Filmed in 2014, intended for release in 2015, eventually slated in 2016, inevitably kicked to 2017, and then bumped a few times just to be sure, Tulip Fever hop-scotched its way across release calendars so much it became a joke among film critics. Tulip Fever actually being released in theaters is a loss in itself, as the film is here, but the sweet dream of all its myriad possibilities is ended, and reality sets in. And that reality is that Tulip Fever is completely insane. Not bad, per se, and not a mess, train wreck or otherwise. It’s just completely f*cking insane. Here is the red band trailer (NSFW), which makes Tulip Fever seem like a sexy thriller about a young wife fleeing her implied-cruel old husband.
Several points. 1) Tulip Fever is not a thriller. 2) Tulip Fever is not sexy, as young lovers Sophia (Alicia Vikander) and Jan (Dane DeHaan) have no chemistry. (I think people keep casting Dane DeHaan as a romantic lead because he looks like Titanic-era Leonardo DiCaprio, but these are not his roles.) And 3) That implied-cruel old husband, Cornelis? The one played by Christoph Waltz, who so easily shifts between manners and menace? Yeah, he’s a pretty okay guy. In fact, the real villain of Tulip Fever is Sophia, a selfish twat who does her best to ruin the lives of everyone she meets.
Yes, Cornelis more or less buys Sophia from an orphanage after his first wife dies in childbirth. But it’s 1634 and that’s not exactly unheard of, and furthermore, Cornelis expresses guilt over the transactional way he acquires Sophia. In fact, Cornelis expresses a lot of guilt—he’s tormented by his first wife’s last, tragic childbirth. Following the stillbirth of their first child, when his wife had a hard second labor, he prayed that God would spare the child, but both mother and child die. Cornelis believes this is punishment for his prayer, and he thinks Sophia’s failure to get pregnant is also punishment. So Cornelis is really a guilt-ridden, sad old man who dotes on his wife, whose worst crime is that he resorted to a nunnery matchmaking scheme in order to remarry. Oh, and that whole “He will not stop looking for me” thing? Well, he does. When Sophia leaves him, Cornelis moves to the East Indies after putting up exactly zero protest.
Meanwhile, Sophia is carrying on an affair with the painter, Jan, which turns out to be the least-bad thing she does in the film. Tulip Fever is based on a novel by Deborah Moggach—who co-wrote the script with Tom Stoppard, who might be trolling us—so maybe the book does a better job building up the sequence of events that drive Sophia’s story, but in film form, there is hardly any build up at all. Sophia is just full-fledged insane from one scene to the next. Tulip Fever starts slow, setting up Sophia’s rather dull life as Cornelis’s wife, with no real friends and a husband who, erm, tries for an heir every night. Her story is intercut with her servant, Maria (Holliday Grainger), who is in love with the fish monger, Willem (Jack O’Connell, who should have played the sexy painter). Willem speculates successfully on the tulip market, but ends up in the navy due to prostitute hijinks. This is an entire movie unto itself—it’s a subplot in Tulip Fever.
Midway through, the film takes a hard left into crazy as Maria discovers she’s pregnant just as Sophia is looking for a way out of her marriage. Sophia’s solution: She will fake being pregnant while hiding Maria’s actual pregnancy, then will “die” in childbirth and pass off Maria’s child as her own. This way, Cornelis gets his longed-for heir, and Maria can still raise her child, all while Sophia runs off with Jan, who has begun to play the tulip market in a scheme to raise money for their escape. This is an unspeakably cruel plan to poor old Cornelis, who already lost one wife in the childbed, but Maria signs up and off they go.
I’d like to say that that is as crazy as Tulip Fever gets, but it is not. Zach Galifianakis shows up to play a crucial role in the whole tulip subplot—which also feels like an entirely different movie—and Sophia ends up faking her death not once but TWICE. Or rather, Jan is so stupid that when he sees a cloak in the canal he just assumes that means Sophia is dead. Either way, by this point, Tulip Fever has become completely absurd. It’s not quite “Winter’s Tale magic horse” absurd, but it’s definitely “wild soap opera set in seventeenth century Amsterdam” absurd. Harvey Weinstein should have marketed Tulip Fever as a farce.