Sunday, 19 January 2014

Schalcken the Painter (1979)

The paintings of real-life Dutch artist Godfried Schalcken (1643-1706) inspired Joseph Sheridan le Fanu (possibly the greatest of all 19th century writers of gothic fiction) to write his 1839 gothic tale A Strange Event in the Life of Schalken the Painter. This tale was adapted by Leslie Megahey in a TV movie, with the title Schalcken the Painter, which was screened in the BBC’s arts program Omnibus in 1979.

As the movie opens Schalcken (Jeremy Clyde) is a pupil of the Dutch master Gerrit Dou (Maurice Denham). He is rather promising and seems destined for a successful career but at the moment he is still a poor pupil, certainly in no financial position to ask for the hand of  Dou’s niece Rose (Cheryl Kennedy) with whom he is in love. Rose reciprocates his love but a sudden visit to Dou’s home by a mysterious stranger seals the fate of their hopeless love. This stranger claims to a certain Vanderhausen from Rotterdam and he brings with him a casket laden with a fortune in gold. He asks, or rather demands, Rose’s hand in marriage. Vanderhausen isn’t merely old and ugly - he looks almost like a walking corpse. But his riches are enough to induce Dou to accede to his demand. Rose is to be married to Vanderhausen.

Rose begs Schalcken to save her from the terrifying prospect of this marriage but while Schalcken certainly loves her he is too ambitious to renounce any prospect of a successful career as a painter by alienating Dou. The unfortunate Rose is married to Vanderhausen who takes her off to Rotterdam.

After her marriage nothing further is heard of her. At one time Dou, worried by the lack of letters or any other contact from his niece, had sent Schalcken to Rotterdam to find her. But nobody in that city has heard of her, or of Vanderhausen for that matter. It is as if she has vanished into the air.

The years pass. Schalcken devotes himself to his career and has soon established himself as a highly sought-after painter whose fame eclipses that of his old teacher Dou. Schalcken marries. It is in practical terms a good match but there is clearly no great passion or even affection involved. Schalcken had already made his choice between love and fame and his single-minded pursuit of success has left him without the time, the energy or the inclination for the kind of love he might have had with Rose.

Schalcken will eventually encounter Rose again, in very peculiar and disturbing circumstances. And Schalcken will have a very disturbing experience of his own in the crypt of a church. This experience may perhaps be a vision, a waking nightmare, or an encounter with the supernatural. The film makes no attempt to clarify the nature of the event, a decision that makes the event all the more unsettling.

Even with its modest 68-minute running time Schalcken the Painter is somewhat slow and while there are hints of what is to come the actual horror does not kick in until the very end, and when it does kick in it’s horror of a very subtle kind. The leisurely pacing works in its favour, largely because this is a TV movie that is very atmospheric indeed.

This is a good story, but more interesting than the story itself is the way it is told. It is a movie about a 17th century Dutch painter and the movie looks like a 17th century Dutch painting. Writer-director Leslie Megahey, cinematographer John Hooper and production designer Anna Ridley immersed themselves thoroughly in 17th century Dutch art with the aim of reproducing this look in the entire production. They clearly took particular note of Vermeer’s work - so many scenes in this movie look astonishingly like Vermeer paintings. And they have captured the essential stillness of Dutch art of this period. They have also reproduced the sense of composition in depth of such paintings, with figures in the background framed by doorways. They have avoided the most glaring faults of most television costume dramas - too much lighting and too vivid colours. This is a visually beautiful film but it is beautiful in a restrained manner.

A sense of eroticism runs throughout the movie, but it is always a suppressed eroticism. The conflict between the indiscipline of romantic love and the rigid discipline required for artistic achievement, the conflict between the selflessness of love and the necessary selfishness of artistic obsession, the conflict between art and commerce, all these elements are clearly present but this film does not try to bludgeon the viewer with these themes. It makes those points but it does so with restraint. Restraint is the keynote, just as restraint was the keynote of 17th century Dutch art.

Schalcken was famous for his ability to reproduce the effects of candle light, and the movie  endeavours, very successfully, to reproduce these effects. Most scenes really do look like they were filmed by candle light. They probably were not, but they succeed in looking that way. Schalcken the Painter may have been a TV movie but it looks more like a feature film although at the same time it takes advantage of the greater intimacy of television. It was an ambitious project and it looks a good deal more expensive that it was.

The acting is also restrained, but is at the same time deliberately somewhat artificial. Paintings are scenes that have been staged and it is appropriate that the film has a slightly staged feel to it. Jeremy Clyde is particularly impressive, giving a performance that hints at inner anguish rigidly suppressed.

Schalcken the Painter has been released as a Blu-Ray/DVD combo by the BFI in its Flipside series and it has to be said that it’s far more interesting than most of their releases. The picture is quite grainy but it seems quite likely that this was a deliberate artistic choice rather than a fault in either the source material or the transfer. Aside from this picture quality is extremely good with excellent contrast (a very important factor given the style of the photography). Sound quality is fine.

Schalcken the Painter is a bold attempt to make a TV movie that works as both a horror movie and an art movie, and for the most part it succeeds admirably. It provides intelligent entertainment and a viewer can hardly ask for more than that. This is one of the forgotten treasures of the golden age of British television. Highly recommended.

No comments: