Monday, March 13, 2006

the libertine

Last night I went to see The Libertine, a chronicle of the life of John Wilmot, the second Earl of Rochester, a Restoration poet, wit, rake, courtier to Charles II, and notorious atheist. The movie was to my mind a very subtle and articulate metaphorical account (apology? critique?) of contemporary art and intellectualism. It stars Johnny Depp as John Wilmot, John Malkovich as (an excellent) Charles II, Samantha Morton as Elizabeth Barry, and Rosamund Pike as Elizabeth Malet.

The film shows, I think, the groundwork for the late shift toward "the interesting" as the primary category of aesthetic evaluation. Wilmot remarks, through the enactment of a little parable early on in the film that any "experience of interest will be carved out at your own expense." And this seems an apt moral for the film's Wilmot, though overall the film leaves it somewhat ambiguous as to whether it ought to be regarded as a critique of this notion, or an apology for it. I tend to think the latter, as after Wilmot's grotesque and syphalitic death at the age of 33 (wink, wink) in the film -- during the course of which death he mocks a priest by having him recite the Suffering Servant Song of Isaiah 53 -- Wilmot is resurrected for an epilogue aside, explaining his own death as a travesty of redemption, in which he was shown "our suffering Lord" and at the sight of him, climbed up the cross and took the nails for his own palms. All, presumably, in the service of "the interesting."

Echoes of Nietzsche and (perhaps) of Heidegger, though I am quite certain I do not understand the latter. It is all a very helpful and trenchant critique of idolatrous Christianity, after the manner of Kierkegaard, but the conclusions it draws are as horrific as the syphilis that ate up both Wilmot and Nietzsche. That is to say, when culture has been evacuated of any fundamental significance, the best one can do is to create something amusing. And the inevitable suffering of the artist is in proportion to the greatness of his art. This is Kierkegaard's category of the Aesthetic. The Kierkegaardian Aesthete can have, for example, no real friends, as real friendship always ceases merely to amuse, and he is merely after amusement. But praise God for the teleological suspension of the Aesthetic (and of the Ethical) into the Religious. And one is reminded in The Libertine of the relative closeness of the aestetical and the religious, despite the interposition of the ethical between them. E.g. Isaiah 53 DOES, in fact, apply remarkably well to Wilmot. But in the end he dies horribly, his only resurrection that of a dramatic aside in the film's epilogue.

The Libertine is very advisedly rated R for some violence, and loads of lurid sexual language and imagery. But like the film's cinematoraphy and music (both excellent, by the way), the lurid sexuality is saved from gratuitousness by its fittingness within the context of the film's moral (or of Wilmot's moral, depending on whether the film is ironical).

I give it four stars, two thumbs up, &c. But my addulations come with caution about the sexual content. Be aware.


texanglican said...

Excellent review, Father. I was thinking of seeing the film. Now I shall.

Garland said...

Clearly a great movie about a great individual. Is that a monkey he's crowning with a laurel? It is! It is!

MM said...

Fr., You Are So Good! Awesome. I get to see it next...

If I may be so bold, a penchant for The Interesting just so ought to be one of the first things to go for Lent. In its place should be (on Garland's example, ahem) a sober, resigned reflection on the same, via The Screwtape Letters. Isnt that so, Garland? Fabulous monkeys indeed-