Wild Nights With Emily is an irreverent, hilarious, and biting look at 19th century American poet Emily Dickinson, and in particular the question of the nature of her relationship with her beloved Susan, and how that relationship was erased from her legacy.
Emily Dickinson’s innovative and non-traditional approach to poetry, combined with the sheer volume and brilliance of her output, firmly established her place in the American literary canon, though only after her death. Her life has been thoroughly mythologized, focusing on her reclusiveness, her singlehood, and an apparent preoccupation with mortality that traces a path though her work.
At its core, Madeleine Olnek’s film tackles that mythologizing process and works to upend the image of Dickinson that prevailed through much of the 20th century. Based on a reanalysis of Dickinson’s manuscripts and correspondence–including technological recovery of the literal erasure of her beloved Susan from the pages–Olnek takes us through an irreverent, non-linear tour through Dickinson’s life. The film juxtaposes a framing story of Mabel Todd lecturing on tour about her posthumous editing and publication of Dickinson’s work, in which she creates and pushes the myth of the eccentric recluse, with scenes of “the real story” showing Dickinson’s romantic (and, in this depiction, erotic) relationship with Susan Gilbert Dickinson, from their girlhood, through Susan’s decision to marry Emily’s brother Austin (in order to establish a relationship with Emily that society could not ignore or block), with the ups and downs over the years as they renegotiated and strengthened that relationship. Susan is seen as Emily’s inspiration, her confidante, her lover, and her most constant companion. And we see Mabel Todd’s insinuation into the Dickinson family first as Austin’s mistress, and then after Emily’s death as the manager of Emily’s literary legacy, through which Todd works out her own literary aspirations and jealousies.
Through it all, key emotional moments are channeled through Emily’s poems, sometimes in a dreamlike vision (as with “I died for beauty”), sometimes in hilarious contrast (playing off the accusation that most of Dickinson’s poems can be set to “The Yellow Rose of Texas” by having various characters sing lines from “Because I could not stop for death” to that tune).
Despite the wildly non-linear path of the film, it winds down eventually to a split screen showing Susan lovingly washing Emily’s body in preparation for her funeral, against Mabel Todd busily erasing Susan’s name from the correspondence she has selected for publication. An epilogue text-roll tells of how the truths of Emily and Susan’s relationship were recovered by diligent scholarship and using imaging technology to see through the erasures.
The Technical Side
The film is visually lovely without being unrealistically “pretty”. The majority of screen time for Emily and Susan focuses on middle age–wrinkles and all. The costuming was reasonably appropriate to the times and the setting made good use of historic buildings.
It’s impossible not to compare this movie (very favorably) with the last Emily Dickinson biopic I saw, A Quiet Passion (2016) which was irredeemably dreary and depressing and functionally ignored the Emily-Susan relationship. I walked out of A Quiet Passion raging and swearing. I walked out of Wild Nights With Emily laughing and cheering. Is the movie a factually accurate account of her life? That would be the wrong question to ask. Like some of my favorite “historical” movies, it signals how it’s meant to be received by the inclusion of deliberate anachronisms and in-jokes signaled to the audience. Those elements allow even a hard-nosed accuracy fan like me to relax and see what story the filmmaker is trying to tell.
If you have swallowed the myth that 19th century “romantic friendships” were universally chaste, if you think that it wasn’t possible to have happy lesbian relationships in past centuries, if you believe that ladies in Victorian corsets and hoop skirts were all repressed, then you need to see this movie to give your historic imagination a necessary recalibration.
The biggest con is that the vast majority of people won’t have a chance to see this movie. It’s working its way through the art house circuit with very limited runs and availability. I went to see it twice and on neither occasion were there more than a dozen people in the audience. If you don’t live in a major city (or the movie has already passed through your town) and you don’t have a queer film festival that might be showing it, then have patience until it shows up on DVD or Netflix and snap it up.
One possible con is that Wild Nights With Emily assumes an audience familiarity with Dickinson’s work and the basics of her life story. Without that, the irregular path the story takes through her timeline may be confusing rather than entertaining.
This isn’t just an entertaining costume drama, it’s a commentary on the process by which queer lives get erased from history. But it’s also a complete hoot. I’d put it in my list of must-see lesbian historical movies.
The Best Scene
My favorite pair of scenes both involve Susan’s daughter Martha, whose later publications of Emily’s poetry competed with Todd’s for framing the poet’s legacy. In the first scene, Susan and Emily are surprised in the middle of making love by the unexpected return of Susan’s children to the house. Susan meets them at the bedroom door, in her undergarments, and finds an excuse to send them off on an errand. As they leave, Martha says, “Give my love to Aunt Emily,” and the two women exchange chagrined looks. In the second scene, an older Martha, after Emily’s death, is seen giving a lecture about “Aunt Emily” in which she urges people to study her correspondence if they want the truth of her life (this is set up in contrast to Todd’s lectures) and then the camera pans back to show that the lecture hall is nearly empty. People knew those truths, but the time needed to be right for the public to hear them.
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Bits and Bobs
Director: Madeleine Olnek
Producers: Anna Margarita Albelo, Casper Andreas, Madeleine Olnek, Max Rifkind-Barron
Writers: Madeleine Olnek
Actors: Molly Shannon, Susan Ziegler