Madeleine Olnek’s movies may be an acquired taste, but the woman knows how to write a catchy premise. Her three feature films — all madcap comedies with absurdist leanings — include lesbian aliens looking for love, lesbian hustlers picking up women outside Talbot’s — and now, lesbian Emily Dickinson traipsing across her Amherst lawn after a tryst with her sister-in-law, her petticoats flung about her head. That’s the premise of “Wild Nights With Emily,” and to say that they just don’t make movies like this anymore would be grossly inaccurate: It’s hard to imagine anyone making this movie other than Olnek.
Using Dickinson’s letters and poems (with permission from Harvard University Press), “Wild Nights With Emily” paints a much sunnier portrait of the poet than that of the reclusive spinster terrified of publication. Instead, the film imagines a lively woman forced to hide a lifelong love affair whose work was mostly rejected by a literary establishment that would embrace it after her death.
Continuing a fruitful post-“Saturday Night Live” indie film career (she won an Indie Spirit Award last year for “Other People”), Molly Shannon is brilliant and warm as the literary icon. The movie begins with a lecture given by Dickinson’s first publisher, Mabel Todd (Amy Seimetz, in a rare comedic turn), who spins the yarn of the reclusive Dickinson with a syrupy grin and pink flat-top hat. Mabel’s narration is a necessary reminder of the Dickinson that the world knows, and its inaccuracy is hilarious when juxtaposed against this vivacious and joyful version, known here simply as Emily.
Though it is certainly a comedy, “Wild Nights With Emily” is anchored by a surprisingly touching love story between Emily and her friend from childhood, Susan Gilbert (Susan Ziegler). Their teenage romance develops during 19th century sleepovers that would make 21st century parents blush. (Young Emily and Young Susan are played by Dana Melanie and Sasha Frolova.) Soon, Emily is heartbroken to learn about Susan’s secret engagement to her brother, but softens when Susan explains her plan for them to be together. Sure enough, Susan and Austin (Kevin Seal) build their house right next door to Emily’s, and a lifetime of early morning scurrying across the lawn ensues.
Olnek takes every opportunity to showcase Emily’s poetry, sprinkled into the film in voiceover and graphic text. We see Emily scribbling lines on the back of a cake recipe that she stows away in her hair, and sending missives across the lawn to her constant champion and reader. The notion that she never sought publication is challenged by a meeting with the editor of the Atlantic Monthly, the bombastic blowhard T.W. Higginson (a note-perfect Brett Gelman), who dashes her hopes by suggesting she title her poems and use more rhyme. Meanwhile, it appears that “reclusive” Emily was really only reclusive around Mabel, and that was because she was having sex with Austin in Emily’s drawing room.
Olnek’s films are feminist statements on several levels, most significantly in the way that she casts so many compelling women, from romantic leads to character bits. The young actresses Melanie and Frolova are both excellent, and Olnek secured memorable turns for Jackie Monahan and Lisa Haas, stars of the only true lesbian hustler comedy, “The Foxy Merkins.”
Shannon keeps her natural zaniness just below the surface as Emily, but brings ever so much mirth to Olnek’s humorously formal 19th century dialogue. An accomplished theater actress and repeat player in Olnek’s films, Ziegler is the perfect match for Shannon, and their chemistry elevates the comedic premise into an undeniably compelling romance. It’s a joy to watch them fall sideways into bed together, tumbling on guests’ coats while hiding from the party downstairs. Their devotion drives home the film’s ultimately political message, and elevates the poignant final image to poetic heights.
“Wild Nights With Emily” may be Olnek’s most political film to date, one that could forever change the narrative of the world’s most famous woman poet. In her director’s statement, Olnek writes: “The idea that she wrote without wanting to be published exonerates the world that prevented her voice from being heard and also plants the idea that for women, it is wrong to desire recognition.” With that in mind, here’s hoping for many more movies like “Wild Nights With Emily”—though Olnek is definitely one of a kind.
“Wild Nights With Emily” premiered at the SXSW Film Festival on March 11. It is currently seeking distribution.