I’ve had the idea of making a list of Decadent films. These can be movies depicting certain aspects of the movement, or movies that simply sum up the essence of Decadence. I’m going to stick to five films per post, just so that it doesn’t get too overwhelming, but I’m hoping to make it a regular feature. Obviously, if you have any suggestions for films to include in future posts, feel free to let me know.
1. The Scarlet Empress (1934). Director: Josef von Sternberg
I cannot begin to express how much I love this film. It is the story of the rise to power of Catherine the Great of Russia, and stars my imaginary lesbian lover, the wonderful Marlene Dietrich. It tells the story of the young Princess Sophia of Germany, who is taken to Russia to marry the Grand Duke Peter (an excellent performance by Sam Jaffe), heir to the throne, who turns out to be insane. What follows is a struggle for power between the couple, before Sophia, who is now Catherine, uses her sexuality and her cunning to stage a coup, overthrow Peter, and become Empress. This is a wonderful film, depicting the opulent decadence of Imperial Russia – the sets are truly stupendous. Also, look out for the wedding feast scene, which features a skeleton seated at the table, and a cossack soldier happily munching away on a whole pig’s head. Marlene always does a good femme fatale, and this is no exception. She smolders throughout, whether she is playing the young, naive Sophia, or the disillusioned, scheming Catherine. You just can’t take your eyes off her.
2. Salome’s Last Dance (1988). Director: Ken Russell
It’s no secret that I’m a huge Ken Russell fan, and when you combine Ken with Oscar Wilde (Nickolas Grace), you know you’re in for a good time. Oscar Wilde goes to his customary brothel with lover, Bosie (Douglas Hodge), to be surprised by his friends, along with a bevy of prostitutes, put on an impromptu performance of his banned play, Salome. The film achieves something very rare – a play within a movie, where the element of performance is made very obvious. It’s possibly not one I would recommend to Ken Russell virgins, but I love it. Russell, as usual, manages to work some beautiful cinematography on a shoestring budget. He portrays opulence that is seedy yet beautiful at the same time, and parallels the downfall of the legendary temptress, along with the downfall of Wilde himself. Two warnings – firstly, don’t expect any kind of historical accuracy; secondly, there is something about films made in the 80’s where the characters, regardless of time period, can never escape the curse of 80’s hair. Yes, Douglas Hodge, I’m looking at you.
3. Total Eclipse (1995). Director: Agnieszka Holland
Annoyingly, this film hasn’t yet been released on DVD. I can’t understand why, because it’s really very good indeed. It tells the story of the turbulent, destructive relationship between Arthur Rimbaud (a young Leonardo DiCaprio) and Paul Verlaine (David Thewlis). DiCaprio proves what a very fine actor he always was, and makes it even more of a pity that he would soon after be relegated to the pigeonhole of ‘teen dreamboat’. He manages to portray the teenage Rimbaud so well that despite the fact that he is clearly a little shit who gets off on making other people as uncomfortable as humanly possible, he is still somehow vulnerable, and you want to root for him. Thewlis is excellent, as always, and you really feel for poor old Verlaine, hopelessly in love with Rimbaud, knowing that he will never find the happiness there that he wants. This aside, the film is beautifully shot, and has all the debauched parties, poetry recitals, absinthe quaffing and gay sex that you would want. Overall though, it demonstrates very effectively what the true meaning of Decadence is – to fall. And Verlaine and Rimbaud both did it so beautifully.
4. Sunset Boulevard (1950). Director: Billy Wilder
This classic film noir, which gave us the immortal line “All right, Mr Demille, I’m ready for my close up”, is in my mind a Decadent classic as well. Gloria Swanson stars as a faded silent movie actress who takes in an impoverished screenwriter (William Holden), who promises to write a film for her. Of course, he’s out for all he can get, but then so is she. He soon gets sucked into her bizarre world of beauty and grace gone to seed. Naturally, it doesn’t end well. This is a great film, not only because of all the Hollywood in-jokes, but because of how acidly it portrays the destructive nature of fame and fortune.
5. Velvet Goldmine (1998). Director: Todd Haynes
I often think of the 1970’s as being the 20th century’s Decadent movement, and the parallel is clearly not lost on Todd Haynes either. Hic cinematic ode to glam rock is overflowing with Wilde references. The story consists of a newspaper reporter, Arthur (Christian Bale), who is investigating the rise and fall of legendary 70’s pop icon, Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), his marriage to the eccentric Mandy (Toni Collette), and his subsequent affair with fellow musician, Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor). As you would expect, the film is a trippy portrayal of drugs, sexual experimentation and hedonism.