Maggie McMuffin reviews the sexiest of Thanksgiving film releases, The Libertine, a nearly forgotten part of the Johnny Depp oeuvre which, Maggie contends, really ought to be remembered. Because how can you forget John Malkovich talking about tiny pineapples? You can’t.
I need to talk about my mom.
I mean, in order to talk about this movie, which I went and saw in theatres at the age of 15, I need to talk about my mom.
My mom is not the slutty parent. My mom is not the parent who gave me the birds and bees talk or bought me my first tampon. My mom is not the parent who had the revolving door of partners until I was 14.
And yet, my mother was the parent I watched sexy films with.
My mom did not want me looking at porn. She did not want me on birth control lest I start having sex. My mom had her own rough relationship with sexuality that meant she couldn’t really talk about it outright or tell her very interested in sex teenage daughter about it.
But like every former Catholic, my mother had found loopholes. Things that allowed for safe exploration with minimal guilt.
My mom’s personal loophole for raunch was period films. She never was one for bodice rippers that came in book form but you give her a glorified Masterpiece Theatre and she is on it.
I should mention here that in high school my mom was my best friend. My friends all loved her. I was not considered weird for spending full weekends with my mother because my mother was referred to as “Mrs. Weasley” by my peers. My mother and I frequently saw movies together, the exception being horror films (which I will talk about next month), and therefore I got to see a lot of R-rated films. It was sort of an unspoken bonding exercise to go see movies that titillated us both but for us to then discuss the costumes and the sets.
The Libertine was billed as a racy film but surely it could be no worse than, say, Dangerous Liaisons or any film from the ‘90s starring Ralph Fiennes. This had Johnny Depp in it, so it would be smoldering but not explicit. And the character was a playwright so it was probably like Shakespeare in Love or something similar. Me and my mom, teenage hormone cluster and single 30-something, were sold.
Let me tell you, this is not a film to watch with your parents.
It’s not just that the film is blatantly sexual, with Johnny Depp finger-banging his wife in a carriage while recounting the story of their Meet Cute (he kidnaps and rapes her) in the first half hour. It’s that this film has consequences to that sexuality. You get a weird tree orgy (I think? I always write these sections before my rewatch and I am convinced this film has an orgy under a tree and there’s fog and a bajillion people but I also feel like maybe I made this up) but you also get Johnny Depp pissing himself and losing his nose to syphilis.
So it’s a double hit. You get all the sex that’s awkward to watch with your parent but then your boner gets cut off at the knees in the third act so you can’t even enjoy it.
Come to think of it, maybe this was the perfect film to have watched with my repressed lapsed Catholic mother.
Because we ended up buying it on DVD. From K-Mart. Since WalMart deemed it too explicit to sell. I had no idea that even happened.
I watched it more than my mom did. I think it was a bit too hard for her. There’s no happy ending or weddings. But proto-kinky me? This movie was candy. I read through all the info on it online (it’s lit entirely by candles! No electric lights used at all! That has nothing to do with sex, it’s just really neat!) and rewatched the scenes where they spoke of abduction.
But then guilt crept in on me and I felt really weird watching that movie in our small house. It wasn’t subtle enough to just watch and get a little turned on and leave it at that. When your daughter, who you know has an interest in sex, is watching a movie about a historical figure famous for slutting it up and then dying of syphilis, well…my mom never said anything because she’s always done this thing where she didn’t want me to have her hang-ups and just sort of ignored stuff I did in case she accidentally shamed me and gave me a complex. Silent support. But it was easier for me to ignore her ignoring me if I could plug headphones into a computer late at night or read a book with a nondescript cover. Knowing she was ignoring me and just letting me get on with my life was…it was weird. I can’t explain it. It wasn’t that I felt guilty about learning about sex and kinks and grabbing any straws of them that I could; it’s just that I felt weird having my mom know about it. She’s my mom. She didn’t need to know that I was having dubcon fantasies at 16 any more than she needed to know that I hadn’t even kissed anyone yet. That is my business. Parents just don’t need to know your sex stuff.
This movie was the first time I had ever really thought of that. I had always known my parents had sex lives but the idea that they could realize I had one, even a strictly fantasy one, had never occurred to me. Before I would hide stuff because it was “bad” that I was reading sex scenes (even though I got them from grandma’s bookshelf or the public library) or it was “Oh, just this great play!” when I was studying monologues for acting class. This was different. This was real sex. This was legit pants feelings. This was adult feelings. And adults can’t just go around yelling about what they want to do with their genitals.
Anyway, I haven’t watched The Libertine since that realization, despite the fact that I remember it having plenty of other merits. I’m really looking forward to re-watching it though because while my taste in sexual outlets has changed (as in, I can just have sex now rather than relying on Hollywood to fill in the gaps) this movie still has things I like: witty banter, Johnny Depp before he became a caricature of himself, and John Malkovich talking about pineapples.
I really like that last one.
Before I start the review portion I would like to say that I am drunk because I chose to emulate Rochester and not because I waited until the last minute to finish this movie and write this up and that last minute happened to be Thanksgiving and I sat in a corner of my friend’s apartment watching the last half hour and trying not to cry into my champagne while the rest of the party watched YouTube videos.
That did not happen. I was totally on top of this masterpiece.
And a masterpiece it was.
Why don’t Johnny Depp fans talk about this film? Why doesn’t anyone talk about this film? It flows well, has great performances, stellar female characters, fantastic back and forth, and amazing pacing. It legitimately makes me wish I knew more about the history of England because I’m sure that could only enhance the viewing experience. This movie is, granted, very depressing in the end, but it is also hilarious in a biting way and it has a musical number about dildos that doesn’t feel anachronistic at all.
The film opens with a slow fade to “produced by the Weinstein Company.” As my partner said, “That’s how you can tell it means business. It’s not Miramax.” And indeed, this film is not fucking around. We continue our slow fade to a candlelit history lesson (giving it a flickering filtered quality that really works) about the Restoration. King Charles II has created an England where “theatre, the visual arts, sciences, and sexual intercourse flourish” but so do war, economic shit, binge drinking and war. “By 1675 the hangovers kick in, A desperate Charles turns to one particular friend.”
And then Johnny Depp kicks off the film with “Allow me to be frank…You will not like me.”
What follows is a monologue about how women will want him but should stay away, for he is a scoundrel who is always up for sex. Men will dream of him and live vicariously through him and think him more enlightened. He waxes about orgasms being the source of inspiration and knowledge, that some will think he must find his genius at the end of his cock. More importantly than us not liking him is the fact that “I am John Wilmot, Second Earl of Rochester, and I DO NOT WANT YOU TO LIKE ME.”
This could have been a bad attempt at grittiness, a male lead who manages to be admired despite being an asshole. This isn’t that film. People love Rochester despite themselves and his behavior and as the film progresses their love diminishes. Whether the King, his playwright peers, or the various women he lays and loves, in the end they all at least have him at arm’s length and pretty much tell him they’ll make sure to speak well of him when he eventually dies of syphilis.
I don’t even want to do my usual style of straight-up synopsis for this film because I want everyone to go see this movie. It’s 3 bucks to rent on Amazon instant and 6 bucks to buy.
But I should tell you some of what makes this film great.
1) Johnny Depp should be remembered for this role
Seriously. He is a revelation and I firmly believe this is his last great performance. (I have heard arguments for Rango but have not seen it.) It’s all the best parts of Depp. His charm, his bad boy charisma, his ability to make any suggestion sound sexy. Also his ability to just be fucking foaming at the mouth indignant and lash out at people around him. He pisses himself and cries and makes it tragic despite having played a total jerk for the last 90 minutes. You never feel safe with Rochester but you feel compelled by him at every turn. Who won the Oscar the year Depp was nominated for this?
