SXSW 2018 Review: WILD NIGHTS WITH EMILY Is All The Gossip

Writer/Director Madeline Olnek restores Emily Dickinson’s true nature as an LGBTQ hero and model for new wave feminism.

I hide myself within my flower,
That wearing on your breast,
You, unsuspecting, wear me too—
And angels know the rest.

I hide myself within my flower,
That, fading from your vase,
You, unsuspecting, feel for me
Almost a loneliness.

---Emily Dickinson

It is disheartening to be reminded how frequently women have been falsely portrayed throughout history in order to obey societal norms, and if they do not conform, they are shamed in their seemingly illicit lifestyles. Beauty has been prioritized over brains, heterosexual marriage and reproduction has been prioritized over honest self-expression or adventure, and deviating from the norm in any capacity places one at risk of judgement, ostracization, and apparently, history completely misunderstanding one’s entire being. The most recent case of this type of inaccurate portrayal occurred cinematically with the release of Winchester, the jump-scare saturated horror film whose plot consists of a widow attempting to justify her sanity because of her unique architecture endeavors and apparent seances she was conducting in her home to appease the spirits that died by the rifles from her late husband’s company. In reality, Sarah Winchester lived during the age of spiritualism which normalized and even romanticized communication endeavors with the dead, had a love of architecture (but women were not allowed to hold that profession at the time), provided work for those suffering during an economic downfall, and never remarried simply by choice. Yet, she was inaccurately labeled because her life was considered taboo for the times. So it goes.

Tackling this notion of women historically perceived incorrectly and repressing their true self, writer/director Madeleine Olnek introduces audiences to a different side of beloved poet Emily Dickinson with her new film Wild Nights with Emily. The popularized persona of Dickinson since her death in 1886 has been that of a reclusive spinster--a delicate flower, too sensitive and fearful to publish her poetry. Olnek presents a different, more vivacious side to Emily (played beautifully by Molly Shannon) that challenges how society views her and utilizes comedy instead of drama to really hit the mark on sexism throughout history.

The comedic tone is quickly established within the first few scenes as we witness Emily and her best friend, Susan (Susan Ziegler) share a passionate kiss and tumble to the floor once they are alone. There are two alternating stories that juxtapose each other through visuals and voice-over narration. Mabel Todd (Amy Seimetz) is the editor of the posthumously published poems of Emily Dickinson. Throughout the film, Mabel speaks to a group of women at a bookstore recounting the seemingly reclusive and reserved life of Dickinson in promotion of her book containing Emily’s poems that had been altered by Mabel. Donning a pink feathered hat and corset infused Victorian dress, she describes Emily the way that many have grown to know her and verbalizes an erroneous image that contrasts what the audience is shown in the film. Emily’s friendship with Susan and subsequent love affair lasts decades. Their story is portrayed in a heart-warming and playful manner, in which their communication methods must be concealed through hand-written messages delivered to each other by children. Additionally, love letters written by Emily needed to have Susan’s name erased so no one would find out their true relationship.

The film is not entirely linear in its time sequences, as it bounces from Emily’s youth to her time as an adult attempting to publish her poems. The sheer volume of poetry Dickinson produces is impressive as she scribbles away daily in her room delicately decorated in white, on the back of recipes while she bakes with her hands covered in flour, and secretly tucking away drafts in her hair, locket, and apron. In a hopeful meeting, she speaks with contributor Thomas Wentworth Higginson (Brett Gelman) from The Atlantic. Claiming he is a progressive and “the 19th century is the woman’s century!”, he still denies her publication. He is perplexed that her poems do not rhyme, do not contain saccharine stanzas about proper feminine ideals, nor do they possess titles (which Mabel later alters). However, Mabel is not entirely villainized. She is also subjected to the sexist oppression of creative endeavors when she expresses interest in publishing her own work, only to get told she should take up pottery instead. The scene between Dickinson and Higginson is comical yet cringe-worthy with its undertones of sexism and conformity since they are still fairly relevant today. The chuckles of relatability from the females in the audience during the SXSW screening serve as a friendly reminder that us ladies are still far from finished in terms of repression and its many facets.

Susan maintains her love for Emily despite marrying Dickinson’s brother, Austin (Kevin Seal). She strategically purchases the house next door to her so they can continue secretly seeing each other. The close location puts a sweet spin on the ‘walk of shame’ notion with the only shame being from society, and the walk instead of being doubtful is filled with light-hearted and giddy passion for one another as they adjust their hoop skirts running out the back door, pantaloons loosely in hand.

Olnek’s style of comedy perfectly blends her film’s message, the characters’ acting, and the untold story of Dickinson. Shannon and Zeigler’s connection is palpable, and their expression of Emily and Susan’s love story is both sweet in its longevity and sorrowful in its concealment. The tone of the film is primarily comedic and has a Drunk History feel while also being reminiscent of Another Period, but without the interview style of speaking directly to the camera. While a majority of the film is presented with humor, there are serious moments that provide more depth towards the love that Emily and Susan had for one another. LGBTQ acceptance has progressed since the 19th century, but it’s interesting to note how our society’s relationship with death has regressed. Upon Dickinson’s passing, there is a scene where Susan is called to wash Emily’s body as she lay in her bed. The intimate action of grief and remembrance by washing the body of your loved one is not commonplace in present day, but this scene is slow in its execution and utilizes close-up shots of Emily to emphasize the unwavering love Susan has for her inside and out, head to toe, and in life as well as death. While it may be viewed as morbid to some, it’s a symbolic love letter from Susan herself to express one last time to Emily.

The devices that Olnek utilizes come together seamlessly to unchain the oppression and misrepresentation cemented throughout history towards Dickinson and her poetry. Her balance of satire and feminist ideals are executed extremely well while focusing on Dickinson as a person while her poetry is almost secondary, but still present through written words scrolling across the screen, mostly towards the end of the film. Wild Nights With Emily playfully sheds away the confinements of Dickinson’s life and restores an appreciation for her true self, no longer in need of silencing her words, her love, or her life choices.

In Olnek’s director’s statement, she emphasizes: “All forms of oppression of people are based on myths. The stories we tell about people and what they do form our visions of them. The story of Emily’s life was sanitized for publicity purposes, and in truth her life could not have been further from the image that was painted of it.” This film questions history’s portrayal of icons and challenges societal norms for women while embracing freedom of self-expression, nourishing female empowerment, all while driving equality among all genders and race. Wild Nights With Emily is refreshingly liberating in its laughter, but also rich in worthwhile lessons.