'Wild Nights With Emily': Film Review | SXSW 2018

Courtesy of Anna Stypko
Goofball humor is an odd tone for a film with such an assertive historical agenda.

Molly Shannon plays Emily Dickinson as a sweet goof in Madeleine Olnek's odd revisionist portrait.

Debates over Emily Dickinson's personal life are a staple not just among literary scholars and poetry lovers but with assemblers of LGBT histories eager to add another gay genius to the pantheon. Treating the argument as if it were settled once and for all, Madeleine Olnek's Wild Nights With Emily is unambiguous in showing the poet as the lifelong lover of her sister-in-law Susan Dickinson (nee Gilbert), and as nothing like the reclusive spinster of popular myth. The merits of its scholarship may be a moot point, as the humble production and peculiar tone of Wild Nights will likely — despite the draw of star Molly Shannon, a standout presence in some recent indies — limit its appeal largely to the English and Queer Studies departments of universities across the country.

In its opening scene, the movie finds Emily and Susan alone in a drawing room, standing in a corner and giving each other a peck, then another, before taking a slapstick fall behind a sofa, their passions hidden from view. The forbidden-sex-romp vibe will continue throughout, with characters dashing half-dressed across lawns and humping in the music room, making it a challenge to reorient ourselves when the film turns serious for excerpts of Dickinson's writing.

Clearly made on a tiny budget, the picture lacks the resources to sell the illusion of its period, and instead feels a bit like an extended Drunk History production. Viewers who bear with it in opening scenes, though, will find a useful conceit: In voiceover and in scenes set at a public lecture, the conventional version of Dickinson's life is being offered by Mabel Todd, co-publisher of the first (crudely edited) book of Dickinson's poems, which came out four years after she died; what we see onscreen offers an alternative to her account.

As Todd, Amy Seimetz relishes the role of self-important fool; the assertions she's making to an audience of credulous women are countered at every turn by the film's action, which Olnek offers as the truth behind the myth. Sometimes, Olnek explains away events that have been seen by others as proof of Dickinson's affairs with men: Emily is often said to have had a relationship with her late father's friend Otis Phillips Lord, based on letters and on gossip that the two were caught in an embrace. Here, Olnek envisions a scene in which a doddering Lord is boring Emily to tears with senile talk of the Brontes. She's just trying to endure the visit when he trips and falls; she catches him just as others enter the room, thus the "embrace" of lore.

Given the cast's exaggerated performances, it's not clear whether we're meant to believe such amusing but far-fetched scenes to be true. In a director's statement in the press notes, Olnek sees no doubt, calling the author "an unclaimed LGBTQ community hero." The broader academic community seems less convinced.

Olnek also fights against any notion that Dickinson was reluctant to publish her work, showing her as an ambitious writer whose submissions were handled brusquely when printed at all. She meets with Thomas Wentworth Higginson of The Atlantic Monthly, a blowhard played by Brett Gelman, who shows how he would butcher her lines and concludes she's not ready to publish. Back at Todd's lecture, we hear her condescendingly praise posthumous publication as "the Heaven of the literary world."

However well or poorly it matches the truth of Emily's life, the film's vision of her long relationship with Susan is warmly funny. Shannon and Susan Ziegler (as Susan) make good conspirators, especially at the comedy's more subdued moments. Near the end, Olnek shows Susan's now-grown daughter Martha promoting a book about the pair's love for each other. But where Todd's lectures kept her in demand for years, Martha's speech attracts just three attendees. The idea of an old maid dedicated to her writing was too attractive to the reading public of the day, and it was believed long enough that anyone offering an alternative has a hard job ahead of her.

Production companies: Salem Street Entertainment, UnLtd Productions
Cast: Molly Shannon, Amy Seimetz, Susan Ziegler, Brett Gelman, Jackie Monahan, Kevin Seal, Dana Melanie, Sasha Frolova, Lisa Haas, Al Sutton
Director-screenwriter: Madeleine Olnek
Producers: Casper Andreas, Max Rifkind-Baron, Anna Margarita Albelo, Madeleine Olnek
Executive producers: Jennifer Kriz, David Moscow, Todd Remis
Director of photography: Anna Stypko
Production designers: Allison Fry, Eimi Imanishi
Costume designers: Linda Gui, Christine Casaus, Courtney newman
Editors: Lee Eaton, Anthony Clemente
Composers: Karl Frid, Par Frid
Casting director: Carol Rosenthal
Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Narrative Spotlight)
Sales: John Sloss, Cinetic

84 minutes