Nov 30, 2014
Forget the various hokey Hammer Horror films based on the works and characters of the Irish Gothic novelist Sheridan Le Fanu, like Roy Ward Baker’s The Vampire Lovers (1970) starring Ingrid Pitt, Jimmy Sangster’s Lust for a Vampire (1971) and John Hough’s Twins of Evil (1971) starring Peter Cushing, Schalcken the Painter (1979) directed by Leslie Megahey (Duke Bluebeard's Castle, The Advocate aka The Hour of the Pig) is not only hands down the greatest and most cultivated Sheridan Le Fanu reworking from the 1970s, despite being based on one of the writer’s lesser known works, but also, aside from Carl Th. Dreyer’s masterwork Vampyr (1931), the best, most ambitious, and singular film based on a work by the Victorian era Dark Romanticist ever made. Indeed, I do not like to throw around the word ‘masterpiece,’ but with its tight and claustrophobic direction, decadent yet dignified tableaux and mise-en-scène, cool and collected yet foreboding atmosphere, ostensibly docudrama-like yet classical approach to storytelling, and truly striking and idiosyncratic all-around flavor, Megahey’s 68-minute piece of phantasmagorical Gothic horror is certainly a work that seems to be free of all flaws, or at least hides them well. Adapted from Le Fanu’s 1839 short story A Strange Event in the Life of Schalken the Painter—a work aesthetically inspired by the ghostly atmospheric candlelit paintings of 17th-century Dutch Golden Age painter Godfried Schalcken, who also happens to be the lead character of the story—Schalcken the Painter is a darkly (anti)romantic doom-and-gloom-addled ghost story about a young and cowardly yet nonetheless talented Flemish painter who finds himself forsaking love and happiness for artistic ambition after letting has beloved fall into the hands of a grotesque elderly ‘demonic lover.’ As the head of BBC’s arts documentary program Omnibus, auteur Megahey cleverly sold the story as a ‘documentary’ and was ultimately able to assemble what amounts to an experimental Gothic horror flick, which was also screened as part of the BBC's annual broadcast ‘A Ghost Story for Christmas’ on December 23, 1979.
Like a Gothic horror film as directed by the rampantly heterosexual twin of Teutonic dandy auteur Werner Schroeter, albeit minus the camp elements and featuring a relatively straightforward storyline, with a mise-en-scène inspired by paintings by both the eponymous subject and his more bourgeois Baroque fellow countryman Johannes Vermeer, Schalcken the Painter is like a virtual living Dutch Golden Age art museum set in some sort of perennially pernicious Calvinist purgatory where all love is lost and has been replaced with lust and where sin, especially greed, reigns. Inspired by the paintings of an artist that is probably best known for his unrivaled mastery in reproducing the effect of candlelight, Megahey’s celluloid chiaroscuro might seem like it was inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s underrated epic European period piece Barry Lyndon (1975), but the director has credited its inspiration to the more obscure tragic medieval love story Blanche (1972) directed by Polish painter turned animator turned cinematic auteur Walerian Borowczyk. A multilayered subtextual work that is simultaneously a morality tale about the haunting dread that accompanies fame and fortune over true love, an anti-capitalist fable that depicts money as the root of all ‘evil,’ a scathing crypto-feminist critique of the so-called institution of marriage, an experimental art history (pseudo)documentary that analyzes the life and work of Schalcken, and a foreboding abstract re-working of arthouse folk horror, Schalcken the Painter is a film that does many things and somehow manages to do them rather well, thus making it seem like auteur Megahey, who is far from a household name, made some sort of Faustian pact that gave him the artistry but not the fame and fortune.
Opening with an off-screen Godfried Schalken (Jeremy Clyde of the British TV series William Tell aka Crosswbow (1987-1989) and The Iron Lady (2011) starring Meryl Streep) telling a beauteous classical Nordic model to, “Turn from the light. Your breast bare. Look into the dark,” Schalcken the Painter then sends the viewer into literal and figurative darkness where the viewer is greeted by an unseen narrator (fittingly provided by Charles Gray of The Devil Rides Out (1968) and The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) in a role considered for Vincent Price and offered to Peter Cushing) who describes how his great-grandfather knew the Flemish painter well and states regarding a painting featured in the scene: “To my mind, there are some paintings that impress one with a conviction that they represent not merely the imagined shapes and characters conceived in the mind of the artist, but scenes or faces or situations that have actually existed. There is in one strange picture that intangible something which stamps it as just such a representation of reality. It’s a remarkable work by the Dutch painter Schalcken.” The painting in question features a beautiful young woman in the foreground holding a large candle while a young man is drawing a sword in the background as if afraid of the seemingly harmless lady, with the rest of the painting being total abyss-like blackness. By the end of the film, the viewer will know what inspired this painting, and that the antihero Schalcken, through weakness and self-absorption, unwittingly sired a demon that haunted him until his lonely death. Schalcken’s story begins in 1665 at the Leiden-based studio of his teacher Gerrit Dou (Maurice Denham of John Schlesinger’s Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971) and The Day of the Jackal (1973)), who was the student of the great Rembrandt van Rijn and earned great fame due to his “exquisitely detailed and minutely executed paintings,” but by age 30, had gone progressively blind and thus became a teacher. While Schalcken will receive a “traditionally formal and academic education” from Dou, his later and greater work “seems to have its roots in some private world of dreams, perhaps never otherwise expressed.” The gatekeeper of this “private world of dreams” is Dou’s stunning young niece Rose Velderkaust (British TV actress Cheryl Kennedy), who “had all the charm of the fair light-skinned Flemish maidens,” hence why Schalcken will fall in love with her at virtual first sight “as much as a Dutchman can” (unquestionably, the film has a less than favorable view of the national character of the Dutch), but he will ultimately prove not man enough to be worthy of her love.
