Dandy in the Underworld: The Libertine
It’s extremely rare to come across a film with so sincere an artistic intent as The Libertine that isn’t also stodgy, pretentious, and self-important. Mercifully, the subject matter does not allow for a moment’s pomp or circumstance here. The film tells the tale of the resolutely dissolute nihilistic dandy, the Earl of Rochester John Wilmot, who drank and fucked with all the vigor of a one-man revolution against the hypocrisy of his society. With such a perverse protagonist as its center, the film is a tragedy that demands to be taken at least partway as comedy, and this is what the filmmakers have done with it (for the first half at least). As played by Johnny Depp (in a triumphant return to transformative brilliance), the Earl is fiercely intelligent and ferociously decadent, his decadence being both a twisted expression of and a desperate refuge from his relentless intelligence. Depp’s Earl is as bawdy and scintillating a character as we could ever hope to have as a guide through the dour and effete corridors of period melodrama (fear not, this is definitely not Merchant and Ivory terrain). In fact, he’s a blast, and from the very first moments, when he warns us we are going to be repelled by him and his story, Depp commands the screen with mesmerizing assurance. He creates a historical protagonist both eerily credible and at the same time deliriously entertaining. The same could be said of the film itself, which manages to find an almost miraculous balance between the austerity of historical melodrama and the freewheeling intensity of psychodrama. The Libertine is an imaginative portrait of the soul-searching of an artist unafraid to explore a truly fascinating subject: that of his own twisted psyche. At the same time, it is just such imaginative soul-searching—on the part of the artists who made the film—that have created a work of unusual subtlety and insight.
In the hands of Depp, playwright Stephen Jeffreys, and director Laurence Dunmore (with a little help from history), Wilmot is an almost perfect movie creation. The wayward nephew of King Charles II, Wilmot is a brilliant mind and tormented soul wrapped up in a handsome, pathologically sensuous body. He is driven by passions he cannot express to extremes few people dare to experience, extremes that will eventually bring about his death (ostensibly from small pox). It’s hard to imagine a richer, more rewarding role for an actor to play than a self-destructive genius who is also a hedonist, and Depp’s delight is evident in every scene, suffusing the film with dark, sensuous energy. Yet Wilmot is more than the sum of his parts, and Depp and the filmmakers never stoop to conquer us; they never reduce their character to manageable dimensions. Instead, they allow the Earl to remain enigmatic and obscure, both loathsome and lovable—his very own self, lost to history.
When Wilmot takes on the failing actress Elizabeth (Samantha Morton), for example, and promises to turn her into the greatest player on the London stage, we (and she) may begin to glimpse a noble soul beneath the tawdry airs and vulgar antics. Wilmot confesses to her his inability to feel passion in his own life and his need to experience it vicariously, through art and its various expressions. It is ironic, then, that his whole life—looking back upon it with the perspective of distance—should itself seem like a work of art, one in which all the human passions, the basest and most foul and the loftiest and most sublime, are enacted. These scenes between Svengali Wilmot and his winsome but ruthless apprentice are the heart of the film, and they are the toughest to pull off. Depp and Morton and the melodramatic dialogue are greatly assisted by Dunmore’s roving, hand-held camera here, and what might otherwise have been staged histrionics comes off as genuine pathos, laced with something eerie and surreal. We, like Wilmot, are unsure when his protégé is performing and when she is expressing her own true feelings. Reality and artifice, feeling and simulation, shift and blend into each other, giving the scenes a giddy, mercurial, faintly hallucinogenic quality. Yet at the same time, the unexpressed tenderness between the two, seemingly disparate characters hints at genuine tragedy: both are equally damned in their own way. In such moments, The Libertine captures the bitter elixir of impossible desire. Both the Earl and Elizabeth suffer from the same disease, and the actors convey beautifully their ache of longing, their need for acceptance on their own terms, for a moment of sweetness in the endless despair.
There are flaws, of course (John Malkovich’s false nose for one, and the Earl’s abandoning his drinking mate to die in a street brawl seems meant to be more powerful than it is); but there’s nothing to account for the reception the film received from critics, which was at best tepid and at worst scornful. While torpid, self-important drudgery like Amadeus is greeted with ecstatic reverence, The Libertine—easily one of the best historical movies ever made, and one of a handful of truly contemporary period dramas alongside Dangerous Liaisons and The Duelists—is sniffed at and dismissed as preposterous and risible nonsense. The only explanation I can think of for this travesty of judgment is that the subject matter was simply too unpalatable for most critics to come to grips with. The film’s treatment—from the superb script to the production design, the blissfully loose, almost dogme-style direction—is impeccable, and beyond reproach. Everyone involved with the movie seems to have been inspired to outdo themselves. And unlike almost any other recent film you could name, The Libertine is actually about something. It lives and breathes as a work, organic and complete, populated by a host of characters all of whom also live and breath, individual portraits within a greater composition, which is all of a piece.
