Zingarina (Asia Argento), who is two months pregnant, has travelled to Transylvania in search of Milan Augustin (Marco Castoldi), her lover who she believes was deported from France. Together with Marie (Amira Casar) and Luminitsa (Alexandra Beaujard), they visit restaurants and bars, fortune tellers and carnivals in search of Milan but are disappointed when they eventually meet him, playing piano in a hotel lobby. Telling Zingarina that he does not love her, she leaves, staggering through a street party before being rescued by Marie and brought home. The next day Marie promises that she and Zingarina will return to France but Zingarina runs off, sleeping rough before meeting Tchangalo (Birol Ünel) and, with him, setting off on a road trip through Transylvania.
So no vampires then! Bugger... Then again, the pose thrown by Asia Argento on the cover suggests a lusty European adventure while the back cover actually promises, "...long nights of heady passion." But as one who, many years ago, watched a lot of films broadcast on Channel 4 that described themselves as erotic only to find that there was much more symbolism than there were heaving buttocks, I'm prepared to be disappointed. And what metaphors there were for sexual misadventure seemed to involve a farm animal. Still, if Transylvania is as entertaining as Cliff Richards being forced into marrying a Yugoslavian shepherdess in Summer Holiday, itself a, "...road movie with hot-blooded lovers!", then I'm prepared to eat my Carpathian Mountain goat-herders hat.
The film doesn't start well. It introduces its audience to Transylvania and its people via a series of glimpses at Romanian farmers, all of whom seem to have been chosen on the basis of looking as though they were not only dressed by someone who had a dislike of them but raised by them from childhood. Borat's portrayal of its Kazakhstanis might have been just as tactless as Transylvania is of its Romanians but at least that was obviously done in jest. That these are a people who don't have two sticks to rub together, never mind pennies, is apparent from the state of their pullovers but the entire region seems unable to scrape together the finances to support a radio station. That can be the only reason why Zingarina and Marie welcome Luminitsa into the back of their car, from where she plays accordion with all the skill of a cat performing surgery. Only that Luminitsa is slightly less musical.
Bertrand Blier does this kind of thing much better, as does Alejandro Jodorowsky. They allow a madness to creep into their work that disorientates the audience. Blier, in particular, hops through time as easily as he does location and uncovers sexual encounters in the most unlikely of places. Both, though particularly Jodorowsky, allow religion to permeate their work and both have such a frankness with the physicality of sex, and the blood, milk and semen, that what can seem to be love and desire can slip into bloodshed and violence with little effort. Director Tony Gatlif promises much but his interest is less in his characters and his story than in stretching what he has between attractive-looking locations. Together, Zingarina and Tchangalo travel through the region in his horrible-looking car, finding that little happens to them. A bout of coitus is interrupted by a bear snuffling in the skip behind them, they not only give a lift to a bicycling old man but share their salad with him and after the purchase of a couple of violins, find themselves troubled by five hat-wearing musicians who believe Tchangalo to be a swindler. Zingarina gives birth in the back of Tchangalo's car and, for a short time, they threaten to break away from one another. Fate, though, has a way of drawing them together.
Not that there's any problem with seemingly random events in a film but those in Transylvania seem to have arrived in the film not out of purpose but of accident. In the making of that accompanies the film, Gatlif admits as much, saying that the kickboxing scene, in which a heavily pregnant Zingarina batters a pillow that Tchangalo is holding, came about from Argento telling the director that she practiced martial arts. She spars as no pregnant woman has before or since. It may even be that the man on the bicycle was simply someone that Gatlif and crew stumbled upon on their way through Romania, whose saying the salad he's offered is much too cold to eat in the snow, actually wasn't best served by Gatlif whipping his bicycle away from him and being handed a meal of cold tomatoes and raw onion. The same could well be said of the various bands, the street carnival, the nightclub singers and even the three women who, knives in hands, set about Zingarina in the middle of her labour pains.
Story aside, Transylvania does at least look good. In fact, it is often a beautiful film, be it in the snow-topped mountains, a dark forest or in a busy carnival. The best-looking scene comes with a religious ceremony that is used to cleanse Zingarina of her past sins and which sees her standing in the middle of a candlelit church in a white dress while milk is pours over her. It's a great scene and seems to be one that Gatlif actually planned for his film. The pity about Transylvania is that there are far too few of these and too many moments in which what time was spent writing this film seems like time wasted.
With Transylvania looking as good as it does, it would have been a poor showing from Peccadillo Pictures had they let it down by its DVD presentation. Happily, they don't. The picture is clear with rich colours and a tone that suits the film. The DVD gets the colours just right, be it the yellows and reds in the early part of the film, the muddy browns in the middle and the clean white of the snow in the latter. The image is pin-sharp, particularly in the second half of the film when it moves higher into the mountains and into more sparsely populated locations. There, Gatlif's shooting of his film shines and the DVD does well by it.
There is a choice of two English tracks, either DD5.1 or DD2.0. Although, to say that either track is strictly English is pushing it. Reflecting the French and Romanian characters and its appeal to an international audience, the language track is actually a mix of French, Romanian, Romany and English with optional subtitles filling in for the foreign-language dialogue. The exception to this are those lines spoken in English, which are not subtitled. Like the picture, the soundtrack is very good but several of the lines sound muffled, which may put off that very small percentage of the film who are fluent enough in all languages in Transylvania so as not to need subtitles.
Making Of (23m03s): This is broken into sections, with each of them having some bearing on a part of the film but not Transylvania as a whole. The Turkish salad, prepared on the bonnet of a car, is one of the things Gatlif believes worthy of explanation but so too is Asia Argento riding a bike, how to light a chandelier from an overhead electric wire and Argento's confusion over a mouse that she believes to be a mole.
Q&A With Tony Gatlif and Amira Cesar (20m22s): Recorded at the French Film Festival in 2007, Paul Ryan conducts this question and answer session, which seems to have been taped onto a video recorder some distance back into the audience. Though some of this is in French and unsubtitled, it's hard to hear what Gatlif and Ryan are saying to one another, particularly so as the director chooses to answer his questions without the aid of a microphone, but it does get better when Ryan translates for and talks to the audience, during which he speaks up and is audible above the background hiss. Casar answers her questions in English (and with a mic) but there are few surprises in the answer. What is evident from the film is that Transylvania enjoyed a fairly freeform direction and Gatlif confirms that here with examples.
Finally, there are two excellent pieces of music from the soundtrack to Transylvania (Le Vent and Tchiki Tchiki) and a set of Trailers.