I have no idea how this movie slipped past audiences. It is possibly the greatest performance of Johnny Depp’s career.
Actually, I have some idea. In film, distributors are always asking “who is the audience for this?” I don’t know who the built in audience is for a film about a self-destructive 17th century artist, other than other artists. But if you are an artist, or if you’ve dealt with feelings of self-destructiveness, or the burn-out the comes from using pleasure as a way to avoid your real issues, this movie is for you, and you will be deeply moved by it.
It takes a lot of balls to open your film with a two-minute monologue from your main character that begins “you will not like me.” The brilliance of this monologue is that it manages to main the main character likable if you pay attention, as he tells you exactly the opposite. That’s the key phrase though – pay attention. This a complex film, a work of art, that will fly over most audiences heads. It continually makes the unconventional choice, which I believe most critics mistook for the wrong choice.
I remember when this film came out, that the reviews were fairly bad. Critics complained “it’s called the Libertine – why is it shot so dark and muddy?” – clearly having never heard the phrase “hedonic treadmill.” The title character is a man who feels unloved and inadequate, who uses pleasure to avoid those feelings. He has an artistic gift, but squanders it, seeking increasingly greater sources of pleasure to try to feel, like a junky chasing a high. Doesn’t that sound dark to you?
The cinematography is beautiful in an unconventional way. It is lit entirely with candles, so every shot flickers. The grain of the film is visible, and some scenes have just enough exposure to be visible. What on any other film would be a “mistake” is perfect for the subject matter of this film. All the imperfections of the camera are on display in this film, just like all the imperfections of the character. Had this film been lit “correctly” is wouldn’t have been nearly as powerful, and the fact critics didn’t see that means they have no one to blame but themselves after a string of sameness came out of most blockbusters for the next decade.
Not enough can be said about the performances. I can’t think of a single scene where every actor isn’t giving it their full. The relationships are complex, but clear. There is the title character’s wife in the film, who struggles the way a woman in relationship with an addict struggle. His mother, who clearly instilled his self-hatred in him. The King, who sees his genius, yet has his own problems that cause him to commission a work. The actress, who Depp’s character Rochester choses to develop rather then use his own artistic talents.
Actually, that relationship between Depp’s character and the actress shows what happened with this film, and what many artists go through. The first time we see this actresses, she is booed off stage for being too quiet to hear. However, Depp’s character sees a genuine spark in her and offers to train her. When she performs for him later, she gives a loud fake performance. He calls her out on it. She says she was booed off stage for the genuine thing. He makes her train until that genuine spark can be heard. Likewise, the film itself has a genuine spark, one that critics booed off stage because they couldn’t hear, and one that I hope future audiences can appreciate.
I didn’t link the trailer for this film, because I felt it didn’t capture it’s power. Go into this film seeing as little possible about it beforehand. The only warning I’ll give is that this film gets dark, and is full of nudity and sex. Depp allows himself to look ugly in a way that is brave and rare for actors. His performance is deeply layered. It might be his best ever.
Despite all this, I struggle to figure out how to summarize who this is for. It’s just a genuinely great film, but one that is complex. Not that kind that can be boiled down to a tagline or genre, but one that deserves to be seen. So here’s a suggestion – if you have an artist friend, or someone who you think would enjoy this film, send them this post or tag them in a link to it on social media. Films like this spread through word of mouth. Like the title character, it may only be appreciated after it’s time has passed – but it will be appreciated.
- Watch The Libertine (2004)
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