Wild About Wilde
In Brian Gilbert’s Wilde, Oscar Wilde (Stephen Fry) says of the male escorts he meets through Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas (Jude Law), Such flowers never could grow in the harsh light of day. This comment is more than a simple scripted line. It is the basis for much of the film’s mis-en-scene. For the filmmakers, homosexuality becomes a descent into darkness in terms of secrecy, invoking the necessity for Wilde to hide his true identity from the social critics of his time. This theme is strategically played out through the careful use of lighting in both interior and exterior scenes.
In scenes representing homosexuality, although brilliantly colored, the rooms are also dimly lit and contained by dark walls. The first inkling of Wilde’s desire for young men is depicted when he descends into the darkness of the Leadville, CO mines and yet is guided by angels. When Bosie sings at the piano, the dark wood interior makes his light gray suit and honey colored face stand out. All the young faces glow and these fresh flowers of men flourish in this type of light. Wilde wears white and also shines brightly within the scene, a film gesture than not only represents his eccentric taste, but his desire to reclaim his fearless and confident youth. In the hotel, this pattern is repeated. The costumes coordinate Wilde’s solid yellow suit with Bosie’s yellow and gray plaid. Bosie wears a yellow rose in his lapel coordinating with Wilde. Each shines brightly against the dark wood paneling. A shift is foreshadowed when Bosie learns of his brother’s death and is consoled by Wilde. The two sit in a very dark room huddled on the couch. Blinding light from the outside outlines their bodies morphing together into a nearly unrecognizable shrinking silhouette. The flowers appear to be wilting as they become smothered by the harsh scrutiny of Bosie’s father, Marquess of Queensbury (Tom Wilkenson).
The contrasting scenes involving Wilde’s wife, Constance (Jennifer Ehle), and Wilde’s sons tend to occur in the light of day, demonstrative of the scrutiny of a watchful social eye. In the external settings, Constance strolls through the park or gathers her children and husband from the country creek while drenched in sunlight and surrounded by lush greenery. When without Oscar, she sits in the sun on the beach. The internal settings containing her and the children are set in the soft light of white rooms, whether the bathroom while bathing the baby or the playroom where Oscar begins the tale of the Giant. Even as the children peer out at a rain storm, the light is bright. It is when Constance enters Oscar’s world of darkness, she is often seen as an outsider to Wilde’s world. She enters his study to announce her pregnancy and is no match for his intellect. When she puts the baby down in her bedroom, a disconnect exists between her role as mother and wife. She is also the obstacle between Robbie and Oscar on their first night together. Only at Christmas does the entire family celebrate in dim light, but here Oscar is the intruder.
This connection of light and dark is complicated further between the city and country. Because the country is private, Wilde and Bosie can move freely in the light. This contrasts sharply with the dark alley scene in shades of black and gray where the renters try to blackmail Wilde with his own lost love letter to Bosie. Still, operating freely in the full light of the country isn’t enough for Bosie. He requires connectivity and active, eventful engagement in a urban setting. He becomes bored and outright angered by the disengagement. Here we learn that it is true; these flowers cannot flourish in the full light of day.
I struggled with the morality issue as I thought about what the lighting was meant to portray. The white/right and wrong/black dichotomy is too simplistic, yet it is likely the first impression one is meant to interpret aligning audience perception with the social attitudes of the time. The darkest moments in the film occur in the court house. Homosexuality is not only the topic of conversation, it is held to the highest form of national scrutiny as sanctioned by the queen. Here Wilde is wearing black and his dark hair blends with the nearly black shadows. In high contrast, his accusers wear wigs of glowing silver-white. Black and white here exemplifies the opposite perceptions of a socially defined good and evil. This scene, and those which take place in prison, are Wilde’s darkest moments.
I suspect that the filmmakers intentionally complicate this initial binary reaction through Wilde’s ability to drift in, out and among both dark and light. In the end, we sympathize with Wilde and wish for a seamless light/open and dark/secret integration. A soft light breaks through the darkness only when Constance is situated in front of the window during visiting hours. This occurs again as Oscar is silhouetted against the sun streaming into his cell as he breaks with Bosie in his letter. After his release and Constance?s death, Oscar does return to Bosie, a scene which visually reads as a heroic victory. Bosie stands against a brilliant yellow back drop and the two publicly hug in slow motion. This is no victory though. Instead, we are left to contemplate the reversal of light/wrong and dark/right. The last screen is black as we learn through simple white text that this relationship is short lived and ends again in tragedy. For the last time we are reminded that such flowers never could grow in the harsh light of day.
