The Vourdalak

The Vourdalak (2023)

The Vourdalak had its UK première at the Glasgow Film Festival 2024

Adrien Beau’s The Vourdalak opens on a dark and stormy night, with the Marquis Jacques Antoine Saturnin d’Urfe (Kacey Mottet Klein) banging on a door and pleading to be let in. Attacked by bandits, his escort has been murdered, while he has been robbed of his luggage and horse, and left wounded and lost. Despite the Marquis’ eminence as ‘diplomatic envoy of the King of France’, the man inside (Erwan Ribard) gruffly refuses him admittance, and recommends that he travel further west to another house whose head, old Gorcha, “will find you provisions and a horse for your journey.” 

The Vourdalak

Seduced on his way by the sight of Gorcha’s daughter Sdenka (Ariane Labed) dancing in the woods, and confused by Gorcha’s youngest son Piotr (Vassili Duburcq) whom he initially mistakes for a woman, the Marquis is taken to the house where he is introduced to the eldest son Jegor (Grégoire Colin), just back from a bloody hunt for Turks who had raided the village, and Jegor’s wife Anja (Claire Duburcq) and their young son Vlad (Gabriel Pavie). Indeed, the Marquis meets everyone in the family except Gorcha himself, who had headed off alone in pursuit of the Turks’ leader six days earlier, first warning Sdenka and Piotr that if he should not return until after 6pm this very day, then they must turn him away as he will have become an ‘accursed vourdalak’. 

The Vourdalak

Jegor regards this as superstitious ‘nonsense’, while the Marquis does not even know what a vourdalak is (a local variation on the vampire, preying especially on kin) – but when Gorcha (voiced by Beau) does return, he is clearly a cadaverous shadow of his former self, even if his paternal authority still has a commanding grip on the family. “If a father is not everything for his children,” Gorcha will later tell his collected progeny, “he is nothing”. Tough, manly Jegor is a chip off the old block, arrogating leadership of the family to himself in his father’s absence and then falling unquestioningly back into line upon his father’s return. This leaves only melancholic Sdenka – got up as though she were in Sergei Paradjanov’s The Colour of Pomegranates (Sayat Nova, 1968) – and cross-dressing ‘sissy’ Piotr to resist and stop Gorcha before his malign presence can turn the family’s love against them, bringing them all tragically down. 

Indeed Beau’s feature debut, which he and Hadrien Bouvier have adapted from Aleksey Konstantinovich Tolstoy’s novella The Family of the Vourdalak (1839), is very much a portrait of a family, and of the patriarchy that both shapes and traps its members. Yet in aligning the viewer with the wigged-and-powdered Marquis – a craven, homesick fop always out of his league who is as much an outsider looking voyeuristically in, whether through windows or telescopes, as we are – Beau brings to his grotesque gothic a tone of playful absurdity reminiscent of the jauntily comic horrors found in Wojciech Has’ The Saragossa Manuscript (1965), Faye Jackson’s Strigoi (2009) and Rainer Sarnet’s November (2017). 

The Vourdalak

Shot in Super 16mm with natural lighting (often sourced merely from candles), scored (by Martin Le Nouvel and Maia Xifaras) with period-appropriate harpsichord, strings and percussion, and using practical puppetry to transform an already domineering paterfamilias into an unnerving, all-devouring monster, The Vourdalak is true to its nineteenth-century setting, while less true to Tolstoy’s novella. For here the ending, though formally encoding the film’s literary origins, also rewrites them, altering and updating Tolstoy’s text to import a more modern, even feminist form of liberation – with a toxic twist. It is a funny, weird, transgressive tale of more than one stranger in more than one strange land.

strap: Adrien Beau’s comic-gothic debut feature sends a noble French envoy over the edge in his encounters with a cursed family

© Anton Bitel