I can think of no other film that comes so close to portraying, in colors both beautiful and obscene but always true, the appalling paradox of the dandy nihilist for whom pleasure is an expression of his torment. The Libertine is a superlatively performed, beautifully written, and admirably balanced portrait of a truly Luciferian character. In the Earl’s melancholic dementia, we are shown how the intellectual man, when he cannot find meaning or fulfillment in society, by virtue of his immense superiority is obliged to reject the values upon which that society is founded. The Earl willfully seeks out the inverse of these values as a means to expose the rotten hypocrisy and mediocrity of lesser minds. Yet how quickly and tragically—how inevitably—his rebellious urge turns, by slow, agonizing degrees, into the indulgence of the senses, the will for self-immolation and destruction. With his superior intellect, Wilmot is able to see through the lies of both faith and reason and is compelled to seek the only feasible reality or truth left him, that of pure animal sensation, bodily existence, and the sweet authenticity of lust. Is there anything quite so lost (so damned) as this?
In its own admirably unassuming way, the film reveals the path of the senses as the very hardest path of all to the divine. The deceptive allure of the flesh is, if anything, even more blinding and intoxicating than the heady pleasures of the intellect. Wilmot’s despairing mind drives him to an intensification of experience via sensual gratification; yet at the same time, he is seeking freedom from the intellect through lust, and the two opposing drives add up to a recipe for damnation. The road of excess is one few have the courage or strength to travel, and is as likely to lead to the gates of hell as the palace of wisdom. The Libertine is a profoundly heart-breaking yet curiously uplifting archetypal tale, one that critics (mostly male) reviled the world over, damning themselves with their prudery and squeamishness and what can only amount to a lack of courage and an incapacity to appreciate the devastating truths on display. The film they rejected offers up the quintessence of tragedy: the lofty soul dragged down to basest bodily depths through the self-loathing of the personality. As the Earl himself warns from the start, “You will not like me.” Apparently few people did, or the movie either.
Some lives—and some movies—cut a little close to the bone and reveal just how distorted and blackened the human soul can be, and must be, for its completeness to shine. By rejecting the movie, more weak-hearted, lily-livered viewers were able to reject the message also, that of the possibility of greatness and depravity co-existing, feeding off (and upon) one another in a dreadful complicity that makes moral judgments impossible. The Libertine shows in bald and brazen colors that the greater the potential for goodness is, the greater the temptation towards evil becomes. This is not a message that most decent, God-fearing critics care to contend with, evidently. Dostoyevsky once wrote that it is harder to be a great sinner than a great saint. The only real greatness—wholeness—is in having the courage to be both.
That the movie was reviled and rejected only confirms the paltry hypocrisy of the timid, soulless world it depicts, that the Earl rejects, with his own life as a sacrifice to the cause of universal revolt. Greatness will always be tested by the world, and will either be destroyed by it or brought to full fruition (for some, destruction may be the only possible fruition). The Libertine aspires after greatness. I think it achieves it; the world begged to differ. Time will tell which of us was right.
It’s difficult to express just how impressed I was by this film (especially considering how little impressed most viewers seem to have been), without getting carried away by my own enthusiasm. The Libertine is monumentally, heroically ambitious; it attempts to portray a truly unique historical figure and get at the root of his madness; at the same time, it is perfectly scaled to ordinary human emotions. The film’s ambitions never interfere with the telling of its story: they are not the ambitions of hubris, the desire to aggrandize a work beyond its station; they are from a simple desire to do full justice to the subject, a determination not to flinch from presenting it in a fully rounded light, and a need to be absolutely ruthless and honest in doing so. There is nothing superfluous in The Libertine—everything is put to good use, every line of dialogue, every shot, every set, every performance (and there are some dandies here, every one of them offers some surprises), all are woven together to form a tapestry both pleasingly simple in design and deceptively intricate in detail. It’s a work of pathos and beauty that comes not just from the hearts of those who made it but from their souls. A movie that that manages to be both heartrending and hugely entertaining at the same time, that shows the tragedy and comedy of the human condition, without shying away either from the horror or the sensuality of it, can only be considered an authentic work of art.
The Earl would be proud. His revolt was not in vain.