In contrast with Shakespeare in Love and Impromptu, this film is not about love-as-muse so much as it is about Wilde growing into the knowledge of self via his full immersion into his true sexuality. He writes well enough while with Constance (the woman he genuinely loves but marries because he is “supposed to”). Still, his real success comes after Robbie unlocks the door to a whole new homo-erotic world. Before that happens, Wilde keeps his desires in check, never acting upon his admiration of the shirtless angel in the Colorado mine or the handsome renter in the street as he catches Constance a cab. Once Robbie opens that door, one barred shut by a harsh society filled with “proper” expectations, The Picture of Dorian Gray is written. That novel explores the masks people present to the world, a topic apropriate to Wilde’s many lives. By the time Boy 2 is on the scene, Wilde has produced two successful plays that take London by storm. So, yes, there are several boys-as-muse, but they, as a collective, are the muse only in revealing certain truths to Wilde about himself.
On the other hand, love is the anti-muse, a hindrance. Wilde is too distracted to write while Bosie manipulates his emotions. This to me seems a more believable concept than love’s inspiration. Everyone throughout the film repeats again and again that if Wilde can produce works the likes of “The Importance of Being Earnest” while Bosie is away, the two should part more often.
PS: Just as our discussion of Brokeback Mountain in Chapter Two coincided with the death of Heath Ledger, the mines of Leadville, CO made the news as we began to watch Wilde. According to Watertechonline.com:
1B gallons of contaminated water threatens CO town
Friday, February 15, 2008
DENVER – Lake County Commissioners have declared a local state of emergency in the town of Leadville because there is more than 1 billion gallons of contaminated water trapped in a tunnel that may soon explode, according to a February 15 Associated Press report on CNN.com.
The tunnel is located in the mountains above Leadville. The water, contaminated with heavy metals such as zinc, cadmium and manganese, has pooled up in abandoned mine shafts and a partially collapsed 2.1-mile drainage tunnel, the report said.
The sequel to a previous post…
In response to a classmate who believes that French author Madam George Sand (Judy Davis) in James Lapine’s 1991 film Impromptu, is “attracted to Chopin (Hugh Grant) because she unconsciously learned to be more feminine like he was,” I’d like to respectfully disagree.
Prior to Sand’s pursuit of Chopin, she is already quite feminine as demonstrated through her clothing throughout the film. As a child, she wears a dress and has long hair. Sand’s bed clothes in the very first scene are traditionally frilly with ruffles, bows and layers. At the first party where she is to meet her publisher, Chopin’s presence yet unbeknownst to her, Sand wears a rather eccentric dress/pants combination, but somewhat of a silken embroidered dress with a bow in front all the same. When she visits her mother prior to engaging in her relationship with Chopin she wears a conservatively elegant cloak and, when her mother dies, Sand’s mourning dress is a traditional black gown and her hair is traditionally upswept. Perhaps Sand entertains the idea of being fit for a more traditional dress when in pursuit of Chopin, but she also tries moving in the opposite direction by buying men’s clothing. Overall, I’d say Sand is never portrayed as strictly masculine nor feminine, but rather the perfect embodiment of both at once.
In thinking about the roles of man and woman I find that Sand, rather than learning to be more feminine from Chopin, becomes increasingly masculine once they are lovers. She takes on the traditional role of the courting gentleman buying flowers and advancing in constant persuit. Likewise, Chopin’s feminine behavior is simply reinforced in the process. I see no evidence of him becoming more masculine when he sits like a woman being rowed about in a canoe, is led up an escarpment, sits cross legged on the park bench, etc. Still, the space each occupies in this dichotomy is not enough to explain their relationship. I think it’s more than a topic of masculine and feminine.
What I find most interesting is Sand’s role as “mother” which, in many ways is more like both father and mother. Her own children live with her and are even brought with her to visit the Dutchess in the country when she could have left them with Mallefille, the male tutor who acts more like a mistress. At the same time, Sand is their sole bread winner, which explains the need for Mallefille in times when Sand can’t supervise the children herself. When she visits Marie, she always takes up the babies in a loving motherly fashion, gently coddling them and kissing their heads, yet she is dressed in men’s clothing and spends only brief stints in their presence, promptly handing them back to Marie. Marie, by contrast, is the epitome of womanhood, house bound with her breasts continuously unbound for nursing. Sand is always both, complete, the whole of a societal division.
This theme exists throughout Sand’s interactions with Chopin as well. The struggle of courtship in which Sand acts like a man in pursuit of a women is a complete failure, a ruse set in motion by Marie. It isn’t until Sand comes to Chopin as herself, vulnerable and yet brave to share that vulnerability, that the two connect. Only in this moment does Chopin “see” Sand. Once the relationship begins, Sand resumes the complete mother /father role. She protects him physically during the duel like a father, saves his pride like a mother, and then awkwardly gives him his milk. Rather than bringing out Chopin’s masculine side, Sand seems to be more in the market of raising the boy into manhood, to nurture him as a mother and father would, to help strengthen him into the mature and perfect love.
