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I should probably impose a personal moratorium on watching, listening to or reading anything to do with Oscar Wilde, because he just makes me irritable and grumpy, and that isn't nice for me or anyone else. I completely understand the importance of his status as a queer icon. That's why he fascinated me in my mid-teens, and I can absolutely understand how important he must be to someone like Rupert Everett (who wrote, directed and starred in this) - a gay man born while homosexuality was still illegal, who has clearly had to negotiate a lot of homophobia throughout his life and career, and who works in the same professional sphere that Wilde also inhabited. But over the years I've found that for me, Wilde's smug arrogance and selfish, manipulative behaviour towards both his wife and many of his friends outweigh the credit that he is undoubtedly also due for defying prejudicial social norms. As the world I live in has changed and stories which once had to be suppressed have been discovered and shared, I've also of course found that plenty of other brave queer people in the past negotiated the same minefields as he did, including in some cases serving the prison sentences, without also being assholes. So I just can't scrape up much sympathy for him these days.

In full fairness, we do see plenty of his ass-hattery in Everett's film. It's nothing like as much of a white-wash as I found Wilde (1997; LJ / DW). But for my taste it did lean too heavily on unsubtle symbolism and syrupy clichés. Examples of the former would include the scenes in Dieppe, where Wilde is pursued through the streets by braying English homophobes to the point where he is cornered and beaten up in a church - but he gets to roar righteous yet dignified condemnation back at them for the twenty-first century audience to cheer at. Or his orgy with Bosie and various local young men in their villa near Naples, complete with an angry local mother who comically doesn't realise it's a gay orgy and begs forgiveness for disturbing them when she realises there are no women there, pointedly cross-cut with Constance and their sons' joyless, pious Christmas. Meanwhile the most syrupy of the syrupy clichés must be the decrepit Wilde telling the story of The Happy Prince to the two orphan boys who have rescued him from a drunken stupor on the streets of Paris, once again cross-cut with scenes of him reading the same story to his own children in happier days.

I pick those three episodes out in particular because as far as I can tell by checking back to Ellmann's biography, there is no record of any beating-up or roared words of defiance in Dieppe (though there were a few social snubs), or of Wilde reading stories to orphaned Parisian boys, while there is positive evidence that Bosie had left Naples well before Christmas in the year when they stayed there. So in other words, these three events aren't in the film because they are part of Wilde's known life history which had to be included. Rather, they have been invented by Everett for this film, and as such show us clearly what kind of figure Everett wants to sculpt Wilde into - tragic, rather mis-guided, but tugging hard on the twenty-first heart-strings and telling a very neat story about homophobia in twenty-foot-high neon letters as he goes. The real problem, though, doesn't actually lie with Everett's inventions. The feeling that everything in the film is narrativised, every scene laden with a conscious symbolic weight which the author is begging us to 'get', comes right from Wilde himself, who appears to have lived almost his entire life to that end. It's annoying enough in Wilde himself, and doubly so when magnified by Everett.

I should say that this film is meticulously researched, beautifully shot and well acted. In many ways it is about as good a film about Wilde's last years as it would be possible to make, and I do think it was quite brave of Everett, whose personal brand has always rested so heavily in his looks, to take on Wilde at his syphilitic end, complete with blotchy face, infected ear and vomit down his front. I am also probably more than unusually irritated by Wilde at the moment due to feeling like he rather hijacked a recent biography I read which was supposed to be about Bram Stoker (LJ / DW). And nor do I really think that stories with a conscious symbolic weight are necessarily a bad thing, though I have written with that implication above. On that, I think that in a story which is not based on real life, and therefore where the audience knows the entire narrative could readily be constructed for the sake of conveying a symbolic point, it's fine and can indeed be excellent; but when a real person is narrativised that way, either by themself or others, it becomes an irritating arrogance, because it amounts to a claim that that person is a work of art. In any case, I am going to try very hard to remember to take this film as my final reminder to steer clear of Oscar Wilde in the future - much as I now do with Stephen Fry for similar reasons. Life's just too short.


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