The Countess (2009)
Women and Power
The Countess (2009), written, directed, produced, and starring French-American actor, Julie Delpy, tells the story of the seventeenth-century Hungarian countess Erzsébet Báthory, also known as the "Blood Countess." The movie begins with her early childhood, when her parents made her watch as they tortured political enemies, signaling the inception of her propensity for cruelty. Through a political arrangement, Elizabeth marries Count Ferenc Nádasdy at age 14, with whom she later has three children. Several years later, her husband returns from the Ottoman-Hungarian war and dies of an illness. Very shortly after her husband’s death, she ends up falling in love at first sight with Thurzó György's son, István György, a man 19 years younger than herself. When his father forces an end to the relationship and writes a bitter letter in István’s name breaking off their relationship, the Countess’ heart is shattered. She blames their age difference and her waning beauty for the collapsed relationship. Naturally, she starts to believe that facials made from the blood of virgin girls will allow her to achieve eternal beauty. When peasant virgins no longer suffice, and she begins torturing and murdering aristocratic girls, she is investigated and charged for her crimes. She is sentenced to live the rest of her life in a windowless room in her castle. The movie ends with her biting her wrist open in a vampire-esque fashion to commit suicide. With a budget of about 8.5 million dollars, the box office only made $785,000 worldwide. The movie did not receive great reviews, IMDb scored it 6.3/10 and the audience score on Rotten Tomatoes is 41%. Boyd van Hoeijwrote his thoughts on the film in Variety: “Though some individual moments work, Delpy's screenplay lacks psychological connective tissue. It never becomes clear why a powerful and intelligent woman was brought to her knees by a cute kid, only to turn murderous and possibly insane when deprived of her object of affection.” Hoeij brings up a good question, how did such a powerful person become driven to murder hundreds? And was a failed love affair to blame?
The National Archives of Hungary provides the details that are known about the real Erzsébet. These archives store letters, family records, and documentation from her trial. These supply evidence of hundreds of murders that did occur within Čachticecastle, and on her other properties in Sárvár, Vienna, Németkeresztúr, and Bratislava. The trial documents show about 300 testimonies against her, including those from servants within her castle describing the heinous torture the victims underwent. The movie depicts events within the boundaries of historical knowledge about Erzsébet’s life. She was born in 1560 into a high social position, as a ruler of Transylvania within Hungary. She was highly educated and raised a Calvinist Protestant. At the age of 10, rather than 14, she became engaged to Ferenc Nádasdy to unite both their families. Erzsébet managed business affairs and the estates while her husband was leading troops in the war against the Ottomans. The movie accurately depicts her running hospitals and shows King Matthias II in debt to her. In reality, the murders began in 1585, before her husband’s death in 1604. Although Erzsébet allegedly had many affairs with men and women, the character István György was created for the film. The idea that she murdered virgins and bathed in their blood was a myth that arose later in chronicles, during the vampire scares of Europe in the early eighteenth century.The first legend appeared in print in 1729, in LászlóTuróczi's Tragica Historia. While she did die in a windowless room of her castle, there is no evidence that supports a suicide. The movie also properly depicted the death sentence that her accomplices endured, though she herself was sentenced to house arrest.
The movie came out in 2009, during the rise of fourth-wave feminism, which focused on the empowerment of women and the use of social media to advocate for gender equality. Delpy considers herself a feministand said in an interview with Jessica Kiang that this political position heavily influenced The Countess. Although her character has a lot of depth, the myth of the Blood Countess has been historically misogynistic. Modern historians theorize that the bloodbath myth sprang from contemporary prejudices about gender roles. Throughout the movie, Elizabeth’s only concern seems to be her looks and her love for a man. Rather than just being a woman serial killer, her obsession with beauty and youthfulness is the motive behind her murders. This sexist idea about women being incapable of violence without a love interest diminishes her character’s agency. No primary sources suggest that she killed only women. In the movie, she only kills virgin women because “boys were created in God’s image” (44:40). This quote supports not only the misogynistic undertones of the movie’s characters but also the religious attitudes of their time. This brings up another issue: the film’s “medievalism,” or in this case, “early-modernism,” and the idea that queer relationships did not exist during this period, and that queerness was associated with witchcraft. Elizabeth and her maid, Darvulia, who is a witch, share an intimate relationship that is seen throughout the film. The belief that such pre-modern times did not have queer people is seen in the moment when the countess threatens Darvulia by telling her that she is a virgin since she only beds with women.
In her support of a powerful woman, Delpy does allude to conspiracy theorists that cast doubt on the Countess’ sentence and suggest that the murders were fabricated by Count Thurzó and other noblemen for political gain. Despite all the evidence against her, these theorists ideas are consistent with Hungarian history of that time. Delpy’s film is told from the perspective of István, who never saw any proof for himself. She also depicted the investigators as the antagonists of the film in order to instill doubt in her audience. It does seem that men have a hard time with women in power, and the system has always favored the oppressors. Therefore, we will never know the true story of Erzsébet Báthory.
June 25, 2009 (Germany)
June 7, 2011 (US release)
Social Capital Films
The Steel Company
Tempête Sous un Crâne
X-Filme Creative Pool
Early Modern Era (c. 1500-1750)
Moving Image Item Type Metadata
Matthew E. Chausse