Behind goofy old fart Dou’s back, Schalcken and Rose start a seemingly harmless love affair mostly comprised of sensual glances and romantic whispers, but their love is soon tested when an elderly ghoul of a fellow named ‘Minjheer Vanderhausen of Rotterdam' (a rather ghastly and corpse-like John Justin of The Thief of Bagdad (1940)) with a chest full of gold jewelry demands that Dou sign away his niece to him immediately in exchange for the small fortune he has brought. Somewhat reluctantly, Dou gives into his greed and sells his niece to the tall and seemingly rotting ghoul despite Rose’s plea, “Oh Uncle, what a terrible creature. I could never look on that face again for all the wealth of the states.” Rose also reveals that she remembers seeing Vanderhausen, who she describes as an “old wooden figure,” staring creepily at her at a Rotterdam church when she was just a little girl, but her uncle couldn't care less because, as the film’s narrator states, “Marriages were matters of traffic and calculation. The unfortunate girl was simply the object of a contract.” While Rose attempts to convince Schalcken to run away with her, the painter refuses and states, “I will work, Rose. In the future, I will buy back the contract. I will buy it back double.” Of course, he never has the opportunity to buy her back and as the narrator states regarding the rest of the film, “I have no sentimental scenes to describe, no exquisite details of the cruelty of a guardian, no agonies or transports of lovers. The record I have to make is one of heartlessness, nothing more. The contract was signed, and settlements made even more splendid than Dou ever dreamed of.” Naturally, Rose and Vanderhausen wed but, after the ceremony, both bride and groom disappear without a trace, as if pulled into the bowels of hell to consummate their unholy marriage. When Dou does not hear from his niece or her new husband after weeks, he sends Schalcken to Rotterdam to look for them so as “to satisfy himself as to the comfort and safety of Rose,” but “no one had ever heard of the rich Minjheer Vanderhausen.”
While one might suspect that Schalcken would fall into a deep van Gogh-esque depression after losing his beloved, “bit by bit, the impulse of love gave way to that of ambition” and the painter satisfied his sexual longings by regularly meeting with a prostitute named Hendrijke (Helena Clayton of exploitation trash like The Brick Dollhouse (1967) and The Rebel Rousers (1970)) to satisfy his carnal lust in between devoting virtually all of his time to his blossoming painting career, whose work the narrator describes as seeming “to draw upon elements of a peculiarly personal nature, and yet with no apparent foundation in what we know of the life of the painter. In all the paintings I have seen, I have remarked a strange distance in the relationship of the human figures therein. Contacts made only perhaps by the expected conventions and courtesies of polite society, or by commercial transaction. Sensuality without warmth, without passion. Trappings that are ornate and lovely, and yet set in a darkness that the faltering lamplight or candle flame never seems capable of penetrating.” As for Dou, he suffered great grief over the disappearance of his niece Rose because “he felt most strongly that he had been defrauded, and he did not know why. In order to dispel his loneliness, for he could no longer work, he continued to keep close company with his now famous pupil.” One day while Dou is hanging out with his “now famous pupil,” Rose randomly shows up at the house and demands wine and food, which she scoffs down like a starving Congolese toddler. After eating, Rose states hysterically, “Find me a minister of god. I’m not safe until he comes. Send for him quickly!” and demands that she “must never be left alone. I’m lost forever if you leave me. The dead and the living can never be one. It is forbidden. The dead and the living can never be one.” Schalcken takes Rose to a back bedroom to rest where she complains, “This is the darkness. The darkness is unsafe. Give me light,” so the painter yells to Dou to bring her light, but when the old fart takes too long, he decides to get it himself, only to hear his beloved scream in terror just seconds after walking out of the room. When Schalocken returns to the bedroom, he discovers that Rose is gone and that she may have fallen to her death in a dam via an open window.
