Tulip Fever is a bad movie. It’s poorly written, horribly edited, and contains bland performance. Its images are beautiful, and its score is appropriate and masterful, but as a whole Fever, billed as a ‘sexy thriller,’ is a failure of film, despite its occasional moments of thrill-less eroticism.
The mythology behind the production of the film is far more interesting than the film’s story itself, which features Alicia Vikander as a Dutch orphan in the 17th century sold into marriage to Cornelis (Christoph Waltz), and begins an affair with a young painter (Dane Dehaan). Adapted from the novel by Deborah Moggach, Fever’s script was penned by the legendary playwright Tom Stoppard, and was originally scheduled for production in 2004 before a change in tax law halted filming. The script bounced around for ten years, before finally being wholly recast and produced in 2014. Fever then faced a seemingly perpetual chain of release delays, before finally coming out this past weekend (after a series of bizarre, last-minute cancellations to press screenings). I can only speculate on how many rewrites and re-edits happened in its laughably protracted pre- and post-production periods, but suffice it to say that the end result is a far cry from anything Tom Stoppard could have written.
Fever’s dialogue is bland and uncreative, oppressively so. To watch Fever is to inhabit a world where cleverness and nuance no longer exists, trapping the viewer in the molasses-like sludge of unoriginality. Characters portrayed by huge names such as Judi Dench, Zach Galifianakis, and Cara Delevigne, are underwritten and marginally useful to Fever’s mechanistic and gratuitously complex plot, which contains a handful of bizarre punchlines-without-setup, signaling perhaps a death at the hands of endless re-edits.
The result of likely many editorial hands across a span of years is a film so aggressively slim and bare-bones, that the actor’s performances themselves are somehow obscured under an avalanche of cuts. Each scene feels like a truncated Frankenstein, a mishmash of the bare cinematic essentials bore from something longer and fuller. At times Fever breaks into Lars von Trier-like jump cuts, a move that feels motivated less by artistic expression and more by a lack of coverage in a scene’s 30th editorial iteration.
Despite an overall impoverishment of creativity, Fever’s score and visuals shine. Cinematographer Eigil Bryld milks soft light and muted colors to give the period a cold, sharp feeling, in loving contrast with Fever’s many vibrant sex scenes. Composer Danny Elfman plays off Bryld’s visuals with a vividly lush score that does the emotional heavy lifting in most scenes.
Tulip Fever is a bad movie, a victim of circumstance and the restless hands of anxious producers. I view its terribleness as a testament to the capacity of the Hollywood studio system to fail, to squash creativity and cleanse nuance from artistic endeavors, out of risk-averse and cowardly profit motivation. A legendary writer and otherwise talented actors have been reduced to stinging mediocrity, an ominous result proving that even the best of us are subject to the victimizing machinations of corporate interest.