[Editor: Depp’s only nominations are for Pirates: CotBP (2003), Finding Neverland (2004), and Sweeney Todd (2008). 2005’s noms were Terrence Howard (Hustle & Flow), Heath Ledger (Brokeback Mountain), Joaquin Phoenix (Walk the Line), David Strathairn (Good Night, and Good Luck), and eventual winner Phillip Seymour Hoffman (Capote).]
2) The women ROCK
This film doesn’t ever pass the Bechdel Test but the women do tear Rochester apart. Rochester’s favorite sex worker (who is also an actress, like most of the prostitutes in this story) propositions him in front of an entire theatre and later on meets him in a hallway after he says he brought his wife.
“Did you miss me?”
“I missed the money.”
“Good. I hate a whore with sentiment.”
Later they develop an honest-to-god worker/client relationship with her advising him on a budding romance and her asserting the boundaries of her emotional labor. She says that she will not care for Rochester and if he made her do so she would never forgive him. But they are friends, even if she will not be his true mistress.
His wife, Elizabeth, is played by Rosamund Pike. I think this or Pride & Prejudice was the first thing I ever saw her in and this role stuck with me. She stands dutifully by as Rochester debauches his way through London, eventually losing it when he says he would prefer to sit in portrait with a monkey than her. Their Meet Cute is literally a rape that is discussed as “abduction” and clearly a game they play. He asks her to speak of it and she does, fondly, leaving out graphic details but not being shy. On the way to London he finger-bangs her in the carriage to orgasm and has her suck his finger after she relays the whole story of him abducting her, being thrown in the tower, and then her refusing all other suitors. She tells the story gleefully. It’s really hot. And it is equally sad on Rochester’s death bed when he asks for the story and dies after the point where he takes her. Between those two points we see Elizabeth confront him about his alcoholism, his inability to care for her in person, only in letters, and flat out tell him that she could “bear our marriage more if there were no pretense.”
But the most important woman in Rochester’s life is perhaps his mistress, Lizzie. He turns her into a brilliant actress on a bet. She tells him upfront she will not be an accessory to his genius, something he can brag about creating. Through their mutual love of the theatre as a tool to stir admiration in others, they fall in love. True love. Rochester truly falls for her in a way that is heartbreaking and the dissolution of their relationship is entirely on Lizzie’s terms.
She tells him that if he wishes to see her she’ll always be on stage and until then she hopes that “May I be ever in your heart, sometimes in your thoughts, and never in your debt.”
They are two people who teach each other how to live life better without truly teaching each other to just become better people. Rochester never stops his bad habits and Lizzie never loses her ambition. They push each other and change each other and perhaps if they had met earlier in life they may have had a happy ending together. As it is, their breakup is honest (for he has learned to be honest but gentle and she has learned to be honest entirely) and one of the best I have seen in a film of this kind.
Charles II is obsessed with science and considers it the true sign of men’s abilities. His utmost proof of this is the tiniest pineapple, grown in England, which he hands to Rochester with a flippant air.
Malkovich also originated the role of Rochester in the play the film is based on, so I imagine this was fun for him. He approaches Rochester with patience, even when he’s at his end, and rarely raises his voice. Malkovich feels like a king and, more importantly, an actual politician who must navigate budding wars and economic recessions. He tries so hard to get Rochester to work for him and be his Shakespeare because he believes in his talent but also because he really needs someone to help his image.
4) THE TREE ORGY HAPPENED AND IT EVEN HAD A POINT
But like all the other sex in this film it’s not explicit. It could be shown on TV easily. And the sex scenes read more like certain nude paintings (which I can’t name due to my lack of knowledge) thanks to all the fog and dust and candle flickers. They are all sexy in different ways without straying into being gratuitous. Which is great because there is eventually a play where the actors are expected to have sex and where a chorus of women go to town with some dildos. There’s a giant cock wagon ON FIRE at one point. In this film, theatre is more fantastic and interesting than life and so it makes sense that the most graphic things we see are on the stage. Even Rochester’s death is portrayed with more beauty and dignity on stage than it is in reality.
