The Libertine (2004)

[22 August 2006]

By Cynthia Fuchs

PopMatters Film and TV Editor

Of as muchness

It shows again, the tedium of genius.
—Laurence Dunmore, commentary track, The Libertine

I am condemning you to be you for the rest of your days.
—Charles II (John Malkovich), The Libertine

“The film was very much a passion piece for everyone involved,” says Laurence Dunmore, introducing his excellent commentary track for the DVD of The Libertine. This seems clear enough, as the film received little attention from the Weinstein Co. on its release. Perhaps no one knew quite how to market it: save for the stunning performance by the always stunning Johnny Depp as John Wilmot, Second Earl of Rochester, the film didn’t offer much in the way of mainstream appeal. The man was a pornographer and ravager of women, dead of syphilis and alcoholism at age 33. And yet, according to Dunmore’s film, he was self-aware as well as self-destructive, elegant as well as brutal.

Dunmore speaks in sentences that are formulated as paragraphs. Watching the prologue, in which the deeply shadowed, physically devastated Rochester proclaims, “You will not like me,” Dunmore elaborates:

The deliberately theatrical opening and engagement by Rochester to the audience was one that I felt was a very important way of delivering a message from Rochester’s heart to the audience, one that was based on a controversial provocation as well as his boasting of a reputation and an ability to both sensationalize, dramatize, and I suppose entice and seduce, not just the countess we will see in the film, but the audience that’s watching.

In the DVD’s only documentary, “Capturing The Libertine,” Depp describes his decision to make the performance “kind of a love letter to” Rochester, whom he saw as a man with an “absolute courage to be honest.” Wondering how he arrived “at the need for such excess,” Depp says, “I don’t think it was about fun for him.” Certainly, the film does not show the man to have much fun or to be fun, though he is brilliant and poignant, and sometimes repulsive. How appropriate then, that, according to Dumore, Rochester found “true life” in London’s filthy streets. Impatient and deliberately obnoxious, this Restoration playwright and poet is surrounded by wigs and powder and lusty laughter, but also painfully isolated. “He both spellbinds and entertains with his wit and his brilliance,” observes Dunmore, as Rochester holds forth in a pub.

“Johnny and I spent a great deal of time working on both the character of Rochester and the impact of that character on the rest of the cast and the movie as a whole,” says Dunmore. As other collaborators have done, the director praises Depp’s generosity, and they worked together to interpret the character as much as recover an historical figure. Rochester calls himself an ever-ready lover (for ladies, certainly, though he assures men that he’s “up for that as well”). His cocky performance is calculated to expose social limits by transgressing them. Increasingly self-doubting and belligerent, irritated by his fellow debaucherers, Rochester is also philosophical about what it means to transgress. As the consequences of his rule-breaking become clearer to him, the violations themselves become less so; if violations only reiterate the rules, then what sense do violations make?

Adapted by Stephen Jeffreys from his 1994 play, The Libertine is episodic and strange—as well as rather “painterly,” as Dunmore calls it—denoting the temperament of its subject. Featuring foul language (after the real Rochester’s work), it assumes a bleak and dismal look, evoking the contemporary environment as well as Rochester’s internal state. Comprised of muddy messes and gloomy interiors, the movie favors the handheld camera (only two shots during the 130 minutes are not, according to Dunmore), as well as choppy editing, to suggest the speed and fragmentation of Rochester’s thinking.

So snarky and entertaining in his excesses as to be a sometime favorite of King Charles II (prosthetic-nosed John Malkovich), Rochester exploits his brief popularity, until the king decides—as he must—that John has gone too far and no longer provides political or other protections. At this point, John is liable for legal persecutions and renouncement by friends and foes alike.

Rochester’s legendary loving leaves him equally open to adoration and odium. Always looking to conquer new territory, he’s caught up short when he spots the actress Elizabeth Barry (Samantha Morton, whom Dunmore calls “the finest young actress of our time”) one evening at the theater (Dunmore notes that he shoots this introduction from a distance, with her dialogue turned down, so her appeal is figured first in Rochester’s reaction. Suddenly, he believes he is capable of love. He offers to help her refine her stage technique in return for her time, hoping she will be enchanted. “I think I can make you an actress of truth, not a creature of artifice,” he says, even as the film is all about the blurring of the distinction. She’s rightly suspicious: “I think you want power over me.”

At first it does seem that John sees her as an extension of himself, but then the film touches on a more hackneyed strategy: her beauty and sense of purpose affect him, even elevate him. And so Rochester is somewhat redeemed in this love, as the film represents his boredom with “still life” (the regular life he wants to badly to transgress).

To illustrate his cause—even beyond the dunderheads with whom he spends his time—the film provides his marriage to the young heiress Elizabeth Malet (Rosamund Pike), who remains isolated at their estate in the country while he gallivants in the city. This situation is stultifying, as indicated by Rochester’s inability to stand still for the famous portrait by J. Huysmans; instead, says Dunmore, he “strays to both alcohol and to absurdity.” When he suggests he feels like they are monkeys posing, Elizabeth wonders whether he thinks she’s not an “apt partner for [him] to sit with.” Rochester strikes: “You are very apt… It is of a muchness. You are both apt in your different ways.”

She walks out, and he explains to his servant (named, unbelievably, Alcock), that he must speak his mind, “because what is on my mind is always more interesting than what is happening in the world outside my mind.” In such moments, he can seem at once irresistible and unbearably cruel. Dunmore sees him as a man who felt deep regret about his meanness to Malet, but, obsessed with drink, debauching, and literature, he was unable to live her life. 

When Rochester’s beliefs and activities catch up with him—when he’s rejected by Elizabeth Barry and returns home with his face wrapped in gauze, his efforts to drink himself to death vividly visible and malodorous—his wife offers to nurse him in his final hours. Harsh even when it hurts him, he rejects her, furious to be weak, and so dug into himself that he can’t see outside. At the same time, The Libertine neither judges nor celebrates its subject, but only chases after what might be called his “perspective.” It resists resolution, only includes some of his prose and poetry to indicate his great mind and his great devotion to self-destruction. “He’s a beaten man,” observes Dunmore, “Whilst he sort of knee-jerks the defiance.”

Rochester remains resolute even as his figure and face quite literally disintegrate. He is at once miserable and stubbornly profound. “With my sickness,” he writes to Mrs. Barry. “It seems the world has turned hateful of me.” At film’s end, his grisly, noseless death is reenacted in a play about his terrible, wonderful rage, art folded into life once more. Brilliantly contentious and prolific, Rochester is produced by a system of opposites: law and outlaw, conformity and dissipation. Pitting art and “truth” against small thinking, he can’t see that his offenses only reinforce that very system.

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