It's a Czech surrealist film about a thirteen-year-old girl's emergence into womanhood, with Nosferatu, lesbians, polecats, caged birds, the Church, incest and fluid identities. It's based on a novel of the same name that's either from 1932, 1935 or 1945, depending on which internet page you're reading.
Firstly, the surrealist thing. I'm happy to give surrealism a whirl, but I'm not a Plotless Incomprehensible Garbage hound. I generally want what I'm watching to be saying something, or at least to matter in some way. If I don't care, I quit. This film, though, has only the loosest relationship with plot and I didn't mind at all. There's a scene, for instance, where our main character, Valerie, is being accused of witchcraft by a rabble-rousing priest in the town square. He's got himself a mob. He's calling Valerie a witch for ensnaring him with her evil lurid sexuality (ahem). Valerie simply walks through the crowd, gets up next to him and says, "He is lying, I swear."
"On the pyre with her!" The witch will burn! Valerie duly goes on the top of a huge pile of firewood, which is set alight. Is she scared? Does she react as anyone would in this situation? Nope, she just taunts the priest (who deserves it). The flames roar up and...
What happens next, I don't know. How did she escape from the flames? Did she indeed die? Is it all a dream? (Possibly.) The film's above such concerns. It just goes somewhere else in the same free-associating manner it's had since the beginning, with Valerie as always turning up when it's right for her to do so.
This doesn't break the film. It should have, but it doesn't. This is kind of staggering and in itself a remarkable fact. This is a film that's uninterested in conventional narrative, but it definitely has a narrative of its own. The world of this movie is a magical place in which identities are slippery, untrustworthy things and there's a connection between authority figures (of various kinds), abuse of power, sexuality and the existence of monsters. Stuff can happen that doesn't make sense. There's beauty and danger. There's symbolism, such as shots of a girl through a bird's cage or a room in which everything has been painted white. There's blood. There are birds, as symbols of freedom (denied or otherwise). There are priests and nuns.
In short, it makes perfect sense as an exploration of what it means to be thirteen and exploring all these things. Like a super-arty version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, it's using monsters as a metaphor. In its anti-sense way, it makes perfect sense and I watched it happily. I'd recommend it. It's good.
It's elegant. It's all terribly civilised and summery, with floaty nightdresses and lots of straw boaters. It has monsters, but they're well-spoken monsters and they'll smile and bow to you, while wearing masks. Of course the film's exploring sexual awakening and it frequently gets called erotic, but it takes great care to be discreet with its moderately copious nudity. One could make a case for the film's sexiest image being topless male self-flagellants.
The Nosferatu is clearly inspired by Murnau's 1922 version, but also the possibly incestuous love interest brother character, Orlik, has a name similar to Nosferatu's Count Orlok. The only silly thing in the film, incidentally, is how easily Valerie can free Orlok from his bonds whenever he's been arousingly tied up. She just takes his hands out of the manacles without opening them, while later she barely even needs to sneeze on the ropes when he's being crucified in running water. (Since both of these scenes have the same peculiarity, it's possible that this isn't a mistake, but instead deliberate on the part of the filmmakers.)
Authority figures are not to be trusted, although they're also to be loved. Look at the priest leading his nuns hurriedly past a girl who's having sex. The church, Nosferatu and the married state all co-exist in some way, while love between girls (if necessary, sexual) can be a cure for all of those ailments. Bad adults want to rob Valerie of a house to which she gives no thought.
This is a gentle, graceful film. It's often compared with Angela Carter's The Company of Wolves, but I find that more brooding and far less innocent. It could easily be called horror. Neil Jordan says it isn't, but it's certainly drawing its lifeblood from there. This, on the other hand, isn't. It's saying scalding things about the church, but in such a light, guileless way that one can't imagine anyone taking offence. It's not an angry film. It's gentle and playful, despite the monsters and their Gothic dungeon. It's certainly not about teenage rebellion, but instead about a young girl in a world of both darkness and airy light. She doesn't have to fight against her parents (who are supposedly dead) and she never fights against her grandmother, or even the Nosferatu. She's unfolding. She has magical earrings.