A few days ago I watched “The Serpent’s Kiss”, a 1997 film directed by Philippe Rousselot. A story about the creation of a seventeenth-century garden could not fail to be appealing to me. The cast, too, seemed very promising: a young Ewan McGregor (who can say no to Ewan McGregor?), Greta Scacchi, and Richard E. Grant, aka The Scarlet Pimpernel, aka Sir Andrew Aguecheek in Trevor Nunn’s wonderful adaptation of Twelfth Night. I settled down on the sofa with a cup of tea and a sigh of anticipation, thinking I was about to see a cosy period drama. The result was rather more interesting than pleasurable, if truth be told.
James Fitzmaurice has never accepted his cousin Juliana’s decision to marry the wealthy but dim-witted merchant, Thomas Smithers. Determined to win her back, he hatches a plot to ruin Smithers and discredit him once and for all in the eyes of his wife: he sends the famous Dutch garden architect Meneer Chrome – King William of Orange is on the throne and the Dutch are all the rage in England – to design an extravagant garden out of the wilderness surrounding Smithers’ isolated country home, banking on Juliana’s boredom and on her husband’s vanity to push them into choosing ever more elaborate and expensive designs. Fitzmaurice reasons that whoever gets the gold gets the girl, and he fully intends to make off with both.
What Fitzmaurice had not counted on was Meneer Chrome’s falling in love with Juliana’s beautiful and spirited daughter, Anna, who is obsessed with the writings of the poet Andrew Marvell. Given to strange outbursts when in public, Anna seems at peace only among the wild grasses and woods at the back of the house, and Chrome becomes convinced that his designs threaten not only the environment she loves, but the delicate balance of her mind. But Fitzmaurice is blackmailing him, Smithers remains deaf to all his suggestions, and the local doctor, believing that Anna is possessed by demons, keeps her under lock and key and subjects her to barbaric treatments that fill the house with her screams. The entire household seems hypnotised, caught in the sinister power of the serpent’s embrace, and Chrome realizes that only the completion of the garden will free them from Fitzmaurice’s evil influence and enable him to save Anna.
There are many elements in “The Serpent’s Kiss” which I found disturbing, and even though everything ends well (except for Fitzmaurice, I am glad to say) it is not an easy movie to watch. What I found truly fascinating was the way the film explored the themes of order and chaos, and the way nature was perceived as something to be rigidly controlled in order to convey status and importance – power over nature as a symbol for power over mankind. Thus raked gravel walks must replace brambles and fields, a spring must be channelled into an ornamental stone basin – and a recalcitrant daughter must be bullied into submission. The uneasiness Anna inspires in those around her stems from her closeness to nature: there is in her a wildness of spirit – which it is easier to call insanity or black magic – akin to the ungovernable elementals. Despite the efforts of her father and physician, she continues to escape their authority, and it is their refusal to accept their impotency and their secret fear of the consequences which provokes their rage and increases their determination to break her.
I was intrigued by the choice of Andrew Marvell and interested to know how he fit into the philosophical context of the movie, so I did a little research on him (my knowledge of him being limited to the poem “To His Coy Mistress”). Andrew Marvell (1621-1678) was a metaphysical poet often associated with John Donne and a close friend and colleague of John Milton. Though not a Puritan, he eventually became a supporter of Cromwell and was very critical of the corruption at court under the reign of Charles II. His bitterness at England’s mismanagement of the First Anglo-Dutch War of 1653 caused him to write of Holland: “This indigested vomit of the Sea / Fell to the Dutch by just Propriety” – a line which Anna provocatively repeats to Meneer Chrome at the beginning of their acquaintance. Apart from his well-known political satires, Marvell also wrote poetry in the pastoral genre. And here too, there is a link with “The Serpent’s Kiss”, for I discovered a beautiful poem entitled “The Garden”.
Rejecting the hollow triumphs avidly sought by his fellow men, Marvell praises the contemplative life and the quiet and innocence which can only be found in a garden. In complete opposition to the garden presented in “The Serpent’s Kiss”, meant to reflect the power and status of its owner, Marvell imagines a garden designed to highlight the passage of time, the changing seasons, and the movements of the planets and stars – a garden which, if it must reflect power, will bow down to the supreme power of the Creator. Characterized by a generous abundance of fruit and flowers (very far from the sterile gravel and stone of Chrome’s design) Marvell’s ideal recalls the Garden of Eden before the Fall. In sensual language, he evokes the pleasures of strolling through such a garden:
What wond’rous life in this I lead!
Ripe Apples drop about my head;
The Luscious Clusters of the Vine
Upon my Mouth do crush their Wine;
The Nectaren, and curious Peach,
Into my hands themselves do reach;
Stumbling on Melons, as I pass,
Insnared with Flow’rs, I fall on Grass.
Beauty and repose are conducive to thought, and the poem goes on to describe how, untrammelled by ambition, greed, vanity, or lust, and at peace with his natural surroundings, Man is at liberty to pursue not just analytical thought, but also creative thought: comparing the power of the imagination to the boundless energy of the ocean, Marvell pays homage to its ability to move beyond the confines of the known world and create “Far other worlds, and other Seas”. In my favourite line of the poem, the creative powers of nature and Man are conflated into a single image, wherein the mind is described as “annihilating all that’s made”:
To a green Thought in a green Shade.
Small wonder that Marvell’s poem should have inspired so many gardeners – down to the closing couplet of the poem, which has become a popular inscription on sundials:
How could such sweet and wholesome Hours
Be reckon’d but with Herbs and Flow’rs!
© Florence Berlioz 2011