Fim Review: Wild Nights with Emily, MQFF

Liza Dezfouli

Emily Dickinson revisioned in lesbian comedy by Madeleine Olnek.
Fim Review: Wild Nights with Emily, MQFF

Madeleine Olnek's Wild Nights with Emily.

Wild Nights with Emily by Madeleine Olnek, is a tongue-in-cheek comedy biopic, presenting a contrary version of the life of US poet Emily Dickinson (Molly Shannon who is fabulously electric), so long seen as an eccentric, tortured recluse. Here we have Dickinson’s life revisioned in Olnek’s response to 2016’s A Quiet Passion which depicted Emily (1830–1886) as an unhappy woman longing for a man to love. Not so, says Olnek.

Olnek gives us a new Emily, the lover, full of agency, texturising the writer’s relationship with her sister-in-law Susan (Susan Ziegler) via a modern filter of physical passion. Emily Dickinson’s enduring love for ‘the only woman in the world’ is here a playful, dynamic bond expressed in letters and poems Emily wrote to Susan over the course of her life. The product of this unabashedly lesbian relationship is a body of work described by poet Maria Popova as ‘a shimmering testament to the fact that love, longing, and the restlessness of the human heart are the catalyst for every creative revolution’. Scenes of the lovers have them floating in cream, sheets and nightgowns the colour of the paper Emily writes on.

This film shows us the foundations of the Emily Dickinson myth, framing the narrative events around a public talk by one Mabel Dodd (Amy Seimetz), the long-time mistress of Emily’s brother Austin (Kevin Seal). After Dickinson's death Dodd took it upon herself to become Emily's 'first editor', and erased Susan’s name from the poet's poems and letters. Wild Nights with Emily puts it back. The talk posits one version of Dickinson’s life, while the film’s narrative contradicts it, with Mabel’s scenes and voice-over undercut by the action. 'She was a recluse' says Mabel to her audience, three times, like a curse. The label sticks.

We meet Dickinson and Susan as adults reuniting after a separation. Flashbacks tell us how they have been fiercely attached to one another since adolescence, in a scene where Emily and Susan are reading the parts of Benedick and Beatrice from Much Ado About Nothing at the Ladies Shakespeare Society. Although they lived next door to each other, the two daily exchanged notes, delivered by Emily’s niece and nephew.

Olnek also challenges the notion that Dickinson was unwilling to publish her poetry, positing that her work went unappreciated by the male editors of literary papers and journals in her time. One scene shows an arrogant Thomas Higginson (Brett Gelman), editor of The Atlantic Monthly, telling her he needed to see more examples of her work. Emily had sent him ninety poems. 'When I read your poetry, I’m left feeling… I don’t know what,' he tells her. 'She drained my nerve power; I’m glad I don’t live near her,' Higginson observes after their meeting. We cut to a scene where a lady poet he does approve of, a maker of asinine verses, reads her lines about the glory of motherhood and female sacrifice. Later, in 1914, Emily’s niece did publish Dickinson's poems as they were written but nobody took any notice.

Wild Nights with Emily is a ferocious and funny feminist film, making its points with a delicious sarcasm, which might have been sufficient. But then it does something else with flashes of random whimsical absurdity. Emily’s sister Lavinia (Jackie Monhan) is hilariously contrary in protecting Emily’s privacy. There’s a scene with two visitors loudly slurping tea, the sounds of Lavinia’s cat miaowing when all we see on screen is a bundled up piece of fur on her lap. An after-death vision has Emily in conversation with an African-American abolitionist. There's one scene of mourners after the death of Emily's nephew standing knee-deep in a river, singing. We see housekeeper Maggie on the verandah (Lisa Haas in a tiny but memorably funny role) peeling a single potato with the peel flying off in all directions, subverting a common visual trope. A frilled decoration at Mabel's neckline forms a tiny vulva. Esteemed writer Ralph Waldo Emerson giving a talk mumbles completely inaudibly.

The film suggests that life is full of surreality, whether in the complete misrepresentation of a woman’s life (one who spoke so eloquently for herself) or in small everyday, even paranormal moments. A chip in a china teacup, a chip in reality. Don’t get too comfortable in your reading of this cinematic event, either.

Rating: 4 stars ★★★★
Wild Nights with Emily 

84 MINS 

16-23 March 2019
Melbourne Queer Film Festival


About the author

Liza Dezfouli reviews film, live performance, books and occasionally music. She blogs about film and other things in a blog called Copy and Cake and writes another, somewhat less-measured blog about feminism and heteronormativity called WhenMrWrongfeelsSoRight. She can occasionally be seen in shows or in short films. For more: