Around 3.8 billion years ago, the history of life—in the form of single-celled organisms—began. It was millions of years before more complex underwater animals evolved, then millions more before the first land-bound creatures took their first tentative steps out of the ancient seas. 65 million years ago, dinosaurs roamed. Their departure paved the way for smaller, more vulnerable mammals to gain a foothold—a chain of events that would eventually lead to the primacy of homo sapiens on this, our planet Earth.
Sometime before all that, Tulip Fever went into production.
The mystique of Tulip Fever, such as it is, is wrapped up in its infamously troubled release. Justin Chadwick (The Other Boleyn Girl) was tapped to direct in 2013, when star Alicia Vikander was still an up-and-coming ingenue. Four years down the line, Cara Delevingne would have sufficient cachet to star alongside Dane DeHaan in Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. When she was cast in Tulip Fever, though, she was just starting on the “actress” part of model-turned-actress; she has maybe 15 minutes of screen-time, while DeHaan co-leads.
Christoph Waltz was good at playing sexy and sinister then, and he’s good at playing sexy and sinister now. Some things don’t change.
Tulip Fever screened at Cannes in 2015 and was subsequently set for a theatrical release deep in the heart of awards season. Then is was pushed to the following summer. Then, a week before it was supposed to come out, it was shifted again to the movie dead zone that is February. February came and went. No Tulip Fever. Finally, it was given a release date of September 1st, with a review embargo set to lift after the first public screenings had already taken place. (Never a good sign.) Somewhere in there, a radical thought began occurring to people: Could it be that… Tulip Fever… isn’t good?
If Tulip Fever’s not good (and it’s not), the question then becomes: Can it be bad enough to justify its infamy? Four delays, people. Or is Tulip Fever just bland—a boring, forgettable misfire that’s gained its iconic stature through coincidence alone.
I am happy to report: It’s a little bit of both. Tulip Fever isn’t awful, but it is bad, and the ways in which it’s bad are actually pretty interesting. Put simply: I believe Tom Stoppard is playing a prank on us. “The year’s sexiest thriller” isn’t sexy or a thriller, but God damn is it weird.
WARNING: I’m going to spoil everything.
Tom Stoppard wrote Tulip Fever with Deborah Moggach. Moggach wrote the novel upon which the film is based, about a pair of star-crossed lovers in 17th century Amsterdam. Sophia (Vikander) is the young, gorgeous bride of older Cornelis (Waltz), a wealthy merchant who hires artist Jan (DeHaan) to paint him and his wife. As will happen, Sophia and Jan fall in love.
Now, Tom Stoppard knows from costume dramas. He wrote or co-wrote the screenplays for Shakespeare in Love and Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina. As a playwright, he penned Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. The man has one Oscar and four Tony Awards. He can do a costume drama in his sleep. And Tulip Fever is every over-the-top costume drama trope shoved into one movie. No, forget “one movie”—Tulip Fever is six movies, minimum. You have your star-crossed lovers and the young beauty trapped in marriage to an older man. The woman is rich; the man is poor but scrappy. There’s the helpful servant, played by Holliday Grainger, who is contractually obligated to appear in at least two period dramas a year. The servant, Maria, has her own lover, a fishmonger named Willem (Jack O’Connell); their romantic travails check the requisite Upstairs Downstairs/Downton Abbey box. There’s a fake pregnancy plot and two fake deaths. Judi Dench plays a nun. Zach Galifianakis is your requisite fool archetype. Oh, and the whole thing is set against Amsterdam’s booming tulip market, which is exactly what it sounds like—a stock market where frenzied merchants buy and sell tulip bulbs, which is an actual thing that happened in Amsterdam during this period. So that’s one thing your average costume drama doesn’t have: flower economy.
If Tulip Fever is six movies carelessly slopped together into one, one movie that it isn’t is the erotic thriller it’s being marketed as. I want to be perfectly clear about this, because it’s hilarious: TULIP FEVER IS NOT AT ALL A THRILLER. You know the trailer where Christoph Waltz says things like “I bought Sophia” and “My Lord, I pray that my wife shall be not of corruptible sin” against a background of ominous music? FYI: Christoph Waltz’s character, Cornelis, is easily the nicest person in this movie. He’s a sweet, somewhat befuddled man who indulges his young wife in every way he can. While “old man buys orphan from nunnery to be his wife and bear his children” isn’t a great foundation for a happy marriage, obviously, the decision to make Cornelis a pleasant, kind person robs Tulip Fever of a real antagonist and, as a result, any sense of narrative propulsion. As a result, we get an increasingly convoluted maelstrom of a plot that throws in a new twist every 20 minutes just to keep things moving.
