In an earlier post about the historical figure Erzebet Bathory, also known as the Blood Countess, I mentioned that there were two biographical movies scheduled to come out about her. Between inconsistencies in the historical record and the outrageousness of her legend, I've found it hard to know what to make of Erzebet Bathory, so I was looking forward to seeing these movies.
I've now seen both movies, and they are very different from each other, both in tone and in how they interpret the many legends around Bathory. The one thing the movies do seem to agree on is that Erzebet Bathory was targeted for prosecution due to political intrigue, rather than for crimes actually committed.
I first watched The Countess, which stars Julie Delpy as Erzebet. I found this movie to be artistically satisfying. It recounts many components of the blood countess legend as fact, but amplifies them in a way that explains Erzebet's motives in a psychologically compelling fashion.
Starting in childhood, we see young Erzebet's penchant for cruelty, as she is encouraged to exercise discipline on her servants. The demonstration of her childhood cruelty paints a realistic portrait of the origins and growth of her psychopathy.
Female vanity is usually cited as the reason why Erzebet Bathory chose to murder hundreds of young women, in the belief that bathing in virgin blood would help her stay young and retain her good looks. Although female vanity is an intriguing part of the story, I've never found female vanity in and of itself to be a strong enough motive for mass murder.
The Countess elaborates on the vanity theme, making Erzebet's need for youthful beauty understandable through a touching depiction of her relationship with a much younger man. Her anguished love fuels a growing anxiety about her looks, which, in her desperation, leads her to adopt the practice of bathing in virgin blood. Quite apart from its role in explaining the Bathory legend, I found the representation of romance between an older woman and younger man to be very affecting.
Further complicating this cross-generational relationship is the existence of an on-again, off-again lesbian affair between Erzebet and a figure from the historical record named Duvulia. In the legends surrounding Erzebet, one finds tales of lesbianism as well as accusations of vampirism. Erzebet Bathory seems to be the inspiration for the lesbian vampire type, a staple of both literature and film.
As far as I can tell from my reading, it's unknown whether Erzebet and Duvulia were romantically involved. In The Countess, Duvulia is portrayed as part of Erzebet's retinue and as an individual considered to have paranormal powers. Duvulia is also portrayed as more in love with Erzebet than Erzebet is with her. These messy romantic entanglements are treated with subtlety and contrast nicely with the arrangements for murder occurring in the background.
One of the successes of The Countess is its consistency of tone. If I had to describe the film succinctly, I would say it's like watching a horror film made for Masterpiece Theater. Although there is genuine gore in the film, the overall mood of restraint gives the film a macabre feel that is very distinctive. If you like horror and Masterpiece Theater productions, you will probably love this movie.
The film Bathory takes a completely different attitude to the legends surrounding Erzebet. Over the course of the movie, the more sensational aspects of the legend are debunked or explained away. What is left is mostly a story of political and religious intrigue, with Erzebet caught between ambitious nobles on the one hand and feuding Catholics and protestants on the other.
The movie suggests that Erzebet may have dabbled in some blood rites under the tutelage of Duvulia, who appears as an older, witch-like figure. We see some young women being carried from the castle and being buried, but it's unclear if they were killed for their blood or if they died while being disciplined in the course of service to their mistress.
As is sometimes true of films that try to represent the course of history, Bathory lacks dramatic shape. Yet, the film seems willing to fictionalize some aspects of the story, because it includes an invented relationship between Erzebet and the artist Caravaggio. The movie does have its moments--the costuming is interesting, though I can't speak to its accuracy, and Anna Friel does a respectable job with Erzebet.
While it may be based on fantasy, The Countess is a much more powerful film than Bathory. The legends may not be true, but The Countess does a fantastic job of explaining why they continue to fascinate.