After his beloved disappears once again, Schalcken hires a dirty prole girl to be his model and begins painting portraits of mythical figures like Pandora, Ceres, and Lesbia instead of the biblical figures to which he had been accustomed. The painter also ditches his regular whore Hendrijke when the whorehouse he regularly visits gets a new girl named ‘Rose of Rotterdam’, who looks more or less like an evil and lecherous version of his beloved virgin-like Rose. While in his late-30s, Schalcken marries a girl from a rich merchant’s family named Francoise van Dimen de Breda (Amanda Carlson), who is a bitch of a broad that is “several years his junior” but is “adequately trained in the household arts.” Meanwhile, Schalcken demonstrates he is just as big of a whore as his teacher because while he refuses to do commissioned portraits, he caves in when a rich fellow offers him a chest of riches just as Dou caved in when Vanderhausen offered him great wealth for his nubile niece’s hand in marriage. As the narrator describes, “Gerrit Dou later faded into obscurity under his much more famous pupil" and when he died in 1675, Schalcken attended his funeral, only to come home in a seemingly haunted state and started painting immediately in his studio without saying a word to anyone, not even his wife. As depicted in an exceedingly macabre scene of necro sex, Schalcken felt a presence luring him to a vault at the church where Dou’s funeral took place and upon entering the room, he found Rose—or some sinister apparition that resembled her—who took him to a bed where she strips, mounts, and screws her undead husband Minjheer Vanderhausen right in front of the positively petrified painter, who subsequently faints after witnessing the ghastly sight. After waking up, Schalcken finds the tomb of Rose and Vanderhausen, thus making him realize that he has just witnessed two ghosts copulating. Indeed, the painting presented at the beginning (and end) of the film was inspired by that horrifying night when Schalcken witnessed the ghost of his one great love humping her horrifying haunted hubby and as the narrator states at the beginning of the film: “To his dying day, Schalcken was convinced of the reality of the vision he had witnessed, and he left behind this picture as testimony to it. But look more closely, and remember his last terrible meeting with Rose Velderkaust. If you recall, the painter had fainted dead away at whatever apparition she had presented to him. Here he has painted the observer, himself, in the act of drawing his sword as if to defend himself against the powers that were threatening him. A self-portrait, perhaps? Perhaps also a little self-deception?”
Somewhat notably, when the real Godfried Schalcken visited England between 1692–1697, his seemingly archetypical Dutch rudeness and all around lack of manners made him a sort of unofficial persona non grata, so it is only fitting that Leslie Megahey’s Schalcken the Painter portrays the painter in a most unflattering light. In fact, I cannot think of another film that portrays the Dutch in such an unwaveringly negative fashion and that includes everything from the arthouse works of Paul Verhoeven to the dark comedies of Alex van Warmerdam. Indeed, it certainly says something about a people when the British—arguably the most ruthless and cutthroat capitalists aside from the Jews—depict you as soulless materialists who always choose the lucrative over love and professional success over perennial sensuality, but such is the result of Calvinism, which is something that source writer Le Fanu was all too familiar with as a man whose father was such a strict protestant that he raised the family in an “almost Calvinist tradition.” As a sort of dilettante fan of Flemish Renaissance painters like Pieter Bruegel the Elder and Hieronymus Bosch and the Dutch master painters like those depicted in the film, as well as a man of Dutch extraction whose great-uncle was a degenerate modernist artist of some note, I especially enjoyed Megahey’s film, which not only introduced me to the work of Schalcken, but proved to be one of the most singular, chilling, and unforgettable Gothic horror flicks I have ever seen and not just because it is a rare work of celluloid spectrophilia that features arguably the most haunting ghost sex scene in all of cinema history. Indeed, while Dreyer’s Vampyr is certainly up there among my favorite horror films, I have to confess that Schalcken is now probably my favorite Sheridan Le Fanu adaptation.
Not surprisingly, the film was advertised as “one of the most frequently requested programmes in the BBC archive” when it was released on DVD/Blu-ray by the British Film Institute’s excellent BFI Flipside label. Notably, also included with the BFI Flipside set is the rare experimental British Edgar Allen Poe adaptation The Pit (1962) assistant directed by Peter Collinson (who would go on to direct the popular British caper The Italian Job (1969) starring Michael Caine and Noël Coward), as well as a 39-minute interview with auteur Leslie Megahey and cinematographer John Hooper about the making of the film. Notably, Megahey would once again team up with cinematographer Hooper and narrator Charles Gray for another film about a painter, Cariani and the Courtesans (1987), for the BBC series Screenplay. In the film’s deconstruction of Schalcken’s work and experimental approach to depicting an arrogant young artist, Megahey’s work owes comparisons to Peter Greenaway’s Rembrandt ‘biopic’ Nightwatching (2007) and masterpiece The Draughtsman's Contract (1982). With its scathing depiction of the devilish relationship between art and commerce, Baroque period setting, and harpsichord score, Schalcken the Painter certainly deserves comparisons with Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub’s The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (1968) aka Chronik der Anna Magdalena Bach, though Megahey’s film is seemingly infinitely more enthralling and aesthetically intriguing, as a rare experimental period piece that has great replay value. Indeed, for an old Grinch like myself, Schalcken the Painter will most certainly be a new holiday season tradition for me.
Posted by Soiled Sinema at 4:28 AM
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