Why should we care about it now? First of all, the personnel: the film was shot by William Lubtchansky, produced by the great French experimental novelist Georges Perec (then Binet’s partner, he died around the time of the premiere) and its cast includes Michael Lonsdale, Carol Kane, Marina Vlady and Emmanuelle Riva in a brief cameo role. But more importantly, the film itself, which is a strange, engrossing cat’s cradle filled with half-hidden parallels and associations.
The Games of Countess Dolingen consists of (at least) three narratives. The centrepiece is a more or less straight adaptation of Unica Zurn’s (apparently semi-autobiographical) novella Dark Spring, a melancholy and rather disturbing tale of an adolescent girl’s sexual obsessions and infatuation with an older man...
These sequences feature lengthy excerpts of Zurn’s text read out as voiceover, one of the film’s most beautiful and poetic aspects.
...and culminating in her suicide.
Binet situates this sub-plot as a story within a story – the girl’s tale is presented as a diary gifted to the main protagonist, played by Carol Kane. She is in the midst of an ambiguous, volatile relationship with a wealthy businessman (Lonsdale, whose face is always obscured until the final scene) who might be her husband, father or brother. He in turn finds himself in a battle of wits with a burglar at his country chateau, who bears a startling resemblance to the man in the girl’s story. Lastly, there is the title character (from one of Bram Stoker’s Dracula works), who appears briefly as part of a story within a story within a story.
The Games of Countess Dolingen is full of these allusions and parallels, as if it were filled with hidden passageways between and within narratives. Like Mulholland Drive or Last Year at Marienbad, one tends to miss out on a lot of these on a first viewing; but the more times you watch it, the more fascinating the whole setup becomes.
I was lucky enough to come across an old bootleg of Countess Dolingen online, and I’ve since watched it several times. Personally, I think it’s a great film, reminiscent of some of the best work of Raul Ruiz and (as mentioned earlier) Alain Resnais. It would be exciting to see Criterion (or some other company) rescue it out of obscurity, but for now it must remain one of cinema’s hidden treasures.
Beyond the film's merits as a work of cinema (which I think are considerable), I think it's also important given how hard it was for a woman to be taken seriously in this field back then. This was a woman (partially) adapting a story by a female surrealist author, and the male European producers of the time seem to have considered the whole project basically unmarketable. There's no doubting that Binet was a talent; perhaps, had she been directing 20 or 30 years later, she may have been treated more receptively.
Here are a few of the more positive critical responses from the time:
Vincent Canby, New York Times: "an astonishingly beautiful, maddeningly obscure French exercise in surrealism … immensely vivid".
Tom Allen, Film Comment: "rewardingly haunting … [a] smashing film."
Francoise Aude, Positif: "in our view, [it] combines daring, mastery and originality better than any other French film of the year."
(Incidentally, Positif also wrote up a 13-page feature on The Games of Countess Dolingen for their February 1982 issue, which included a longish interview with Catherine Binet conducted by Isabelle Jordan – you can read it in French here: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0080957/boa ... /252756535" onclick="window.open(this.href);return false;).
I’d love to hear the thoughts of other CriterionForum members on this film. And if you haven’t had a chance to see it, I recommend you get your hands on it by any means.