In the first frames of The Libertine, Laurence Dunmore’s adaptation of Stephen Jeffrey’s play about John Wilmot, the notoriously debauched Second Earl of Rochester, a ghoulish Johnny Depp emerges out of a grain-maze of candlelight. A just-barely-legible spectre of ink-pool eyes and equally wet, black lips, Wilmot very proudly announces, “You will not like me.” Critics have pounced on this line, and it’s not hard to see it as a tantalizing touchstone for a teardown. But by the end of the film, that line struck me less as a blatant attention grabber on the part of the screenwriter, than emblematic of the kind of indulgent, verbal game playing at which Wilmot, as drawn throughout the film, excels. It’s a puzzle as to why no one is talking about the rest of the prologue, particularly the part where he informs the men on the opposite side of the screen that he wants them to “shag with my avuncular image in your gonads.” What's not to like?
The Weinstein Compay is releasing it The Libertine without a rating, though it seems unlikely this has anything to do with sex – aside from an orgy steeped in just enough fog to avoid Eyes Wide Shut-style trickery, there's very little questionable imagery here for the MPAA to contest. But the ratings board surely bristled at the script, which overflows with filth. Dan Glickman's little coven is rumored to have a rule stating that one instance of the word "fuck" in reference to sex acts will equal a rating of R; The Libertine runs afoul of that rule too many times to count.
Yes, parents of pre-teen Depp fans beware: this is a tawdry little film. It’s primarily concerned with the tabloid aspects of Wilmot’s life – the booze and the whores, the vague bisexuality, and, of course, the syphllis – and it, like the Earl himself, holds bad behavoir in the very highest esteem. At the same time, it’s not a very sexy film, because for the most part, sexual pleasure is portrayed as being besides the point. Instead of the kinds of steamy scenes that often give the best examples of corset cinema their kick (and sometimes kink), the sex in The Libertine has a decidedly Foucaultian bent - it's all about power, my lord. Bodices aren't ripped, but skirts are lifted in the back of carriages; Wilmot gives out orgasms the way some men bring flowers – after fights or on first dates. Every bosom heaved on his watch is done as part of a long-term manipulation, less about pleasure in the present than about total runs earned.
As the film begins, it's about 1675, and King Charles II (a gloriously bloated and bewigged John Malkovich), recently reinstated to the throne, is in desperate need of money. Wilmot, who the king alternately coddles and banishes on whims, has returned to glory as the royal pet project. "Elizabeth had her Shakespeare; you can be mine," the King tells the Earl, grandly and optimistically. Wilmot, at 28, is about five years away from his very early, syphillis-stoked death.
Whilst sliding around under the King's thumb, Wilmot amuses himself by going to the theater – the one realm in which he's heretofore found pleasures not based on a balance of control. The Earl finds some kind of spiritual rebirth in his relationship with Elizabeth Barry (Samantha Morton), a bad actress who Wilmot pledges to make good. Within a blink of an eye, Barry *does*, in fact, become the greatest actress in London, but that victory seems strangely weighted down by Wilmot and Barry's ponderous affair. Barry is the one girl in London that Wilmot isn't prepared for. In a world where women are heavily compartmentalized as either arm candy or eye candy or lap candy, the somewhat plain Lizzie is Wilmot's brain candy, and apparently never having had any before, the Earl find himself completely wrecked by this particular sweet thing.
It isn’t immediately apparent that their romance is going to go beyond the intelligent woman/promiscuous man roundelay of contempt-quickly-morphing-into-passion that we’ve seen so many times before. But it becomes clear that the two share a monstrous hunger for approval that, momentarily, they’re able sate in one another’s gaze. It’s also clear, even at the height of their romantic ecstasy, that this relationship is doomed. Wilmot culls some invaluable advice on the situation from his regular whore: "When a man sees the spirit [of a woman] and not the eyes and tits, he's in trouble." I'd go a step further in defining the ultimate Bad Sign in this relationship: the lovers seem to cull most of their pleasure from the agony of being apart.
Depp is an actor that seems to become exponentially more impressive with each role, and if his work in The Libertine is any indication of his future, soon talking about Johnny Depp's acting acheivements will require a new kind of math. The script conceives of 17th century court as backstage at Motley Crue, and, dressings aside, Depp plays Wilmot as a rock star drunk on his own image of himself as badness incarnate. When a character later tells Wilmot that he had previously described the Earl as “endearing”, Wilmot responds, “Good. So you haven’t told the truth.” But Wilmot *is* endearing, and contrary to his overwrought disclaimer, he is also, even when behaving badly –which is roughly all the time – likable. Depp's conception of the Earl (who managed to squeeze the composition of the era's greatest works of satirical filth into his busy schedule of satisfying vices) is as a man who fundamentally expects to be loved even as he's constantly testing what he can get away with.
This is never so clear as in a scene in which Wilmot's loutish behavoir causes his wife (Rosamund Pike) to storm out of a portrait sitting. Depp turns his back away from court, ostensibly to refill his constant glass of swill, and the camera alone is privy to the weight of disappointment on his crumbled face. Wilmot has the emotional life of a twelve-year-old. Everything he does, he's doing for attention, but he's simply incapable of pre-calculating how far is too far. When he accidentally presses the wrong buttons, he's far from equipped to deal with the fall out.
The first hour or so of The Libertine works extremely well. Alexander Melman's candlelit cinematography is at once lush and gritty, and as long as Wilmot is allowed to glide through society acting like a hoodrat with little consequence, the narrative has a subversive spirit to it that's hard to deny. The unquestionable climax of the film is a play put on, at the request of King Charles, by Wilmot and his band of slumming gentlemen and theatrical miscreants. In desperate need of refilling the coffers, Charles has invited the French king over for dinner, and demands that Wilmot invent a suitable entertainment. The ensuing paen to regal corruption is all prancing phalluses, and only Wilmot is amused, but in its balls-out absurdity, the scene raises the film to a rafter of excitement, from which it can only proceed to plummet.
I enjoyed The Libertine quite a bit, but as it becomes a drastically different film in its last 45 minutes, I can't help but feel as though it's initial pleasures are, based as they are on Depp's sheer virtuosity as a subversive, a bit guilty. Charles, and his other supporters, think Wilmot could be the figurehead of his generation; Wilmot is content to wallow in his own petulance instead, and his very determination to model his narrative arc after a ski-slope becomes tedious. As the picture, and Wilmot, meander to their joyless demise, and Depp's rugged, unshaven manliness literally rots away, the obscenity-spewing pile of disease left tottering towards the camera feels cartoonish, divorced from the multi-dimensional character that Depp and Dunmore seemed intent on highlighting moments before. Pike gets one good scene in, but this is clearly one big boat of a one-man show. Will Johnny Depp finally win an Oscar playing the syphllitic heap at a former Bond girl's feet? Probably not, but the hope that he could is The Libertine's only real reason to exist. It's good enough reason for me.