Lost in the Movies: The House of Mirth

The House of Mirth

#77 in Best of the 21st Century?, a series counting down the most acclaimed films of the previous decade.

Though helmed by a bona-fide auteur, House of Mirth fits snugly inside the conventions of the art-film adaptation style, the elegance for which "Masterpiece Theatre" and Merchant-Ivory are bywords, and which those who don't like can tag, with Truffautlike scorn, "the tradition of quality." Some have tried to read a "queer eye" subversion into Terence Davies' handling of the material, but viewers not keyed in to the director's idiosyncrasies (myself, for example) will see a more or less faithful handling of Edith Wharton's source novel, gracefully executed without seeking the propulsive vision Martin Scorsese brought to Wharton in his 1993 Age of Innocence. (In that film, the ornate and coded appearances and behaviors of society are filtered through the rapid-fire, visceral sensibilities of the director; some were impressed by the friction, some didn't notice, and others found the combination incongrous - like Jonathan Rosenbaum, whose characterization of Scorsese led to angry letters and, fifteen years later, a fascinating blog thread which Rosenbaum himself eventually joined. But I digress...) On the aforementioned thread, Arthur S. notes that Scorsese's film is "a rare film which adopts the novelistic narrative rather than the old standby of make the book a play and shoot the play"; though Davies' film has been praised for its cinematic qualities, its approach struck me as very much the latter. (Quickly defined: the cinematic approach emphasizes uniquely filmic qualities, such as editing, camera manipulation, or intimate and/or complex visual viewpoints; usually the "cinematic" will stress presentation rather than text, at least compared to a play.) However, this observation should not be taken as a thorough-going criticism: there are virtues in the "theatrical" on film, and Davies makes the most of them.

That said, there are also missed opportunities. I read the book many years ago, and details were hazy before I watched the movie, but there was one moment I vividly recalled. Lily Bart (Gillian Anderson) is our protagonist - she is a young woman whose stubborn sense of honor ironically gets her condemned as dishonorable by the hypocritical New York society of 100 years ago. The story, in both film and book, conveys her slips through a series of events - operas, cruises, genteel parties, summer getaways. In this particular scene, Lily is making an appearance in a "tableaux vivant." This is a staged reproduction of a famous painting - and her appearance both creates a mini-scandal and impresses the audience for somehow encapsulating her essence; one woman observes, "it makes her look like the real Lily." This is potentially a very "cinematic" scene - imagine my surprise when Davies brushes right past it in the film! The movie does not set up the incident at all, changes the reference from the specificity of "Mrs. Richard Bennett Lloyd" to Watteau's more generic "Summer" and cuts the whole sequence down to about twenty seconds. In her insightful overview of the film and its process of adaptation, Stacia of She Blogged at Night notes, "director Davies says in the commentary that he reduced the tableaux to a minimum because he didn't think contemporary viewers would know what a tableau vivant was." It seems a lost chance to encapsulate Lily in a vivid cinemoment, yet all of this does point to Davies' overall approach.

Despite the obvious care given to sets, props, and costumes he is not really interested in set pieces (the few that pop up are usually transitional moments; oftentimes, as with the silhouetted train station which opens the film, there is something theatrical even about the visual flourishes). The focus of the movie is on the dialogue, the subtext beneath the dialogue, and - here's where the movie can certainly be called "cinematic" - the way thoughts and feelings flicker across the actors' expressions in close-up. This works in light of the source material, because Wharton's world is one of artificiality - but an artificiality with very real consequences. In this sense, the slight staginess of certain sequences, the air of putting on a show and playing a role (these are not naturalistic performances), the languid placidity of the style, are all beneficial. They convey the sequestered, heightened nature of Lily's world in a way that a more "realistic" style might not, in a sense that a more stylish rendering might miss. However, it could be said that the same approach does not work quite as well once Lily slides into poverty; somehow her desperation seems too genteel - a more raw, unstable, "exposed" aesthetic might shock us alongside Lily, and makes us feel her disorientation more acutely. As it is, we are still moved because of Gillian Anderson's performance, but Davies' staging remains a minor setback.

The casting could be (and has been) seen as idiosyncratic, but is in most cases a major coup. Anderson in particular is a revelation - a quivering sensitivity characterizes the performance, and one senses her fragility at all times: it's not so much that she seems out of her league (she's intelligent, witty, fairly sophisticated) as that she seems indisposed to play the game correctly. She could hit the ball out of the park, but is too frightened by its speed to do so. Eric Stoltz is usually described as miscast, but though he does not quite convey the callousness one might expect from slightly smug bachelor Lawrence Selden, there's a "niceness" about his portrayal which works. It makes the discovery of other love affairs all the more heartbreaking, and gives an uncertain edge to his encounters with Lily; whereas a more openly chauvinistic performance might make us think Lily a fool, here we can see how she is at once enticed by his declarations of love, yet distrustful of them as well. Among the supporting cast, both Dan Akroyd and Laura Linney were singled out in a recent postscript to the novel (Barnes & Noble edition) as too nice for, respectively, Gus Trenor and Bertha Dorset. Yet in Akroyd's case, his good nature works much as Stoltz's - as a way to fool us as well as Lily, and to give his rather despicable behavior a poignant edge, lending a rich complexity to the scenario. As for Linney, there's always been something a tad abrasive about her cheery persona, and Davies taps into it expertly here. Bertha may be a bitch, but she's a sunny, attractive one; once again, a confusion between appearance and essence (less acute here, as the character is more perpetually and clearly unlikable right away) makes us share Lily's position to a certain extent.

Above all, the movie could be described as compassionate. Davies' stately style does not create a distance between us and Lily, and in fact by eschewing a more pronounced perspective, he allows us to alternately observe and accompany the heroine's descent. The observation is never neutral, while the accompaniment has a helpless air. At times we feel as deceived as Lily - it is hard to see the particular nature of Bertha's betrayal coming, though in retrospect it makes perfect sense. At others we feel we should warn her somehow, make her more aware of the consequences of her actions, of the dangerous path paved by her trust and dignity. Yet at times, she too seems to recognize her doom; probably no intervention could prevent the tragic outcome. Ironically, while Lily creates and facilitates the conditions of her disgrace and downfall (and thus could be considered responsible for her own fate), her actions are almost entirely virtuous - at every turn she resists expediency, dishonesty, subterfuge. Only one other character comes off well: Rosedale (Anthony LaPaglia), the "nouveau riche" Jewish financier. In so many ways, he's Lily's opposite - perpetually conniving, vulgar, and opportunistic. Yet they are joined by a lack of hypocrisy; they do not lie to themselves. Furthermore, as one of the final scenes makes clear, they both retain some spark of human decency, perhaps something their outsider statuses inadvertently keep alive - at least for a while. At the film's poignant denouement, Davies flashes a title across the screen in what feels like one of the few dramatic directorial flourishes: "New York, 1907." This complements a title which appeared in the beginning: "New York, 1905." In the brief span of two years this woman's life has been destroyed, her delicate position collapsed, her fragile confidence shattered. Like sharks responding to the scent of blood, her "friends" rapidly gobbled Lily up, spitting out her remains in a tenement flat, an empty vial of sleep medicine hanging from her fingers, like that painting of Marat in his bathtub: an image of exhausted expiration to bookend that Watteau tableau we glimpsed ever so briefly just several summers ago.

Previous Film: Platform
Next film: Wendy and Lucy

Read the comments on Wonders in the Dark, where this review was originally published.

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