(The 2018 SXSW Film Festival kicked off March 9 and ran all the way through to March 17. Hammer to Nail has a slew of reviews and interviews coming in hot and heavy so keep your dial tuned to HtN!)
Madeleine Olnek’s follow-up to her previous festival standouts The Foxy Merkins (2013) and Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same (2011) takes her one giant step closer to the mainstream, which is quite refreshing since the mainstream definitely needs voices like Olnek’s.
Starring Molly Shannon as Emily Dickinson, Wild Nights with Emily is a broad comedy that focuses on Dickinson’s relationship with her sister-in-law, Susan Gilbert (Susan Ziegler). The film’s onscreen narrator is the Dickinson family acquaintance, Mabel Loomis Todd (Amy Seimetz). Todd never actually met Dickinson (although she was having a sordid affair with Austin Dickinson in Emily’s house), but was obsessed with her, so much so that she helped get the first collection of Dickinson’s poetry published, albeit posthumously.
While it might feel practically sacrilegious to some fans of Dickinson’s poetry, Olnek paints Dickinson as a lesbian icon, playing off of the long-standing murmurs about her sexuality. It is common knowledge that Dickinson was a recluse. Most historians assume her reclusive nature was due to her mental and/or physical health, but what if it was driven by her not being able to express her affection for Susan? What if Dickinson didn’t feel comfortable in public because she couldn’t be herself?
There is a lot that can surmised from Dickinson’s poetry, which is exactly the basis for Wild Nights with Emily. Olnek puts on display a series of poems that seem to make revelations about Dickinson’s affair with Susan. Hearing the suggestive poetry recited throughout the film made me think back to high school English when our male teacher explained that Dickinson was writing about the love of a woman from a man’s perspective. Personally, I believe Olnek’s reading of Dickinson’s writing is probably more on target than my high school English teacher’s.
With a tone that is polar opposite of Terence Davies’ subdued and melancholic A Quiet Passion, Olnek unleashes a relentless geyser of humor that cleverly comments upon the mid-1800s lifestyle and fashion. While Wild Nights with Emily may seem like it doesn’t take itself very seriously, it serves as an intelligent social commentary on the environment in which Dickinson lived. And if you happen to pick up on some things that are similar to the present day, I suspect that is also on purpose as well. While there have been drastic improvements in women’s rights since Dickinson’s time, things are still far from perfect today. Women are still not treated equally to men. Men are still the gatekeepers in the publishing world (and in the film world as well). Women who express their opinions are still mansplained. It begs the question, how many women have been held back from success by men? How many will be discovered posthumously?
– Don Simpson (@thatdonsimpson)