Review: The Countess (2009)

Review: The Countess

“Your vanity will be your undoing!” ~ Darvulia

Starring: Julie Delpy, Daniel Bruhl, William Hurt, and Sebastian Blomberg.

Released in 2009

The Countess details the life of Erzsébet Báthory, a renowned Hungarian Countess who lived during the Sixteenth century.

Erzsébet, played by Julie Delpy(Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, 2 Days in Paris) in her third directorial attempt, was born into Hungarian nobility in 1560. The tale is told through the eyes of her former lover, István Thurzó, played by the talented Daniel Brühl.

The story takes us briefly through Erzsébet’s harsh childhood and loveless marriage. There is a graphic scene involving her peasant lover at the beginning of the film that sets the tone for the rest of the movie: hard, cruel, and cold. We get glimpses of her strange and dark thoughts, and how her passions can get her into trouble.

Erzsébet grows up to be a beautiful and powerful woman and bears her husband three children. He returns from war with the Turks and succumbs to a sudden illness. Left with her children, Erzsébet moves to Čachtice castle. The montage of scenes, which ends with the death of her husband, tell us that Erzsébet Báthory has grown up in a world that is both privileged and wealthy, but also brutal and devious. The Erzsébet that emerges for us is an intelligent woman who is able to play in the rough and tumble game of Hungarian politics.

There, she meets the son of her cousin Count György Thurzó, played by William Hurt (A History of Violence, Syriana, Robin Hood), István Thurzó. She in 20 years his senior but they fall madly in love and begin an affair. Count György asks for her hand in marriage and she rebuffs him. When he finds out later than she is having an affair with his son, he decides to take revenge. It’s here that the story is told from a different perspective. Erzsébet Báthory’s tale usually makes her out to be a vain, vicious, serial killer, obsessed with youth. She IS all these things but what the movie does brilliantly is building sympathy for her. It plants the seeds of doubt: is she is the victim of betrayal for refusing two men who clamoured for her affections; her cousin, Count György and the wicked and sadistic Count Dominic Vizakna, played by Sebastian Blomberg (The Coming Days, Who If Not us?).

Erzsébet is heartbroken when István breaks off their love affair. She doesn’t realise that it was his jealous father’s doing and believes that it is her age that caused him to leave. After accidentally being splashed with blood when she strikes a servant girl, she mistakenly thinks smearing it on her skin makes her look younger. Everyone but Darvulia sees the “miraculous” changes to her skin. She begins drawing blood from virgin serving girls in the nearby village. The bodies pile up rather quickly and suspicions arise when too many girls go missing. Erzsébet moves onto virgin noble women believing their blood is even more pure because of their lineage. At this point, István is sent out to investigate Erzsébet by his father because he doesn’t want to believe Erzsébet is the evil person people have claimed she is and he is the only one who can get close to her.

Erzsébet ‘s dilemma is one that many people can relate to – the fear of getting old. Although those around her see her as beautiful, Erzsébet  only sees the signs of aging and worries that she will no longer be attractive. At one point she says, “God is it wrong to stay beautiful and young?” This becomes her deepest desire, and what ultimately pushes her into madness.  Her panic at seeing herself, in her own words, “rotting”, and her belief that the blood of young virgins will make her appear youthful, begins the gruesome chain of events.

Blomberg does a fantastic job as the dark, and sinister Count Vizakna. His family suffers from a curious condition where they cannot go out into the sun giving as nod to the vampire element of this story. Vizakna enjoys pain and encourages Erzsébet to explore this side of her. They embark on a sadomasochistic relationship where he allows her to whip nd strangle him during sex. As her relationship to Vizakna grows deeper, she also spirals further down into murder.  Both Vizakna and György betray her by altering circumstances to make Erzsébet appear guilty.

“There is beauty in letting time do its duty” ~ Darvulia

Another equally strong character is Erzsébet’s witch confidante, Darvulia. She counsels Erzsébet away from the madness of her vanity and tries to warn her about Vizakna but Erzsébet doesn’t listen. Darvulia’s character is also interesting because she is portrayed (albeit quietly) as a lesbian. At one point, after Darvulia admonishes Erzsébet, the Countess threatens her as a means of insuring her silence by saying that Darvulia is a virgin since she has only bedded women. Darvulia, not wanting to meet the same fate as the serving women, keeps her mouth shut.

“Perhaps if her heart had not been broken she would not have become who she is.” ~ István

István rekindles their romance but sadly, finds evidence of her crimes, i.e., her crypt, and the cage used to extract blood. In the end, he is there to see punishment exacted when Erzsébet is immured in her room. She has only a few small holes for sunlight and a sliding flap for her food while her peasant accomplices meet a much harsher fate.

While the movie does not portray her as a saint – far from it, it does make a good case for casting some doubt. Was she a victim of the scorned love of Vizakna? Was she betrayed so that King Matthias II could avoid repayment of his massive debt for her help in his war efforts against the Turks? Did her cousin contrive to plot against her for rebuffing his affections? All of these ideas are posited by István in his retelling of this horrific tale.  She is not absolved of her actions but she is cast in a more sympathetic light where you can see the circumstances that added up to cause her to become one of the most feared serial killers of the sixteenth century.

We didn’t go into this movie with high expectations so we were very pleased to have enjoyed it as much as I did. It has a rather languid pace and, with the exception of Hurt, it is not full of big budget Hollywood actors. Daniel Brühl does a wonderful job as the naïve and adoring István, and the movie is beautifully filmed. The dialogue is witty and makes up for what the movie is lacking in pacing and action.

It is brutal, but not in a scary, overtly gory, way. There are some stomach turning moments and seeing as Erzsébet Báthory is known for having bathed in the blood of virgins – if blood makes you squeamish, then this is not the movie for you!

Delpy does an incredible job playing Erzsébet and portraying her in a compassionate light while directing a story that was reasonably faithful to the Báthory legend. This movie could have portrayed Erzsébet  Báthory either as a sadistic villain, or as innocent dupe. Julie Delpy has created a complex character who has both traits, but is also much more. We get to see a woman who is deeply conflicted and traumatized with who she is becoming, but the movie also shows her vanity and cruelty. The Countess is both the perpetrator and the victim, and Delpy gives a great performance that gives us an Erzsébet  Báthory who is fighting her own inner struggle, one that in end she is bound to lose.



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