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Schalcken the Painter

Review by: Derek Johnston

"Turn from the light. Your breast bare. Look into the dark."

Ah! the golden age of cultural television programming! The time when you could turn on a programme about the arts and be treated to luminous camerawork, a script that helped you to your own conclusions and repaid consideration, strong performances, a good dose of fear and, of course, a hefty sampling of female nudity!
Schalcken the Painter is an edition of the BBC arts programme Omnibus from 1979 that successfully uses a J Sheridan LeFanu short story (A Strange Event in the Life of Schalken the Painter) to illuminate the work of the real artist Godfried Schalcken.
Which is rather clever of them.
Schalcken, played by Jeremy Clyde, is a student of the painter Gerrit Dou, as played by Maurice Denham (Night of the Demon, Countess Dracula, Torture Garden). He is also an admirer of Dou's niece, Rose Velderkaust (Cheryl Kennedy), but too poor to stand any chance of marrying her.
Schalcken is working late one night when there is an ominous creak, which heralds the arrival of a grey-skinned figure with an oddly uninflected, metallic voice. No, this isn't a precursor to The X-Files; this figure at least appears human. The figure announces that he will return the following night to talk to Dou about a matter of import. His name is Vanderhausen (John Justin).
The following night, Dou and Schalcken await Vanderhausen's arrival, which is again heralded by an ominous creak. Schalcken is sent to a goldsmith with a chest presented by Vanderhausen, where it proves to be full of high-quality gold. Meanwhile, Vanderhausen has revealed his purpose: he saw Rose in the Church of St.Lawrence in Rotterdam and desires to marry her.
On hearing of the value of the gold from the returned Schalcken, Dou agrees to Vanderhausen's proposal and signs the contract assigning Rose to him ­ after all, she is his property.
On the third night, Dou has a dinner prepared and tells Rose to trick herself out prettily for the important visitor. They wait; there is the ominous creak and Vanderhausen is there. As the candles are lit at the table, we see Rose's subdued horror before we see its cause: Vanderhausen's waxy grey face and black eyes, which turn upon her unblinkingly. Only the shortsighted Dou, placed at the other end of the table from his guest, with all of the table accoutrements between them, seems to have much appetite for chatter or food. Dish after luscious dish goes untouched.
Then Vanderhausen is gone, and Rose speaks for the first time in the film. She finds Vanderhausen hideous and will not look upon him again. He is the very image of a horrible figure that they saw at the Church of St Lawrence in Rotterdam. But Dou has signed the contract and, as the Narrator tells us, this is a story of heartlessness, nothing else.
Rose tries to get Schalcken to run away with her, but he says that he has nothing to keep them. He will work and, in the future, he will buy back the contract - buy it back double.
The wedding goes ahead, and then nothing is heard from the couple. Dou even sends Schalcken on a trip to Rotterdam to find them, but there is only the story of the coachman who delivered them to St.Lawrence's Church for the wedding, where he says that they disappeared.
Time passes. Dou and Schalcken are working on their accounts. The ominous creak. But this time it is followed by a pounding on the door. It is Rose, distraught and crying for wine and food and a minister of God. She is still in her wedding dress. Schalcken takes her to rest, then ignores her call never to leave her in order to fetch a light. The door to the chamber slams shut behind him and there is a horrifying scream. When Schalcken opens the door, the room is empty, the window is open, and there are bubbles rising from the canal outside.
Years pass, and now Schalcken is clearly the master of the house, a successful painter. He marries a woman from a rich merchant family. His attempt to sketch her is interrupted by the arrival of a grey-faced man bearing a casket. But it is only a customer, asking for a commission.
Schalcken explains that he does not perform private commissions any more, but agrees readily when he sees the contents of the box. Like Dou before him, he is happy to make a profitable deal.
Dou dies and is buried in the Church of St Lawrence. Schalcken returns late from the funeral, and immediately goes to his studio and paints the picture that was the jumping-off point for this narrative.
He had entered the vault of the church, drawn there. A light came out of the darkness, a candle carried by a smiling Rose, who led him deeper into the vault, to what appeared to be a four-poster bed. She squeezed her breast lasciviously and reached out a hand to him; he offered her money ­ sex had become a transaction to him, and now he could show that he was wealthy enough to have her. She took the money, and tipped it on the floor. She drew back the bed canopy and the horrible, naked, grey figure of Vanderhausen sat upright in the bed. Rose climbed on top of Vanderhausen and removed her shift, riding the horrible figure with apparent delight in the background of the shot while Schalcken overacted in despair in the foreground.
Schalcken awoke in the vault, his full purse beside him. There was a tomb where the bed had been, inscribed "United with his beloved wife".

As Omnibus had previously done in 1968 with Jonathon Miller's Whistle and I'll Come to You, this programme took a source horror tale to provide some reflection on art. Where Miller looked reflexively at M R James through his story, and essentially argued through his script and direction that supernatural horror is a product of mental breakdown, the LeFanu adaptation uses its source narrative as a way of presenting and encouraging consideration of Schalcken's art in particular, and of how an artist's life and mental state can influence their work.
While writer / director Leslie Megahey's (Hour of the Pig) script focuses on the main character's loss of conscience and the tragic victory of commerce over love (and, possibly, the finding of love in strange places), she also constantly directs the viewer back to Schalcken's paintings and to the idea and techniques of art. This is accomplished both through the narration, purred exquisitely by Charles Gray (World's Greatest Mycroft Holmes, The Devil Rides Out, Diamonds Are Forever), and through the visual presentation of work, in progress and completed, and by the use of cinematic composition and depth of field to emulate the formal look of painting.
One of the interesting things to watch in this production is how the viewers' attention is drawn to how aspects of the (real) paintings may reflect changes in Schalcken due to the (fictional) events of the story.
This also encourages the viewer to look for further connections and interpretations. So when a model is posed as Lesbia weighing her jewellery against her pet sparrow and she asks what it means, and Schalcken responds, "Nothing! It's only a story!", the viewer has already grasped the metaphor of money and commerce being unequal to love and life that is present in the actual Schalcken painting. And so the needs of both story and arts documentary are met.

Sadly, Schalcken the Painter is not currently available on DVD or video. It does still exist and a print has been shown publicly, so we can only hope that a release will be forthcoming. And maybe we can also hope that some documentary makers will see and remember this production, and take it as an example of how to educate and entertain effectively at the same time!

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