Of Mirth Directed
by Terence Davies
Capturing different moments
of Lily’s devastation, Davies’ artistry goes beyond the still life
in exactly the way that cinema supersedes painting and photography; it conveys
emotions (or the ineffable) beneath the surface view of Lily’s world. In
the mansions, plush interiors and formal social gatherings, the characters share
screen space with time and fate. Davies and cinematographer Remi Adefarasin
style the movie after the chilly chiaroscuro of John Singer Sargent–but
not for a museum-standard tone. Their stylistic choices are as startling as
that moment when Edward Hopper was recreated in Pennies from Heaven.
Though Davies and Adefarasin’s compositions are culturally appropriate,
their audacity is further justified by the uncanny way Anderson’s plainness
gets posed into elegance–it is her air of white American feminine beauty
that tells an additional story about the appurtenances of class and money.
It’s essential to appreciate
that The House of Mirth’s imagery vibrates with Davies’
particular meanings–his sensitivity for the kind of struggle life becomes
for Lily–because the film tests the popular taste for period melodrama
catered to by Masterpiece Theater and the Merchant-Ivory productions.
As a genuine tragedy, it demands an evaluation of personality and social temper
more serious than the usual admiration of carriages, drawing rooms and affluent
people in white clothes strolling on green lawns. When Lily is displaced by
an insufficient inheritance and no marital support, Davies transports us into
her psychic universe. The film is layered in literal and metaphorical darkness.
Visually elegant, its effect is spellbinding. Sorrowful as a cello.
Lily recalls Gena Rowlands
in Davies’ The Neon Bible, his first fully realized adult figure
after the childlike POVs of his previous films. But there may be closer identification
here, as evidenced by the poetic representation of Lily’s emotional states–ravishing
evocations of her personal daring and grief that show Davies, a visual artist
in the lineage of Straub, Tarkovsky, Bresson and Techine, to be both imaginative
and brazen. As in his first masterworks, Davies invokes a panoply of romantic
ideals: Lily enters the film silhouetted through clouds of train station smoke
like Anna Karenina (or Some Like It Hot, Davies joked during a
press conference) but she comes toward the camera as a timeless figure of loneliness,
her hat (like her cares) precariously balanced. During a flirtation with Lawrence
Selden (Eric Stoltz), the bachelor Lily loves but keeps at bay ("You see,
I came after all"), Davies shifts consciousness to show Lily clasping her
parasol in a fanciful moment, rapturously unrestrained. While charting Lily’s
social descent clearly, steadily, Davies brilliantly underscores it when she
misjudges propriety and, wearing a red gown, attends the opera with her stockbroker,
the married Gus Trenor (Dan Aykroyd). They climb the opera house stairs in a
mournful lockstep like at the end of Thieves Like Us while in the opera
box Lily’s red dress phosphoresces in the auditorium, evoking Bette Davis’
faux-pas in Jezebel. This retention of cultural memory distinguishes
Davies’ art as postmodern, yet few other intellectual filmmakers have been
as sensual or emotional.
Bertolucci praised Martin
Scorsese’s Wharton adaptation The Age of Innocence, saying, "It
is fascinating to see Scorsese at work in the atelier of Visconti," but
even that may have been too distant for the film to work. As The House of
Mirth is interpreted, the primary artist here is not Edith Wharton but Davies,
who has not so much served Wharton as taken her tale personally. It’s salutary
to identify how Davies’ gay insight gives him the right socially alienated
yet emotionally sympathetic understanding of the strictures and hopeless longings
in Lily’s story. (You sense it first in the poignant angle of Lily’s
hat; it’s jaunty, assertive, yet also a shield.) And the forlorn, impoverished,
movie-mad Liverpool kid is apparent here, too. It’s in the way darkness
is paced (the long day closing), and the way that a disconsolate Lily languishes
in a hovel listening to the city’s clatter outside–a superb realization
of loneliness–making this film more potent, even frightening, than recent
polite literary adaptations. Through Davies’ visual emphasis, Lily’s
social tragedy sneaks up indirectly as did Redmond Barry’s in Barry
Lyndon. Stanley Kubrick’s temperament is only better known–not
more felicitous–than Davies’.
Cast adrift by her penurious
Aunt Peniston (Eleanor Bron) and her supplicating Cousin Grace (Jodhi May),
Lily takes a social invitation to Europe that Davies renders in unparalleled
cinematic refashioning of Wharton that draws terror and pain out of the original
story. A montage searches Peniston’s vacated manse with all its shrouded
luxuries in disuse, both light and life pale in the empty rooms; then outside
where a rainy downpour duets with the opera fragment on the soundtrack; then
the ocean roiling, the sun beckoning, the camera flowing to a deceptively bright
Monte Carlo. The grand sequence etches Lily’s fate against her hope: it’s
directorial expression of something larger than life while the actors delineate
Anderson’s the life
form under Davies-Wharton’s microscope. Using her familiar stoic reserve,
Anderson choreographs the collapse of Lily’s defensive temperament. "Where
does dignity end and rectitude begin?" Lily asks, and Anderson seems to
feel it. The mole above her lip–a facial flaw–seems righter than Wharton’s
beauteous description. It allows Anderson to make spiritual depression humane,
visible, yet still shockable when Carry (Elizabeth McGovern), a jaded friend,
makes the observation, "The world is vile."
Davies prepares Lily’s
eventual tragedy, gives it balance and scale, through Cousin Grace–a minor
character as distraught as Lily, who has internalized rules, repression and
petty vengeance. Jodhi May, who was the young girl in A World Apart,
makes Grace’s torment heartbreaking. As Grace ages into an emotional and
physical replica of her aunt, the resemblance (with its hint of Great Expectations
gone bad) is unnerving. A quintessential Davies character, her face deliquesces
from the misery of an assigned social role and her unrealized passions.
Such images strike a moral
awareness. Davies makes sure they will claim your memory with a righteousness
that could be thought of as feminist–assessing how Lily and Grace hold
themselves together with manners absorbed from the society (and hypocrisy) they
were born into. Davies repeats more of Wharton’s arcane prose than he needs–as
in the line, "If obliquity were a vice we’d all be tainted."
But a more deft conscience is at work when Lily admits a terrifying word, "Poverty!"
and confides to Selden, "I have joined the working classes. I am on the
rubbish heap." This daunting admission makes The House of Mirth
a straightforward challenge to the contemporary moviegoing fondness for the
escapism of period dramas–even those as different but basically insipid
as Sense and Sensibility and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
It was bizarre when last
year’s critical acclaim for Mike Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy almost
unanimously ignored the fact that the film was not actually about the glory
of the British theatrical tradition. Self-deluding critics simply preferred
exercising their usual Anglophilia; for them Topsy-Turvy might as well
have been a Merchant-Ivory celebration of the British Empire. (Audiences knew
better; they could sense Leigh’s scornful undercurrent, his unsettling
interest in individual and cultural neuroses. They stayed away in droves.) This
attitude may well affect how some people view The House of Mirth’s
distaste for things Imperial–especially the American imitation. The tendency
to genuflect before aristo-dramas makes apolitical fools of many moviegoers.
(Fox has even mounted an ad campaign for the ludicrous Quills that appeals
to people who are suckers for costume dramas.) But Davies’ idiosyncratic
grasp of romantic tragedy will be hard to misread as innocuous. Both the politics
and emotions in The House of Mirth are stinging, with a delicately hammered
intensity. His final great tableau puts the blood back in John Singer Sargent.
"The Past Recaptured:
The Cinema of Terence Davies" runs Dec. 29-Jan. 4 at the Film Society of
Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater, 165 W. 65th St. (B’way), 875-5600.