The Faithful Heart: Fidelity in Bram Stoker’s Dracula
Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a film that gets plenty of air play around Halloween, and for good reason: it’s eye candy, it tries to stay true to the source material, and the score is pretty good (we’re going to overlook the accents today in the name of positivity). Plus it has Tom Waits, which earns points from me. Anyway, the romance between Vlad (Gary Oldman) and Mina (Winona Ryder) often gets billed as a Gothic love story; however, I find that when I watch this one, the subject of fidelity comes up in different forms. Between the loss of faith of Vlad and the politics of Jonathan and Mina’s sexual/emotional indiscretions, this becomes an apt tale of how the violation of one’s long-held beliefs can mar the course of a life.
|Not just your average romance.|
The inciting moment of the plot comes when Vlad hears that his wife Elisabeta will be denied entry into heaven due to her suicide, signifying the damage of a loss of spiritual fidelity to his god. Frankly, I don’t blame Elisabeta for her actions: if true, Vlad’s death would have meant her rape, enslavement and/or execution. She reacted in a manner that would have spared her the greatest amount of torment; however, church doctrine stated that this left her damned, and therefore, she could not be buried in accordance with the traditional rites. This is a massive slap in the face for someone who just impaled thousands of people in what is presumed to be the Night Attack, a 1462 stand against the Sultan of the Ottoman empire in defiance of paying taxes on Christians. That he fought for the church and now had to hear that there would be no bending of the rules for his hoodwinked wife shot the man clear over the edge, lashing out in a way that was both symbolically painful and domineering: by stabbing the cross and consuming the blood that poured out. “The blood is the life… and it shall be mine,” he declares, effectively taking the first steps toward vampirism. In essence, Vlad is seeking to dominate and destroy the part of him that housed his faith, the thing that lead to this whole mess in the first place. The worst part? It’s absolutely baseless. At no point does Elisabeta pop up and say, “Hey, hubs, I’m really in Heaven. It’s cool. Live your life. I’ll see you in about 20 years. I’ll save you some pie.” Nor does her ghost scream, “OH, THE HUMANITY! I’M IN HELL! BLAME THE PRIEST!” This whole mess starts on the assumption that his wife is in hell, or will go to hell because she was not given proper burial rights due to a suicide. It’s ultimately a crisis of faith that ends in a tantrum, resulting in demonic powers and death for many. Vlad takes full responsibility for this, and in fact relishes in the mayhem he causes because he’s so angry with perceived the betrayal at the hands of his god.
Jonathan (Keanu Reeves, whom I love, but really shouldn’t try accent work), on the other hand, does not take any responsibility in his loss of fidelity, which is more sexual in nature. Instead, Jonathan’s physical transgressions are brushed off as a supernatural seduction of which he had no control. The poor lamb is lured to the brides’ bed by the false sound of Mina’s voice, which taps into his sense of loneliness, desire and fear that he’ll never see her again. Once he’s being kissed, fed upon and fellated by the three female vampires (including Monica Bellucci, for which I am forever thankful), he’s lost in the sensations and does not offer a refusal of the physical interaction. At no point does he call for a time out to declare that he’s engaged and probably shouldn’t be getting head from someone else. The fact that he’s horrified by the offering of the baby as food to the brides works to absolve him of this, making him more of a victim rather than a participant. Later on, he blames his inability to escape on the fact that the brides “drain my blood to make me weak,” once again placing the bulk of the action onto the brides while shifting away from his inactivity. There’s no ownership on his part, except when it comes to casting himself in a positive light. It’s all Jonathan and his undying love to Mina when he escapes and goes to the abbey run by the nuns. To Jonathan, his loss of sexual fidelity was due to a victimization; while true to a certain extent, he happily partook in the pleasurable aspect of the infidelity, which casts some doubt on his ability to act in the name of appearing to be the wronged party.
|“I had nothing to do with this, I swear!”|
The treatment of Mina’s loss of fidelity is both tricky and strangely progressive for the time period in which this tale takes place. Mina begins with a rigid view of faithfulness to one’s spouse, going so far as to tell Lucy, “There’s more to marriage than carnal pleasures.” She confesses to her friend that the furthest she’s gone is a kiss with her fiance, demonstrating how limited her sexual experience (or lack thereof) really is. So when she meets Vlad – who, let’s face it, has managed to stalk her via astral projection and mental manipulation – she shoots him down by mentioning a husband. In a twist that still makes my blood boil,Vlad manages to get an apology out of her for being a borderline creep, and proceeds to wow her with tons of vampire charm and then basically take her on a date around London to the movies. On the second date we see, she dresses in red, suggestively drinks absinthe, demonstrates an intense emotional connection with Vlad and ends their time with a kiss and him turning her tears into diamonds. I’m pretty sure this violates the social contract that Mina and Jonathan have; Mina and Jonathan don’t seem to be the open relationship types (note: not knocking open relationships in any way, just stating the norms of the time period in which this takes place). Mina does realize that she’s violated this social custom at the moment of receipt of Jonathan’s letter by stating, “The sweet prince. Jonathan must never know of this.” She honors her engagement and goes through with the marriage, but hopes to see Vlad again upon her return to London, making the shift in her emotions far more concrete. She can now articulate her feelings better, solidifying her romantic attachment: “Now that I am married I begin to understand the nature of my feelings for my strange friend.” In essence, Jonathan is the social contract and Vlad is the emotional one, though the two cannot exist openly and in harmony. She keeps this disconnect from her husband, most likely because he would not give consent to the extramarital relationship due to social constraints of the time period. Emotionally and, in a sense, physically, she is cheating on him. However, Jonathan is free with his forgiveness once the true nature of the relationship with Vlad is exposed. When Mina has to be the one to kill Vlad, he discourages the others from pitching in, telling them, “Our work has finished here. Hers has just begun.” The sympathy with which Reeves delivers this leads me to believe that his Jonathan pitied her loss and wanted to allow her time to process it. He forgot the hurts and the social expectations in order to focus on her well-being. While probably not intentional, it was a massive step toward a more open dialogue. I’ll be honest: from the first time I watched this film, I always wondered what the hell their marriage would be like after this incident: how many fights would this inspire or devolve into? Would they ever be able to look at each other again? How were these two going to raise a family together and move on in light of the whole “I had to kill the man I really loved that I was shtupping” aspect?
|Yeah, you’re going to have some issues, honey.|
The way this ties in together does go for a moving angle. “I understood how my love could release us all from the powers of darkness,” Mina tells her memoirs. That Vlad dies in the same church in which he denounced god symbolizes that he has once again found the ability to accept his faith. Light shines on his eyes as he dies, suggesting a type of redemption and entry into heaven at the hands of the closure he never received from his dead wife. Mina, meanwhile, knows that she can open the door to the church and step out to meet her husband, where they can rebuild their lives. In the end, all is forgiven. Fidelity is synonymous with faithfulness. Throughout this film, though they have lost their faith – both in spirit and in the implications of emotional and sexual monogamy – the three lead characters each demonstrated that thought and an open heart could clear the wrongs and bring back a more peaceful atmosphere.