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Review: Tulip Fever (2017)

Tulip Fever (2017)

Directed by: Justin Chadwick

Premise: Based on the novel by Deborah Moggach. Set in 17th century Amsterdam, a young wife (Alicia Vikander) falls for the artist (Dane DeHaan) who has been commissioned to paint her portrait.

What Works: Tulip Fever is a period piece and the movie is well photographed with an authentic sense of place. The filmmakers capture the look of the time in a way that is credible; movies of this sort can be too art directed with the actors playing dress up instead of portraying characters in their natural environment. The settings and outfits of Tulip Fever look natural and organic and there is a grit and dirtiness to the film’s portrayal of seventeenth century life that feels authentic. The best parts of Tulip Fever are those to do with the tulip market of the time. For a brief period, European society was consumed by a tulip fad and the flowers were sold for large sums of money. This plays out in the background of the movie and the filmmakers do a good job of taking the audience through the tulip industry and dramatizing the boom, bubble, and bust of the market. Had Tulip Fever been primarily about this historical anecdote it could have been a much more interesting movie.

What Doesn’t: The seventeenth century tulip craze is really just window dressing for the central story of Tulip Fever which is a love story between people of different social classes. And on that score, Tulip Fever is an utter failure. The scenario is a tired cliché; a woman marries a wealthy older man for financial security but she longs for a life of passion which she finds in the artist hired to paint her portrait. There are two critical ingredients to any love story. The first is creating a couple who the audience will want to see get together. Tulip Fever doesn’t have that. In fact, none of the leads have anything resembling a personality. The wife played by Alicia Vikander and the artist played by Dane DeHaan don’t have any defining characteristics nor do they do anything that demonstrates who they are or their feelings for one another. It is inexplicable what these two see in each other and Tulip Fever is entirely reliant upon the trappings of a period romance to give the movie a semblance of passion. The best the filmmakers can do is to design sex scenes that look like the covers of grocery store romance novels. These scenes are undeniably erotic but because there are no characters here the sequences are never more than that. The other essential ingredient to a love story is an obstacle keeping the lovers from living happily ever after. In Tulip Fever that obstacle is the wife’s marriage. She is wedded to a banal but well-mannered businessman played by Christoph Waltz. This creates a serious problem for the movie that it never overcomes. The husband is by all appearances a good and kind man—he treats her well and he seems reasonably attentive to his wife’s needs—but we are supposed to sympathize with the wife as she goes about cheating on her husband without any concrete motivation. The movie gives us no reason to empathize with her point of view and so the obstacle of this love story is whether the wife can bring herself to betray her husband. That weak obstacle combined with even weaker characterization makes for a lousy love story. Tulip Fever also suffers from clunky storytelling and uneven pacing. The plotting is ludicrous. Characters make choices that are stupid or inexplicable or both and the middle of the film detours into a subplot involving the maid’s unplanned pregnancy that is preposterous. Even the tulip subplot is inessential to the story.

Bottom Line: Tulip Fever is a terrible movie. It doesn’t give the melodrama audience the heartache they come to see and the picture it is crammed with period movie clichés that it does so badly that Tulip Fever nearly devolves into a parody.

Episode: #664 (September 10, 2017)