Credit: Oscilloscope Laboratories
by Daniel Gorman Featured Film Genre Views

The Vourdalak — Adrien Beau

June 28, 2024

Vampires and their attendant mythologies have permeated pop culture for what seems like centuries; they have, at least, been a part of cinema since the silent era. One way of attempting a new angle on well-trod territory is to eschew Stoker altogether and adapt a work that predates Dracula by over 50 years. To that end, director Adrien Beau has seized on Aleksey Tolstoy’s 1839 novella The Family of the Vourdalak. Originally published in French, the legend of the vourdalak hails from Slavic folklore, similar to vampire lore but more specifically conceived of as a threat to its own immediate family. It’s a different emphasis than the psycho-sexual implications of Stoker’s bloodsuckers, turning the threat from the external to the internal.

This story begins in the 18th century with the Marquis d’Urfé (Kacey Mottet-Klein), a noble emissary of the King of France, being attacked by bandits in an isolated forest. Scared for his life and now bereft of his belongings, the Marquis journeys through the woods until he comes across a small homestead. Here he lays eyes on the beautiful and mysterious Sdenka (Ariane Labed). She’s the eldest daughter of Jegor (Grégoire Colin), who has been away fighting. Jegor returns and offers the Marquis room and board, but also bemoans the absence of his father Gorcha, the family patriarch, who even at an advanced age has left home to join the fight against the neighboring Turks. Gorcha has informed his grandchildren and daughter-in-law that should he not return by nightfall on the sixth day, then he is dead, and if they thereafter see him, he has surely been transformed into a Vourdalak. Sdenka and her brothers are horrified when the sixth day passes and Gorcha remains absent. But Jegor does not believe in such superstitions, and so when a wounded and confused Gorcha returns on the seventh day, Jegor welcomes him back with open arms. Obviously, something is clearly wrong, and so begins the slow dissolution of the family while the Marquis looks on in horror, desperate to save Sdenka but also in fear for his own life.

What is most engaging about Beau’s film is its uncanny strangeness; as Mark Fisher reminds us, “the weird and the eerie are preoccupied with the strange, as opposed to the horrific.” Indeed, The Vourdalak is never a particularly scary film, and it’s certainly not terrifying. But it is insidious in its sheer oddness. At times, the film evokes something like Rivette’s Hurlevent, with its familial melodrama playing out against the scraggliness of a disinterested nature and a unremarkably realistic period setting. Gorcha’s home is sparsely decorated, lit only via natural light or candles, and, per period accuracy, devoid of anything beyond rudimentary utensils, cooking accoutrement, and bedding. Into this otherwise naturalistic milieu, Beau inserts his boldest (/oddest) stylistic intervention — Gorcha is portrayed via a large skeletal puppet, which the other characters never remark upon. It’s a wonderful effect, emphasizing the “otherness” of Gorcha while gleefully disrupting the otherwise realistic milieu. Viewers can certainly guess where the story is going, but Beau and co-writer Hadrien Bouvier resist typical identification figures by making the family standoff-ish and aloof, while The Marquis is sketched as a preening coward who attempts to sexually assault Sdenka when she rebuffs his advances (he also spends the film almost entirely in decorative wig and white face powder, almost as out of place as the Gorcha creature). In these clever subversions, and in eschewing much of the usual expressionism of typical vampire movies, The Vourdalak stands as a wonderful reminder of how malleable the genre can truly be.

DIRECTOR: Adrien Beau;  CAST: Kacey Mottet Klein, Ariane Labed, Grégoire Colin, Vassili Schneider;  DISTRIBUTOR: Oscilloscope Laboratories;  IN THEATERS: June 28;  RUNTIME: 1 hr. 30 min.