TRIGGER WARNING: Rape culture & misogynist language.
One of my favorite movies is the 2004 historical (but heavily fictionalized) drama film The Libertine. As a history nerd and a feminist, I know of no other movie that combines these two elements in such a provoking, satisfying manner.
This feat is particularly impressive because The Libertine does not take place in a time period we usually associate with feminism – on the contrary, the film is set in Restoration England (that means roughly 1660-1688), well before women began appropriating Enlightenment notions about the right of man to argue in defense of their own gender. Yet the film does not approach feminism through distortion, but rather faces head on the conditions women experienced in this context, all while simultaneously exploring what it might be like for an ambitious, independently spirited woman to try to carve out a space of her own from within the patriarchy.
Yet the main protagonist of the film is not a woman, but a man – John Wilmot, the 2nd Earl of Rochester, a historical figure here portrayed and reimagined by Johnny Depp. As the movie title suggests, Rochester is a libertine, famous for his philandering (which, the opening monologue of the film makes clear, includes both heterosexual and homosexual sex) and excessive drinking. Rochester’s true drug, however, is the playhouse – he lives for the theater and, when he’s sober enough to do so, dabbles with literature and poetry. After returning to London after being banished by King Charles II (played by John Malkovich) for an embarrassing and obscene joke he made at Court, Rochester meets an inspiring young actress by the name of Elizabeth Barry (played by the amazing Samantha Morton). Lizzie (as she is usually called) has quite a challenge cut out for her: not only does she have a subtle and sophisticated style of acting not appreciated by the bawdry and demanding seventeenth century theater goers, but women had only recently been allowed to act upon the stage. The first time we see her, she is getting booed off the stage and the theater director (also a woman) is threatening to fire her if she does not change her approach to acting to satisfy the audience. “If girls like you do not do what they are told, then it is all up with our sex on the stage,” she tells her. “Now, acknowledge your audience.”
Lizzie, defiant, responds, “they can kiss my arse,” and is about to get fired before Rochester shows up backstage. He saw her performance and believes she has great potential, and pays the appropriate people to ensure she is retained. He then offers to give her acting lessons, placing bets with his fellow libertines that she will become the best actress on the stage.
At this point, you would think you could tell where the story is going – girl with some potential is tutored, saved by the man who knows how to do this stuff, romance and happily acknowledged gratitude ensue. But the film confronts this narrative head on, and Lizzie herself is the one who performs the subversion of the usual script. At her first meeting with Rochester, she is resistant and resentful – she gives him credit for recognizing her talent, but accuses him of seeking to co-opt her gifts to decorate his own ego with. “It shall not be said,” Lizzie exclaims with anger, in the best moment of the film, “when I have my fame and my two pounds a week that Lord Rochester took to me and touched me with the shining wing of his genius and so turned me into a little corner of his greatness. No! I shall be valued for me. And for what I knew I could do upon this stage! And for what I, Lizzie Barry. . . how I. . . I took the heat of my own soul and molded it and turned it into a wondrous thing and so triumphed.” Rochester insists he intends to do no such thing, but Lizzie remains skeptical. And in a comment that itself could spark a million discussions about the dynamics of sex, power, and independence, she says to him, “You could buy my slit for a pound a night, sir. I would not mind that. But I think you would not have it so. What I think you want is power over me, which I do bridle at. For it is only I who can do what you say I can do. If you wish to play a part in this, I would strongly know why.”
Rochester explains to her his addiction for fine theater – life “has no purpose. It is everywhere undone by arbitrariness….[b]ut in a playhouse, every action, good or bad, has its consequences.” She decides to trust this explanation – for the moment at least – and for a while, the movie seems back on track to the expected plot line; Lizzie and Rochester do indeed fall in love, and enjoy passionate love making together. Yet by the end of the film, things do not end as we might expect.
Before the conclusion, however, The Libertine also explores the lives of several other women. Jane, a prostitute who also performs minor roles in plays, is an old friend (or so it seems) and occasional (paid) lover of Lord Rochester. Jane evinces much of the slut pride toughness that we may associate with either contemporary sex workers or women who have no shame about their sex lives. She also appears to be turned on by Rochester, all the while clearly never having any desires or illusions about a more substantial, romantic relationship. In an early scene, she attempts to perform oral sex on a very drunk Rochester, and upon realizing “this is going nowhere,” gives up and more or less tells him it is time for him to leave. When he resists, she insists: “John. Don’t make me care for you. I’d rather you came your fetch over my face than leave me with that, a lump of caring.” While she clearly cares for Rochester as a friend, she is not interested in being his emotional support when she is well aware that none will be forthcoming for herself.
