Markets are governed by two things: math and story.
Math is simple. It’s reality, the fundamentals and the underlying supply and demand for whatever’s being traded. The story is where human psychology enters the picture. It’s what causes people to extrapolate wildly, move in herds, and swing from bouts of extreme pessimism to embarrassing optimism. Markets can whipsaw wildly based on story alone, though in the end, raw math eventually wins out.
Markets are at their most exciting when the gap between math and story is massive, when humans are fully in the driver’s seat and prices no longer bear any resemblance to reality. With this in mind, a financial bubble is the perfect setting for a romantic drama because, well, love is the other obvious area where the stories we tell and get swept up in can diverge so sharply from actuality.
This is the premise of Tulip Fever, a film set in 17th century Amsterdam during tulip mania, an historic episode that’s come to be synonymous with bubbles. Based on the 1999 Deborah Moggach novel of the same name, Tulip Fever tells the story of a wealthy Dutchman, Cornelis Sandvoort (Christoph Waltz), and his beautiful, bored young wife, Sophia (Alicia Vikander), who falls in love with Jan (Dane DeHaan), a painter commissioned to make the couple’s portrait.
You might expect the love aspects of the plot to predominate and the markets part to get short shrift. But in Tulip Fever it’s the financial story that’s fascinating, while the romantic angle for the couple is a little tired. In the end, I just didn’t care if Sophia and Jan worked things out.
The film does provide multiple interesting lessons on the nature of money and wealth, though. At one point, Jan explains to Sophia that the stunning blue found in the great Renaissance paintings was called “ultramarine” because it had to be imported with great difficulty from across the sea. The value of a commodity can come not only from its utility but also from the difficulty of its attainment.
Meanwhile, the exchange of the actual tulip bulbs is particularly illuminating. While the trading takes place in a tavern, filled with drunks and prostitutes, the bulbs themselves are left for safekeeping in an abbey. This dichotomy between a rowdy bar and a house of worship is a perfect manifestation of Karl Marx’s essay “The Power of Money.” In it, Marx credits Shakespeare with identifying two essential properties of money: At times it’s divine, and at times it’s “the common whore of mankind,” as the Bard wrote in Timon of Athens.
The film emphasizes—perhaps overemphasizes—how similar love and bubbles are. Sophia and Jan hatch a plot to escape together that involves a faked pregnancy, a faked death, and an overnight fortune made trading tulips. Only in their wildest fever dream could they really have thought it would work (just like the speculators who believed the price of tulip bulbs would only go up). In the end, the cold reality of their situation (the math) wins out. Their plan results in predictable catastrophe.
The director, Justin Chadwick, still manages to end on an implausibly feel-good note, one that seems discordant with how bubbles and heartbreaks typically culminate. Of course, the mere existence of the film is kind of a happy ending, as the production was beset by numerous impediments over the years that slowed its release. There just aren’t enough movies that delve into finance and the nature of money, so it’s a good thing this one finally came out.