“Allow me to be frank at the commencement — you will not like me. The gentlemen will be envious and the ladies will be repelled. You will not like me now, and you will like me a good deal less as we go on. Ladies, an announcement: I am up for it. All the time.” So states John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester (Johnny Depp), in the opening shot of Laurence Dunmore’s debut film, The Libertine.
After cautioning the ladies that his prowess in matters amatory is more safely observed at a distance, Wilmot adds, “Gentlemen, do not despair. I am up for that as well — and the same warning applies.” Following a few more admonitions, he concludes, “I am John Wilmot, second Earl of Rochester, and I do not want you to like me.” In some ways, made pathetically clear by the film’s book-ending final speech, this is, of course, a come-on, a kind of a dare. And it’s a dare that could apply to Dunmore’s film as much as to the character of Wilmot.
The Libertine is a daunting, challenging film that dares the viewer to like it. And, in all honesty, it’s not the easiest movie to like. But as with its subject, the film is impossible not to find disturbingly fascinating. Partly historical, partly allegorical, the film never panders to its audience as it charts the colorfully debauched life of its main character in his role of double-dealing, bisexual lothario and brilliant poet and playwright.
That’s admirable as far as art goes, but it definitely has resulted in a film that isn’t exactly user-friendly in terms of mass-consumption. This is only aggravated by Dunmore’s choice of presenting the movie in an intentionally drab color palette. The director and his novice cinematographer, Alexander Melman, have opted to take a page from Kubrick’s approach to Barry Lyndon as concerns the interiors, largely lighting scenes by candlelight, using high-speed film and lenses capable of gathering as much light as possible. The results, while sometimes striking, are also bereft of much in the way of color and the grain is noticeably increased.
The exteriors are handled in a similar manner and the look calls to mind the dingy quality of Peter Greenaway’s little seen The Baby of Macon. This is probably not accidental, since Dunmore tapped both Greenaway’s set designer, Bernard Van Os, and his most commonly used composer, Michael Nyman, for The Libertine. While this is all well and good for the cineaste art-house crowd, it’s apt to be a little (or a lot) off-putting for the casual moviegoer.
The influences hardly stop at Kubrick and Greenaway. Dunmore is obviously very familiar with at least two Ken Russell films — The Devils and Lisztomania. Indeed, the play with which Wilmot deliberately enrages King Charles II (John Malkovich) leans so heavily on images from Lisztomania that you’re left with the sense of having seen what Russell might have done had he been writing and staging plays under Charles Stuart rather than scaring the suits at Warner Bros. 300 years later.
These influences are not merely surface, either. In a similar manner to earlier efforts by all three named filmmakers, The Libertine constantly blurs the line between life and art, using Stephen Jeffrey’s source play to view Wilmot’s life as a series of theatrical events — the posings and posturings of a man who created a myth of himself and was determined to live up to it, no matter what the cost. As presented by Dunmore and brilliantly played by Johnny Depp, Wilmot is always “on,” always playing his self-created character.
Hiring a dishonest servant away from his previous employer, Wilmot is cautioned, “He will steal your gold.” Wilmot’s response to this — “I hope so. If he turned honest after coming into my orbit, then I am not the malicious planet I had hoped” — is that of a man who will not let it be thought that he might do anything from a decent motive. So adept is he at playing John Wilmot that his every attempt at actually connecting with another human being is thwarted (one woman even remarks that she’d rather have him perform a debasing sexual act on her than to be made to care for him).
In that regard, the film is ultimately the tragedy of a man embalmed alive in his own myth. Whatever else The Libertine is, it’s not reticent — and it affords Johnny Depp a role worthy of his talents. Rated R for strong sexuality including dialogue, violence and language.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke