess, a turgid and joyless biopic of notorious 17th-century Hungarian countess Erzebet Bathory. Julie Delpy charmed Berlin two years ago with her directing debut, the brittle comedy 2 Days In Paris, but her follow-up is a severe and humourless vanity project, in more senses than one.

Bathory, who allegedly used virgins’ blood to retain her youthful looks, has been played on screen before, by Paloma Picasso (in Borowczyk’s 1974 Immoral Tales) and Anna Friel (in last year’s Bathory), but the countess has never achieved the legendary screen status of another bloody Transylvanian aristo: Delpy’s film is not about to change that. Too earnestly leaden a costume drama to appeal to horror cultists, The Countessseems destined for rapid DVD release and merciful oblivion.

Thia English-language film is introduced in voice-over by nobleman Istvan Thurzo (Brwho recalls his youthful love for Bathory. A brief recap of her early years tell how little Erzebet was a cold-hearted, fearless child, given to burying live chicks in soil. As a young woman, Erzebet marries a nobleman renowned for his prowess in the war against the Turks (a political background constantly alluded to but rarely visible on screen).

After his death she visits Vienna where she is wooed by powerful Count Gyorgy Thurzo (Hurt). Rejecting him, she seduces his son Istvan instead. The jealous Gyorgy sabotages the pair’s romance and a heartbroken Erzebet starts to worry that she is losing her youthful looks. She develops the notion that virgin’s blood will keep her skin young and fresh and after a while starts culling local virgins. She even contrives a mechanical device somewhat like an iron maiden to squeeze virgins dry: possibly the world’s first juicer.

Similar absurdities include an S&M affair with corrupt admirer Dominic Vizakna (Blomberg) who likes a hearty thrashing: Erzebet obliges, without much enthusiasm. Unfortunately, Erzebet’s icy, unsmiling nature pervades the film, which refuses to live up to its own Gothic spirit, determined to be taken seriously at all costs. The film ends with a last-minute feminist gloss, suggesting that Bathory’s crimes were the stuff of libellous male invention: but since those crimes are precisely what the film is most interested in, this claim is disingenuous.

With its multi-national cast and fustian English dialogue (‘I will keep the Turks out of what is left of Hungary - no matter what it costs me’), the film features a cast uncertain whether to ham it up or, like a morose William Hurt, cling to their gravitas. Delpy’s accent hovers somewhere between Budapest and the mid-Atlantic. Determined to infuse Bathory with tragic nobility, Delpy plays her in an icy, detached style as lifelessly solemn as her direction. Martin Ruhe shoots elegantly, but there is too little visual variety to relieve the sumptuous severity, and the film’s main appeal lies in the design and costumes, emphasising heavy tones of black and gold. Delpy’s own leaden score adds to the funereal mood.

Production companies
X Filme International
Celluloid Dreams
X Filme Creative Pool
Fanes Film
Social Capital Films

International sales
Celluloid Dreams
(33) 1 49700307

Andro Steinborn

Martin Ruhe

Production design
Astrid Poeschke

Andrew Bird

Main cast
Julie Delpy
Daniel Br /> William Hurt
Anamaria Marinca
Sebastian Blomberg