Wednesday 20 December 2023

Vrolijk Kerstfeest!

🎄🎄🎄 Season's Greetings! See you all in 2024! 🎄🎄🎄 

🎅 Meanwhile, check out our list of the year's best films! 🎅

Monday 11 December 2023

Schalcken the Painter (Leslie Megahey, 1979)

From a strictly personal perspective, there are few films as evocative as this BBC television adaptation of Sheridan Le Fanu's eponymous short story; yet the nostalgia it triggers comes not from this semi-biopic's content, but rather from the time of its original transmission.  For Schalcken the Painter first went out on 23 December 1979, in the late night slot hitherto occupied by the Beeb's then recently-cancelled (but subsequently resurrected) A Ghost Story for Christmas—a strand Leslie Megahey's film has since been somewhat co-opted into.  While I was too young to watch the film when it premiered—and I have no idea if my parents did—it is a title that transports me back to that Christmas in our remote stone cottage in the east of Scotland.  While thinking of the past, that foreign country, we often inadvertently alter details, and although I make no claim to have seen Schalcken the Painter when it was first broadcast—as an episode of the BBC's long-running arts programme Omnibus—the knowledge that it was beamed across the airwaves swirling above our house in deepest winter has certainly informed my memories of the final Christmas of the 1970s.

Yet these dewy-eyed trips down memory lane have never distracted me from the brilliance of the subtle, slippery Schalcken the Painter: upon first viewing the film, I was left in no doubt that it was a flat-out masterpiece.  But the movie was only shown twice on the BBC before falling into years of obscurity, and it remained criminally neglected until a decade ago, when it was spruced up for a very belated home video release.  Nowadays, Schalcken the Painter is easy to find in both physical and digital formats, and it has become a staple in my own Yuletide viewing, among the likes of A Christmas StoryThe Merry World of Léopold Z and A Charlie Brown Christmas; compared to those titles, this gothic, gloomy tale is a serious outlier.  The film's status as a quasi-Ghost Story for Christmas should by no means obfuscate its deeply unsettling nature: Megahey and Paul Humfress' collaboration is essentially a horror movie masquerading as an arts documentary—hence its inclusion in Omnibus, for which Megahey served as series editor—and this wolf in sheep's clothing proves far more disturbing than any bona fide Ghost Story for Christmas before or since. 

Godefridus Schalcken grew up in Dordrecht before moving to Leiden, where he studied painting under Gerrit Dou, the first and most successful of Rembrandt's pupils.  Schalcken would duly adopt the style of this Leidse fijnschilder, and he became a master of reproducing candlelit scenes; the images in this article provide some good examples of his technique.  Schalcken's striking work inspired Irish author Le Fanu to write his 1839 story, which uses the spelling 'Schalken' and fictionalises the artist's personal life.  Whether the portrait described in Le Fanu's chiller existed or not, an extensive search failed to locate it for the BBC film, so an ersatz Schalcken—of a foregrounded girl holding a candle while a lurking man draws a sword—was created especially for the production, thus further blurring the boundary between truth and fabrication.  The film uses this strange, disquieting painting as a jumping-off point for a slow-burn tale in which the impoverished Schalcken sees the woman he loves—Dou's niece Rose—reluctantly marry sinister, wealthy Rotterdammer Vanderhausen; the avaricious Dou receives a box of gold in exchange for the marriage contract, which Schalcken vows to buy back once he's made his own fortune.

Predictably, things start to unravel for the career-minded Schalcken, with his dread-filled journey—and the film—culminating in a startlingly creepy scene which, although not explicit, was probably right at the limit of what the Beeb of the late 70s considered acceptable for broadcast.  Follow that, weatherman.  The fact that the transmission of Schalcken the Painter finished just after midnight, thus bleeding into my then-favourite day of the festive season—Christmas Eve—has only served to strengthen the film's icy grip on my psyche.  Like much small-screen entertainment, Megahey's film feels as if it was designed to be a solitary viewing experience (which is quite ironic, given Christmastime's emphasis on social gatherings); indeed, I have never watched this singularly nightmarish work with anyone else.  Deftly edited by Sebastiane co-director Humfress, Schalcken the Painter is a stunning triumph of form: I am hard pushed to think of another film that so closely mimics the style of its artist-subject, and Megahey, Humfress and lighting cameraman John Hooper have, in effect, created a living, breathing Schalcken.  Unfortunately for its title character, not everything in Schalcken the Painter has a pulse.

Darren Arnold