Sand is not looking for two halves to form one whole, but two complete people who join in one relationship. A perfect lover nurtures, gently guides, holds the hurts of her lover’s heart and has hers held in return. Gender divisions create a divide prohibiting this type connection, but Sand bridges that divide by being all things to Chopin. In doing so, Sand attempts to create her equal in all matters of the heart. When the couple rides off into the grey light of an overcast day, one not purely sunny nor stormy, one can hope this is the path to the perfect love Sand wished for in childhood.
My first introduction to Aurore “George” Sand, the French author, has come solely from my viewing of director James Lapine’s Impromptu. Having never read Sand’s work, nor any form of a biography, I have come to the topic with no preconceived notions. This film’s limited window into Sand’s life provides the opportunity for an interesting experiment. I’d like to compare my first impression of Sand as directed by Lapine with that produced by acquiring additional information. Will my initial understanding be supported, contradicted or enhanced by some quick research? Let’s find out.
When Young Aurore (Lucy Speed) first appears, she is a child running through the wilderness away from an authoritative voice calling her name. She arrives at a self-made altar of stones among the ferns growing at the base of a tree. There she kneels and prays:
Hear me, O Corambe. Corambe, thou who art man, woman and god in one, hear me. I free this bird in thy name. Come to me, sublime being. I want to know the meaning of life. And I want to find perfect, perfect love. I free this lizard in thy name. [To lizard] Don’t be dead. Oh, balls.
This shot dissolves to reveal Madame “George” Sand (Judy Davis) seated at a desk writing her memoirs.
This opening scene sets up the rest of the film entirely. George thrives in nature away from the confines of constructed society. She makes sacrifices to an a-typical God of the time who, rather than existing as a patriarchal being, is complete in both masculine and feminine form combined. There is depth to the author from the start, a desire to explore the many facets of life’s meaning including that of love. Aurore is not a well kempt child pristinely decorated with frills and bows but one willing to get down into the dirt and truly experience a moment from within.
From this point on, little about the character is ultimately shocking whether George appears in men’s clothing or crosses the boundaries of gender-based social etiquette. Still, she is complex, round if you will, open to her own emotion, contemplative and analytical while those who surround her are flat caricatures of the jealous, manipulative and overbearing friends, lovers and wanna-be artists. She drifts between the despair of being married and the despair of her freedom, searching for the happiness which can only be found in Chopin’s (Hugh Grant’s) love. Along the way, she makes her own rules just as she does within their relationship.
Rather than rely upon love for inspiration, as is the case in Shakespeare in Love, George appears to write about the journey, the struggle of life itself in her memoirs. When she and Chopin discuss his impromptu, the connection between this struggle in both art and life are addressed:
Chopin: A perfect impromptu should seem spontaneous and free. No one should be able to guess at all the desperate calculation behind it. And uh, I’ve been struggling with this for so long. It’s like being tangled in a net? I think if I ever finish it, then it will have finished me. Well, you must, you must suffer tortures to find the perfect word that will make it all seem effortless.
George: Me, suffer for art? You must be joking. I suffer quite enough for life.
I want to believe this separation for George is the truth, but there is evidence within the film to the contrary. When she hands the final chapter of her memoirs to her publisher, the pages are thinly bound. George then makes the correlation between the lack of content and a lack of emotional satisfaction in her life. Without one, the other suffers and the two are not as easily compartmentalized as she would like to believe.
I find that George and Chopin have much to offer each other. Chopin reveals to George that the struggle of art is the struggle of life while she reveals to him that he needs to reunite with the world of the living in order to create art. Only together do the two connect with each other, with life and with art, creating their world as would a god the likes of Corambe.
I’m off to read more on Sand now. Back shortly…
As it turns out, and I suspected as such, the depiction of George Sand is rather accurate in personality, regardless of the fictionalized version of her relationship with Chopin and my understanding of Sand has only been enhanced by internet inquiries. Generally speaking, Judy Davis’ skillful characterization personified Sand’s ability to avoid pigeonholing herself within any one particular category. Still, while I never expect a film to incorporate every aspect of a person’s character or story, I find it interesting that Sand’s politics factored in so little within the narrative of Impromptu. According to the George Sand Biography from Ohio University, she produced a great number of written propaganda pieces for the revolution and the provisional government:
Sand appealed to Louis Napoleon for clemency and amnesty for many of the people implicated in the revolution. She was granted at least two audiences, and through her intervention some were saved from execution, others given commuted sentences. Thirteen political detainees of the Indre region were spared exile of prison. She literally pled the cause of hundreds of people, including Bakunin whom she defended in a letter to Karl Marx (July 20, 1848). But she herself was crushed by disappointment, and retreated to literature for solace (see the two prefaces to La Petite Fadette) and to writing her memoirs, Histoire de ma vie, in which she alluded to the revolution only in Aesopian terms.
Timing here is interesting. The writing of her memoirs was the result and evidence of Sand’s ideological stance on the revolution. The film avoids this overt connection, although her thoughts on the aristocracy are made quite clear.