There are many ways to try and make yourself look younger. Some people slather themselves in Oil of Olay, while others are a little more drastic and go under the surgeon’s knife. But what if you lived in the 16th Century? With Boots absent in the local market and a sorrowful dearth of plastic surgeons, what options do you have available to you? Cover yourself in ceruse and give yourself lead poisoning? Or maybe slaughter some virgins and cover yourself in their blood? Oh yeah, that last one sounds like a brilliant idea!
But how does one come upon such a drastic idea? Do you have to be born with the demented mind of Vlad the Impaler? Perhaps. But striking your servants also helps. And hitting them so hard that you draw their blood is especially important. And then once you’ve done this, don’t forget to smear the blood all over your face and crazily tell yourself that you look years younger.
This is what Erzsébet Báthory, a Hungarian countess, does. Enraged at the failure of a relationship with a younger man, she blames her age. And sadly, all the make-up in the world does little to ease the wrinkles and the insecurities that come with them.
Thank heavens then for servants and virgins and the restorative powers of their blood!
Based on the life of a Hungarian psychopath and mass murderer, The Countess is an unexpected project from writer, director and actor Julie Delpy - I’ve never known her to voyage into such dark, murderous territory. But it’s not a particularly worthwhile venture.
Hamstrung by horrible acting and leaden writing, The Countess kind of feels like a Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, minus the poetry and complexity. Here women are collected for their blood but there’s little sense of tragedy or gravity.
A large portion of the blame must fall upon the relationship between Báthory and her younger lover István. They share a night of passion together and István is almost beside himself. But he’s such a wimp and his affection has such a queasy, fawning quality that you find it hard to understand what the Countess sees in him (besides his fit, young body). Does it please her ego to have attracted such a young man? Does he give her feelings of self-worth? It has to be something she’s projecting onto him because István himself is an empty vessel.
Their moments together are probably some of the worst since Titanic. You know how the women cooed and their hearts fluttered when that steamy hand hits the car window and when Rose holds poor, shivering Jack in her arms, his cherry well and truly popped, and how all the guys responded by rolling their eyes and snickering because Jack has immediately placed himself in a subservient position? Well, my reaction was much the same. So you’ve had some earth-shattering sex? Have some dignity! No need to be a clingy child about it. Just strut over to the fridge and finish that leftover curry as a reward for a job well done. Okay, I know they didn’t have fridges back then, but you get the idea. Go and hunt a deer and roast it over an open fire before ripping it apart with your bare hands? Would that be the 16th Century equivalent of raiding the fridge?
Before they can shack up and live happily ever after, István’s father finds out about his son’s relationship and prevents his son from seeing the Countess again. Wow, just when you thought the character couldn’t be any more dickless! Daddy has locked you up and handed you the sternest ever cock block. And to cap it all off, István’s father makes his son marry someone else and even writes some letters to Báthory, pretending that they’re from István to kill the relationship off for good.
And so the seeds are sown for Báthory’s descent into madness.
To be fair, once the Countess goes ape shit and starts bathing in people’s blood, the film becomes a hell of a lot more watchable. But that doesn’t mean it gets any better. The scene where the Countess yells at her underlings to find a beauty remedy that actually works is ridiculously hysterical.
But it does have a kind of car crash quality that at least makes you want to find out what happens next. Ooh, she’s slowly draining her maid of blood. Will the maid realise that she’s being killed and try and make an escape, or will she just meekly accept it?
And there’s also plenty of comedy in the kinky S&M relationship that develops between Báthory and a young count. Count Vizakna enjoys being beaten and so therefore we get to see this brutally ugly Count get belted by a somewhat bored Julie Delpy. Okay, so you go from having this ridiculously pure, innocent, twinkly love to kinky S&M. That’s a big 360. It’s like you’ve gone from missionary to water torture with gimp masks in the span of twenty four hours.
Perhaps more impressive than this though is the fact that the Countess designs a special blood extracting seat - virgins are strapped into a chair and then a frame with spikes is shut around them and their blood is collected. So now she’s like the Himmler of virgin blood extraction? She no longer has to worry about slowly bleeding girls or messily murdering them - she can kill them in an orderly, systematic fashion.
And so it goes for the rest of the film...
Towards the end there’s a half-assed attempt to add some ambiguity. It’s put into question whether these murders ever happened or whether it was a conspiracy to take away the Countess’s power - the men in the story seem to be uncomfortable with a woman wielding power. But it’s added so late in the game that the damage is done.
To be fair, there are a couple of good moments in The Countess, such as the creepy moment when Báthory is bathing in blood and sees herself in the mirror - we see her deluded point of view and her reflection looks much younger than the reality. But moments like this are few and far between - for the most part The Countess is a hysterical collection of wooden acting and stilted dialogue; it’s a clunky, awkward film.