“I cannot feel in life. I must have others feel for me here in the theatre.”
But the thing that really makes this film is that it is not a narrative about a lovable asshole. Just as the abduction story comes round again, so does the concept of being liked. Rochester tells Lizzie that she should ignore what people think of her as they fall into the categories of “stupid” or “envious,” but by the end of this film people dislike Rochester not because they are stupid or envious (though some are) but because he’s a selfish dick and the self-proclaimed “cynic of the Golden Age.” Charles tells him early on that “anyone can be against everything but there comes a time when you need to be for something.” The film is about Rochester learning to appreciate life, albeit far, far too late. His gruffness and hatred of the world, his inability to be pleased by anything more substantial than a monkey dancing to a violin, really does go to the core but it is also a shield against the world hating him back. He is a rightfully hated person, but what does that matter if he hates society more than it hates him? If he is smarter, quicker with an insult, and able to con his way into credit despite having no money, who cares what people think of him?
But he does care. He tries to win Lizzie back. He cries in Elizabeth’s arms. He repents over the death of a peer. And in the end we leave him asking us “Do you like me now?” before fading into nothing more than a character to be played on stage.
This film muses on the conflict between personal depiction vs. fact and Rochester lives that, making his own life into a spectacle until nature tears him down and brings him back to harsh reality.
Seriously. I cannot recommend this film enough. Yes, re-watching it I could totally pick out each and every scene that counted as formative or my sexuality but I also picked up on so much that my precocious and smart but still 15-year-old self missed out on. Like Rochester this film is more than debauched sex and depravity. Hidden under that is hurt, heart, and the ability to have people hang on every word.
All the said, I am probably never gonna watch it with my mom again. I did recommend it to my boyfriend’s mom though!
Out of Context Lines That I Liked:
“I love you, Johnny. Don’t fuck it up.”
“My name is Alcock. ‘Little Clitoris’ is above my range.”
“Now. Bring me the monkey.”
“I believe that men are hurdles to be negotiated.”
“Any experiment at life will be carried out at your expense.”
“I am condemning you to be you for the rest of your days.”
— Rochester’s mother is sadly not fleshed out more. She’s mostly just there for religious flair.
— Jack Davenport is in this and I love it and I love him.
— Everything in this film is filthy. I love period films where things are actually dirty and you understand why people got sick and died all the time.
— WIGS. WIGS AS FAR AS THE EYES CAN SEE. SO MANY WIGS. But none made of pubic hair as far as we know.
— Pretty much every actress we meet is also a prostitute but they are presented as getting to set their own rates and services. Their manager is an older woman who is invested in women getting to be on stage. The actresses also fucking patrons (as was common in theatre for a pretty good amount of time) is never presented as a hurdle to women being respected as actresses either, just a matter of business.
— Two of Rochester’s peers balk at services and prices but seem to at least pay what they are asked and are never shown as arguing with the women, just complaining to each other about things that displease them. It’s pretty rad.
— There is a lot of stuff that Lizzie says about being truthful and how much it hurts to be truthful. In the end her art is better because she is being natural and honest on stage. The trade-off is that she too becomes an honest person and she’s got some cold stuff to say. However, I love her. I love her so. And I love that her eventual honesty isn’t used to turn her into a hateful bitch but just a woman standing up for herself. It contrasts with Rochester’s honesty which is selfish and cruel and, while it does hurt him after he’s near death, he accepts it and respects it because there’s no real comfort in lies.
— They never show the portrait that they paint with the monkey and I understand that’s probably a budget thing but goddamn I wish they had pulled the cash together for that. [Update: Monkey portrait found!]