It’s very bizarre to learn of the hell this movie went through to be made and screened. Spielberg was set to produce the film through Dreamworks all the way back in 2004 until production was cancelled days before shooting. Any hope to make this film wasn’t resurrected until 2013, when Alison Owen and Harvey Weinstein acquired the rights from Paramount, and they finally shot the film with an entirely different cast. Then the poor little movie kept having its release date pushed back for years, from the initial 2015 Oscar-season release to now – September 2017. Since GoodBadTaste started, I have seen Tulip Fever (2017) appear on our schedule of upcoming releases at least twice, and every time I was the one who volunteered to go see it whenever it finally decided to get released.
I technically have been anticipating this movie for months. Not for any particular reason, I just thought a film set during the Dutch tulip-obsession would be really interesting and I thought it was weird that the release date kept getting changed. However, much like with Rings (2017), a forestalled release date did not bode well for the film’s quality. While there were certainly other factors involved in these release date decisions, I can say having finally seen Tulip Fever that it is certainly not as terrible as a meaningless Rotten Tomatoes score might make it out to be – and that’s not just the vodka I snuck into the theater talking – but that doesn’t mean the criticism is unwarranted.
If you have even the faintest or most casual knowledge of period romances, then you know what this film is about. I’ll give you a second to think about what it could be… yes, it is in fact about a woman (Alicia Vikander) whose path crosses with a man (Dane DeHaan) of a different social class and they fall in love. And yes, it is of course a forbidden romance, as Vikander’s Sophia Sandvoort is married to the wealthy Cornelis Sandvoort (Christoph Waltz). On top of that, the affair is sparked by Sophia cracking under the mundanity of her gender role, which is demonstrated by a montage of her routine: eat, pray, listen to her husband piss in the chamber pot, and (making) love. This is really standard stuff for the genre, and I am in no way attempting to be dismissive of the plight of women because the film doesn’t even try to insert any kind of modern critique on the antiquated gender roles at play. Although, in fairness, it’s not like the film is a 100% misogynistic reinforcement of these roles either.
The moral themes at play in the film are traditional Christian ideals of honesty and sacrifice over greed, and true love and truth to self over vanity and meaningless earthly pleasures. I honestly think this works for the film, as it helps immerse you in the heavily religious time period and allows you to understand the motivations of the characters better. It even, ironically, makes Waltz’s Cornelis sympathetic. While Cornelis starts out as the usual obnoxious and domineering patriarch, using Sophia as a way to acquire a male heir despite his “little soldier” falling limp hundreds of years before Viagra was invented, you learn that his previous wife and children died and he is very distraught at the idea that God is choosing to ignore and even punish him when all he really wants is a family. There’s a simple and satisfying end to the moral path this story sets out on, but I couldn’t help but find – coming from a modern perspective – that Sophia’s choices (haha) are a tad misguided, even if they might make sense in context.
Really, it’s the plot that’s all over the place and is without a doubt the film’s biggest problem. It confuses the film’s own morals when you actually sit down and think about everything that happens and it’s as frustratingly derivative as the premise. Almost all of the plot-critical events in the film are based on the worst storytelling tropes of “the quick misunderstanding/jumping to rash conclusions” and “being able to maintain a lie because the plot demands that characters aren’t dumb enough to see through it.” The former applies to two side characters, a housekeeper for the Sandvoort’s named Maria (Holliday Grainger) and a fish monger (Jack O’Connell), who carry on a relationship that for some unclear reason is kept under wraps. I liked the fun and “free-spirited” love the two share, as it contrasts well with the very loveless marriage of the Sandvoorts… until the fish monger, named Willem, sees Sophia disguised in Maria’s cloak and assumes it’s his lover. He fails to get her attention and ends up following her to Jan’s (Dane DeHaan) art studio. Thinking his heart has been broken, Willem immediately decides to get drunk, leading to his wallet getting stolen by a person at the auction house (Cara Delevingne before she became famous) and getting beat up by her brother. Willem vanishes from the plot after this for almost the entire remainder of the film, leaving Maria unwed and pregnant. I suppose it’s human to make assumptions and not confront others about emotionally difficult matters, but it’s such an overused and underwritten trope that it’s annoying to see it turn up in any script nowadays. It also doesn’t help that this trope is only used to set up the other trope that makes even less sense: Sophia pretends that she’s pregnant so Maria can keep her job and won’t be ostracized by her family, Cornelis can finally have a child, and Sophia can continue her affair and eventually run off with Jan. This is the plot to Tina Fey and Amy Poehler’s Baby Mama (2008). There’s no goddamn way this would work, not in 17th century Holland, and the fact that the film randomly skips large chunks of time means that we’re just supposed to accept that this works for nine months.
Even with the derivative premise and all-over-the-place plot, there is still some clever writing and smart creative filmmaking involved. This is most notably displayed through the film’s title. The film opens with an introduction to the tulip fever, an economics lesson as much as a anthropological one about how, around the end of the European Renaissance, tulip bulbs from the Ottoman Empire became a highly coveted luxury good in Holland to the point where anyone who bought and sold them could become rich and anyone who owned them could display them as a sign of wealth. This all-important element is incorporated very subtly and realistically into the plot. Everyone, including the Abbess (Judi Dench) of an orphanage run by nuns, talks about tulips, establishing how highly coveted they are. The richer characters talk about how beautiful they are and how great it is to have them and the poorer characters talk about wanting them and how they want to easily get rich off of them. This is all brought up organically in dialogue and scenes of characters at the tulip auction house appear exactly when they have to. The importance of the tulips is also represented visually. The film uses a lot of drab and muddled colors, so the bright colors of the tulips emphasize the beauty and coveted nature of the flowers.
These dialogue and image choices inform the motifs of vanity and obsession that play into the story. Having the ‘tulip fever,’ a fad-like obsession over something physically beautiful that leads to rags as quickly at it first led to riches, serves as a metaphor for the relationship between Sophia and Jan. This allegory is really poetic and an interesting idea for a story. Jan seeks to be a great artist but is told he lacks obsession, so when he meets Sophia, the only character in the film who wears any kind of distinctly bright colors, he believes he has found his muse, when he in fact has only found superficial love. Conversely, Sophia finds her own means of physical escape from a mundane and loveless marriage with a man who seems to only be obsessed with legacy vanity, which is why he hires Jan in the first place to work on their portraits. The visual storytelling at work is honestly really solid and it tells me that the filmmakers really tried to make this film work and cared about making it as good as possible. All of the performances are really charismatic and engaging across the board. It’s just a shame the script isn’t better. It could’ve benefitted from being maybe at least another half an hour longer, but it’s too late to say how much this would’ve done. This movie took forever to get released and it honestly pales in comparison to My Cousin Rachel (2017), another period drama with much more modern and thought-provoking themes, driven by a story that’s suspenseful and interesting. As much as I did legitimately enjoy Tulip Fever for what worked about it, you’re honestly much better off trying to watch My Cousin Rachel.
Also, Zach Galifianakis is in this movie. I know, I didn’t expect that either.
Although Tulip Fever boasts visual storytelling as strong as its cast, it’s unfortunately bogged down by its very derivative premise and tragically weak plot, which culminates in themes lacking modernity or complexity.