If you go to a Madeline Olnek film expecting a conventional cinematic experience, you need to rethink your decision-making processes. After all, this is a director whose previous films include Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same and The Foxy Merkins (and if you don’t know what a merkin is, look it up!). On the other hand, if you’re up for a different take on the life and work of the much-hallowed Emily Dickinson (until recently the only American woman poet regularly included in the literary canon) that will knock all memories of Julie Harris and The Belle of Amherst right out of your head, then Olnek’s Wild Nights with Emily might be just the film for you.
It’s no secret that the image of Dickinson as an emotionally buttoned-up, spinsterish recluse has been challenged by literary scholars who have bothered to read what she wrote and consider it afresh, setting aside the heavy varnish of received interpretation. The poem that supplies this film’s title is a case in point (I’m not going to risk copyright infringement by including it here, but you can click on the link and read it for yourself), and her letters were even less ambiguous, expressing strong feelings of love toward the woman who seems to have been the most important person in her life, Susan Gilbert.
Of course, terms of expression change, as do societal expectations, so the exact nature of the relationship between Dickinson and Gilbert remains open to interpretation. That’s what creative artists do—they interpret—as Olnek has done in this film. The Emily Dickinson (Molly Shannon) of Wild Nights with Emily is a bundle of energy and passion, writing poems while baking gingerbread and carrying on a long-term and very sexy relationship with Gilbert (Susan Ziegler). This relationship begins in their teenage years (with younger versions of themselves played by Dana Melanie and Sasha Frolova, respective) and lasts well past Gilbert’s marriage to Austin Dickinson (Kevin Seal), so it was clearly no one-off infatuation. That marriage, in fact, proves quite convenient, as Austin and Gilbert build their new house next door to the Dickinson family home. Much canoodling ensues (and don’t bother feeling sorry for Austin, who was no saint when it came to honoring the sacred vows of marriage).
I don’t know if this latest take on Emily Dickinson is the right one, historically speaking, but it’s certainly plausible and a whole lot more fun than the one-note Emily you were probably taught in school. Wild Nights with Emily is not just about her sex life, either—Shannon’s Emily enjoys a lively domestic life, writes prolifically, takes her work seriously, and remains true to herself even when the world kicks her in the teeth for it. But this is not a film to be taken deadly seriously, as is clear from the distancing devices Olnek employs to remind us that Wild Nights is a comedy rather than an illustrated lecture. Most obvious among these is the use of voiceover narration in the opening scene by Mabel Loomis Todd (Amy Seimetz), one of Austin’s dalliances and an editor who was instrumental in getting Dickinson’s poems published (heavily edited, unfortunately, with little respect for her unique style). That Todd is an unreliable narrator quickly becomes obvious, and yet it was her version of Dickinson and her work that was treated as gospel for far too long. If Wild Nights with Emily does nothing else, it should lay Todd’s version of Dickinson to rest once and for all. | Sarah Boslaugh