Be Careful What You Wish For…
Disturbing paintings, portraits of magical properties, cursed canvas. The concept of marriage between darkness and art is present from the very beginnings of a dark fantasy and horror genres, the Gothic novel, and remains to be outside the generally accepted definition of what’s beautiful to this day. Recently I chanced upon two films which show from two different angles how darkness and beauty work together.
Picture, Picture, On The Wall…
I said two films, but in case of Dorian Grey, the film adaptation is obviously secondary to the great novel by Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Grey. The story of slow, unredeemable descent into darkness, decay and madness in exchange for beauty and youth. A deal with the Devil. Indeed, when young and naive Dorian is introduced to cynical Lord Henry Wotton, he has no idea he has just looked into the eyes of Mefisto himself. He agrees to pose for the painter and his friend, Basil Hallward, and while posing he listens to Lord Henry’s speech on values and virtues. Henry being not only cynic but also a hedonist, believes there are only three things worth living for: beauty, youth and pleasure.
Anyone and anything that stands between a person and exploiting the aforementioned needs to be disposed of. Dorian’s open mind absorbs those teachings and he’s suddenly conscious of how both precious and transient his beauty is.
Upon seeing the uncanny allure of his portrait, Dorian expresses his wholehearted wish that the portrait took all the toll of time in his stead. Someone somewhere hears his wish and decides to grant it. The deal is sealed and Dorian goes on the pleasure spree under Lord Henry’s guidance.
Very quickly though these pleasures start to corrupt and victimize innocent people in one way or another as Dorian becomes cruel. With every cruelty he commits the painting acquires a new, diabolical feature until it’s so terrifying, it needs to be locked away. Slowly, as people start to whisper about the improbability of Dorian’s unchanged face, madness starts to consume his mind.
He suffers from hallucinations and grows extremely suspicious, fearing that someone would discover this secret. Finally, he understands there’s no way back to innocence and sanity, and stabs his image, which is then restored to it’s former looks. Dorian also changes back into his true self, taking on all the terrifying features the painting had and suffers death.
As for the film, I personally don’t find it brilliant, but there are certain plot elements that were used well, and elaborated on even further than in the book and that, I think, deserve attention. For example Lord Henry fulfils his faustian role but also is shown as father figure for Dorian, after death of his own father. Later on in the film, the protagonist accuses Henry of using this influence in a bad way, having become his creation, his philosophy put to practice, while Henry himself has never had a courage to live according to his beliefs. This advancing decay inspired by Lord Henry seems to reflect on the mood of the film.
After murdering Basil the colouring is getting darker and London assumes somewhat sinister atmosphere. The music becomes more and more unsettling, especially during party scenes. The change continues when 25 years later Dorian comes back from his journey around the world. Insanity that finally starts to set in adds to this grim aura and London acquires quite a nightmarish feel to it.
Something Ancient This Way Comes…
The magical, sinister portrait is a true Gothic motif here and a source of horror. However, for me there’s something way more chilling. It’s the nature of evil, which starts with the ‘deal with the Devil’.
The evil that is chosen voluntarily and proves to be unredeemable. Once he set things in motion, he acquires certain fate, which must be acted out until it’s complete fulfilment. That reminds me of something I learned while reading Beowulf and Arthurian legends alike – the ancient, pagan concept of Wyrd.
Present in Norse and Anglo-Saxon mythology, Wyrd was an idea on inescapable, inexorable fate or destiny of each person, but also whole nations and things under the sun. What makes it different from the greco-latin fatum, is that wyrd takes into account our choices, whereas in case of fatum, certain fate is unavoidable no matter what we do.
What’s interesting is that wyrd, woven from personal choices, is intertwined with choices of other people around us and even by our ancestors. And so when Dorian’s grandfather, blaming him for his mother death, says ‘You are death’, he perhaps adds a thread to Dorian’s wyrd. Later, this accusation resurfaces with Sybil’s suicide and describes the destructive influence he has on lives of others.
However the down path his life has taken, the protagonist still believes he might yet be purified and absolved, thus escaping his fate. The first escape attempt takes place after murdering Basil, when Dorian decides to go see the world. In his letters to Lord Henry he describes his experiences of interacting with remnants of ancient civilizations, in which he seems to seek some transcendence; an understanding, a connection to something important. But none come, the man returns with a sense of profound tiredness and burnout.
When escape proves to fail, the protagonist then turns to God. The scene of confession is one of the most powerful scenes in the film for me, really. Desperate Dorian tries to make contact with the Divine in a confession booth, but asked to confess his mortal sins, he is not able to. The only thing that escapes his mouth is a panicked cry ‘This is not my true face!’. As if to him, his whole life was a lie, a sin of sorts, and so confessing specifics won’t make up for it.
It’s worthwhile to note, that the madness he starts to fall into is not only caused by suspicion, but also by remorse after Sybil’s suicide. He would give up everything to take back the time, but even his authentic regret cannot save him. The priest tries to comfort him remarking that God is faithful and just, but that only seems to further intensify Dorian’s anxiety. He knows that if God is just, then he is damned.
The redemptive power of true love presents itself to him then, as another promise of salvation. He hopes his darkness to be washed away by Emily’s goodness. Instead, his darkness turns out to be too strong and persistent to be lightened. Indeed, it extinguishes all the light and sets the lovers apart.
The picture draws the events to the fatal end and Dorian is no longer able to keep it from people. In the commotion of the final scenes he understands there’s nowhere to run to from his fate. There’s no forgiveness, no cleansing, no fresh start, only the consequences, only the other end of his deal. And as such we can’t speak of punishment, either. Rather, a payment for what he bought. He decides to do one righteous thing and reject Emily’s help as not to make her pay for this choices, not to entangle her in his wyrd.
The impression that portraits can live their own life often takes shape of the feeling of being watched by picture or a conviction that a portrait is lucky, cursed or haunted. Maybe that’s because of a lifelike similarity, which unlike photography, is not a copy, but an image which embeds a piece of soul of the model?
The dangers of exploiting the powers of magical/demonic/supernatural painting in order to cheat one’s own fate are also present in Nikolaj Gogol’s story The Painting. This time we are presented with a story of a painter, given a choice of fortune and fame… I will say no more, as Gogol deserves to be read cover to cover same as Wilde. Imagine though, what if paintings had the other side, just like mirrors?
A geek and gamer with a background in Cultural Anthropology, Lena loves all things that go bump in the night; apprentice of vampire lore, fan of cyberpunk, enthusiast of dark fantasy. Lena is blending in with the mortals working for an interior designer.