Yet in the end, Jane does end up caring for Rochester – when he is hiding from the King after shaming him on stage and enduring horrible health conditions due to venereal disease. For Jane – unlike, as we shall see, for Lizzie – there isn’t much anywhere else for her to go other than to become the caretaker of a man who, unlike herself, had countless options to do whatever he might have wanted with his wealth and power. And in addition to that cruel irony, it appears as though she really cares for the man, perhaps more as a brother than a lover.
The other major female character is John Rochester’s long suffering wife, also named Elizabeth. Elizabeth was never under any illusions about Rochester’s proclivities – indeed she became his wife when he abducted her at the age of eighteen. And she, too, seems to find him extremely sexually satisfying, and the fact that all of the characters – including a young gentleman Rochester’s friends adopt into their group – find him irresistibly attractive is perhaps the most simplistic and disappointing aspect of the film’s gender politics. This is especially problematic in the case of Elizabeth, for Rochester quite literately abducted her — which strongly implies that he also raped her. Yet Elizabeth remembers the memory with fondness, and apparently – both in the film and in real life – later eloped with Rochester after refusing other men, and married him against her parent’s wishes. The woman who falls in love with her rapist is, of course, a classic trope of rape culture – but what was the real Lady Rochester thinking and feeling? We’ll never know, but it seems problematic that the film portrayers her as enjoying the experience without at least some ambiguities.
In any case, however, she is, otherwise, unhappy: always playing second fiddle to Rochester’s other loves – the theater, other women, and drink – she is torn between simply accepting a loveless marriage and desiring the passion he occasionally offers her when the mood is right. “I would bear our marriage more easily,” she tells him, “if there were no pretense.” Lady Rochester, then, paints a portrait of what must have been a very common condition for unhappy wives (and husbands) before divorce was really an option – attempting to be steely and realistic in her expectations, she is nonetheless exhausted by the emotional effort this requires and the disappointment that ensues when she fails to keep her longings in check.
In a sense, however, Elizabeth ends up getting the last word – and so too does Lizzie. After a series of misadventures that follow from his decision to mock the King on stage, Rochester’s life unravels as he slowly crawls his way towards death; Lizzie, meanwhile, gains the fame and recognition she always desired, and becomes the biggest star of the London stage. In a last attempt at redemption, Rochester travels to London and, in addition to accomplishing a political feat in Parliament, goes to see Lizzie at the theater during a performance of a play written about his own life. Rochester confesses his love, apologizes for past mistakes, and informs her that his love for her is of the marrying and children-making type. Her response is priceless: “You have no understanding, do you? It was not being your mistress that I was tired of, John. I was tired of you. I did not wish to be your wife. I do not wish to be anyone’s wife. I wish to continue being the creature I am. London walks into this theater to see me. Not George’s play, nor Mr. Betterton. They want me, and they want me over and over again. I will not swap my certain glory for your undependable love.”
The remarkable thing about the badassness of Lizzie’s defiance and independence is that it takes place against a backdrop of overt sexism and misogyny. Throughout The Libertine, the casual objectification and belittling of women colors the historical setting and narrative of the film. Rochester’s friends casually refer to women as whores and cunts, and they are also mystified at his affection for Lizzie, whom they have no respect for. This gives the film a sense of authenticity – surely the most common fate for unmarried women in the working class at this time was much more along the lines of Jane, who remains a destitute prostitute even if she takes some comfort in awkward friendships where she can find them. Lizzie is well aware of what awaits her if she fails, and she is unwilling to swap the independence she has won for a dependency on a man that would inevitably place her in the same conundrum as Lady Rochester.
And it is this sense of possibility – of the chances a woman might have, at the turn of the eighteenth century, to scrape out something resembling a space to fully exist – that makes The Libertine so intriguing and, ultimately, so inspiring. Indeed, the consequences of the Scientific Revolution and the possibilities of the Enlightenment are hinted at in the film, although hardly uncritically celebrated – Rochester himself has nothing but disdain for the King’s trendy and trivial fascination with all things scientific and modern. But in Lizzie, we can see catch glimpses of the more creative, positive possibilities of a world after patriarchy – a world where women are the accessories of no one, and their value not reduced to the utilitarian tools of a world dominated by men.
Post-Script: For those interested in the historical Elizabeth Barry, the film actually does her an injustice by depicting her success as at least partially due to Rochester; he was indeed her lover and they had a child together, but there is no convincing evidence that he ever coached her. She did, moreover, remain single throughout her life, despite the fact, as Wikipedia notes, that “[m]any actresses at this time achieved the prize of respectability by being married.”