Here’s where the fake pregnancy comes in. Cornelis wants an heir, but he thinks he’s been cursed by God. As he tearfully tells Sophia in one scene, his first wife died in childbirth; told by the doctor that either the wife or the child would survive, but not both, Cornelis prayed to God that the child would be the one to make it through. Wife and child died, and Cornelis has been racked by guilt ever since. So, naturally, Sophia cooks up a plan with her unmarried, pregnant servant Maria to pass Maria’s pregnancy off as her own and then “die” in childbirth, leaving Cornelis with a child (to be raised by Maria) and Sophia free to jet off with Jan. Oh sure, just make your husband feel responsible for another wife’s death. And for no reason! Sophia says that, if she just left, Cornelis would “would find us. He would not stop looking for me unless it was death,” but there’s nothing in his personality that indicates he actually would. Mope around for a bit and maybe get drunk on wine coolers at a bar somewhere? Sure.
If you’re raising your eyebrows at Christoph Waltz playing a character whose defining personality traits are “elderly” and “sexless,” by the way, you’re not alone. He is hilariously miscast in this. He’s good at “dangerous” and “sexy,” and Cornelis is neither. Justin Chadwick has Christoph Waltz - C H R I S T O P H W A L T Z - playing a character who’s supposed to be borderline “doddering old man.” Bitch please.
And speaking of miscast: Are we trying to pass Dane DeHaan as some sort of brooding, romantic hero here? Because nah. With his low voice and wispy pedostache, DeHaan comes across as nothing more than a 17th century dirtbag fuckboy. At one point, Sophia tells Jan about the nuns who raised her. These nuns also grow the tulips that everyone in Amsterdam has gone nuts over. The very next scene, Jan and his servant Gerrit (Galifianakis) try to sneak into the convent in the middle of the night to steal tulip bulbs. He tries to rob the woman who is essentially his lady love’s foster mother. Who is also a nun. And the movie never stops to consider that such behavior makes the man who is supposed to be your romantic lead look a tad unsympathetic!
Both Jan and Sophia are shitheads. You don’t get the sense that they fall in love so much as want to fuck like rabbits. They’re not the first young lovers driven by raging hormones to reckless behavior (see: Romeo and Juliet), but they are unique in how they—and the movie they’re in—don’t really care who else gets hurt in the process. You think ghosting is a bad way to end a relationship? Sophia ducks out of a relationship she doesn’t want by pretending to die. Twice. The second time, it’s not 100% clear whether it’s intentional or a coincidence that Jan thinks she’s dead. (Feeling guilty about the way they treated Cornelis, she decides she can’t be with him and runs away to rejoin the convent. She tosses her shawl away, and it lands in the river, leading everyone who knew about the fake pregnancy plot to think she committed suicide. Good God, girl, just make up your mind.) You’d think that’s the sort of thing one would want to definitively establish for the sake of character development, but who cares in a movie this goddamn messy, right?
I mean this in the best possible way: Tulip Fever is a less fun Winter’s Tale, minus the flying rainbow horse and Russell Crowe head boxing Colin Farrell. It’s bad, but the ways in which it’s bad are genuinely fascinating. If I had to guess, I’d say the convoluted script was the result of some degree of studio interference, too many cooks in the kitchen requesting rewrite after rewrite until the whole thing turns into period drama soup. That’s probably what happened. But, in my most cherished of dreams, Tulip Fever is Top Stoppard fucking with us. (Director Chatwin doesn’t realize. Judi Dench, as the Mother Superior, and Tom Hollander, as the pervy doctor who’s in on the pregnancy plot, do. They’re the only people who appear to know what movie they should be in.) Tulip Fever is Stoppard throwing every period romance trope into one movie in a way that completely subverts them. The “bad guy” the heroine is stuck in a loveless marriage with is the only decent person. The “good guys”? Absolute shitheels. You want historical underpinnings so you can feel like you’re learning something? Fine—I’ll give you an entire extended subplot about the tulip stock market that’s the most boring thing ever and honest-to-God features the following exchange: “You appear to have sold 49 whites and one crimson and white for 18 florins.” / “God forgive me.”
I don’t want to make Tulip Fever sound more interesting than it is. It’s not bad enough to fall into “so bad it’s good territory.” But if you’re into costume dramas, this is one to see for the ways it—unintentionally or intentionally, probably the former—changes up the formula. It’s a weird movie.