"You will no doubt be surprised, my dear friend, at the subject of the following narrative. What had I to do with Schalken, or Schalken with me? He had returned to his native land, and was probably dead and buried, before I was born; I never visited Holland nor spoke with a native of that country. So much I believe you already know. I must, then, give you my authority, and state to you frankly the ground upon which rests the credibility of the strange story which I am, about to lay before you"
The young seventeenth century painter Godfried Schalcken forsakes love for ambition, but in later life discovers that there is still a terrible price to pay
'Schalcken the Painter', one of various television films by Leslie Megahey that explore the creative nexus between the lives and work of painters, focuses on the Dutch artist Godfried Schalcken (1643-1706), and, like Jonathan Miller's 'Whistle and I'll Come to You' (BBC, tx. 7/5/1968), was made for the arts series Omnibus (1967-).
Megahey's ravishingly shot horror story explores the nature of art, money, sexual politics and ambition in a style indebted to the work of Stanley Kubrick. The elegant, slowly paced narrative, the carefully composed tableaux, the discreet but meticulously designed tracking shots and the ironic detachment of the narrator are reminiscent of Barry Lyndon (UK/US, 1975); the throbbing music presaging ominous or supernatural moments recalls Richard Strauss's 'Also Sprach Zarathustra', used to similar effect in 2001: A Space Odyssey (US/UK, 1968).
'Schalcken' is based on Joseph Sheridan Lefanu's story, which is read on the soundtrack by Charles Gray, who also narrated Megahey's 'Cariani and the Courtesans' (Screenplay, BBC2 tx. 5/8/1987); like 'A Question of Attribution' (Screen One, BBC, tx. 20/10/1991) it weaves a fictional story around real people and paintings. Schalcken is introduced at the height of his fame in a brooding pre-title sequence, before flashing back to the artist's apprenticeship under Gerrit Dou. His gauche attempts to romance Dou's niece Rose provide the few moments of sweetness and warmth in an otherwise unremittingly chilly look into the hard heart of the painter.
When Rose is bound over to a (literally, as it turns out) cadaverous man, this serves as a bleak comment on the cruelty behind such marriage 'contracts', in which women were treated as mere chattel or breeding stock. Vanderhausen (John Justin under heavy make-up) is a marvellously unsettling creature, who tests Schalcken and makes him face the consequences of his failure to help Rose. This precipitates the artist's moral downfall and as the years pass we see Schalcken, like his master Dou (played to cruel perfection by Maurice Denham), place commerce above art and love. It is the cost to his soul that Megahey imaginatively explores in the film's climactic supernatural vision as Schalcken is forced to watch Rose and Vanderhausen have sex after she mocks his liaisons with prostitutes. In an ironic coda, the narrator ponders what effect this experience really had on Schalcken's painting of a woman apparently menaced by unseen forces, the same work with which the film began.