By Graham Fuller
Terence Davies' glorious adaptation of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth is one of the year's best films. How does it fit together with the British director's previous autobiographical films? Graham Fuller sets the stage.
The tableau vivant in which Lily Bart (Gillian Anderson) advertises her beauty and her marriageability in Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth must have seemed like nectar to Terence Davies when he wrote his adaptation. Davies, after all, is the acknowledged master of tableau that, framed and arranged with adroit self-consciousness, memorializes a fragment in time as it passes, or as it is perceived.
He came to Wharton’s novel having never previously directed a film with a linear story. Children (74), Madonna and Child (80), and Death and Transfiguration (83), which comprise The Terence Davies Trilogy, are a concatenation of austere moments distilled from the excruciatingly painful life of a shy, gay Liverpudlian Catholic called Tucker. That semi-autobiographical work was allowed by an unofficial triptych, Distant Voices, Still Lives (86-89), which was shot in two parts, and The Long Day Closes (92). These are composed, almost synesthetic films that make formal ? and exquisite ? use of juxtaposed tableaux to capture the truths, both painful and fond, of Davies’ childhood.
The Neon Bible (95), adapted from John Kennedy Toole’s novel about a passive youth brought up by his ailing mother and chanteuse aunt in the American Bible Belt, wedded, not altogether successfully, more conventional storytelling techniques with Davies’ mosaic approach. "I think it was a transitional work," he said recently, "because it came mostly from the book and yet it was a bit autobiographical, too. Because it was about the nature of time and memory, it was close to my heart, but a lot of people said it was just more autobiography, but poorly disguised. I thought that was a bit harsh. I accept that the film was a failure, although I think there are good things in it. But there's no way anyone can say The House of Mirth is autobiographical, because I wasn't even alive during the belle époque.
"It's the first work that's different from everything else I've done. Obviously it doesn't have the same kind of passion you have when you're dealing with things you've actually gone through or that the people that you grew up with and loved went through. It's replaced by a different sort of passion, the passion of re-creating the world that you see in the book. If you don't have that passion then there's no point in putting any film through a camera.
"Also," he added, "I wanted to prove that I could write a linear narrative in which you seed things that pay off. As far as adaptation goes, what you do is take the elements of the book that you believe in ? and I believed nine-tenths of it ? and as the seeds begin to grow, you find that the sequential narrative has its own dynamic. I think I've pulled it off, though some people think I haven't."
Chatty, self-deprecating, and courteous, the 55-year-old Davies doesn't get any more analytical than this about his methods. "I don't think anybody can be conscious of their style," he said. "Something just feels right when you look through the camera and frame it. The only time I'm conscious of it is when I go and see other people's films and find there's a great deal wanting in it. I mean, I look at The Age of Innocence, which I do think is a masterpiece, and I think, God, I’ll never achieve that."
Davies’ refusal or inability to intellectualize his approach is unusual given the rigorous specificity and painterly consistency of his mise-en-scène. He is no cerebral Perer Greenaway or Hal Hartley, and he is unlikely to name-drop Ozu or Bresson (he is a fan of both), though he will offer unfashionable opinions, about the "tediousness" of the Beatles or the "plainness" of Marlene Dietrich (in the context of Josef von Sternberg’s superior lighting). This reminds us that Davies’ sensibility was forged before pop culture, and that he is an auteur of nothing if not the past.
"I've tried to write contemporary things," he said, "but they don't seem to come off. I don't see the past as a foreign country, I don't see it as having gone. I see it very much as a part of the present and future ? which is something I get from T.S. Eliot’s The Four Quartets. The past, to me, is so rich, but I don't find modern life that rich because you can say and do anything now, which kills subtlety and imagination. I genuinely don't understand the modern world, whereas the past is both strange and intensely familiar to me."
Although, as Davies said, he could not be accused od drawing on The House of Mirth as he did The Neon Bible for autobiographical resonances, autobiography will out. He does admit that Lily's social ostracism mirrored his own feelings of alienation, a theme in all of his films.
"I suppose the thing that warmed me to Lily," he said, "is that I feel like an outsider. Even though I'm the youngest of ten children and loved my mother, especially, and my sisters and brothers very much, I still felt as though I was looking in on something. And that was exacerbated by the fact that I then discovered in puberty that I am gay and hated it ? I will go to my grave hating it. And then I grew up listening to my family talk about the way my father had treated us, and so I became actively passive, someone who was always observing. I've never felt I had the key socially in the way that other people have it."
So it is with Tucker, Bud of The Long Day Closes, and David of The Neon Bible. Lily, of course, is a social success, but she loses the key when she compromises herself financially with Gus Trenor (Dan Aykroyd) while failing to land a rich husband. All of these protagonists are also linked by their fatal passivity (which also inflicts Lawrence Selden in The House of Mirth) and the notion of them as hapless protagonists in an observed drama. There is always, in Davies’ cinema, the sense that someone is creating the image and/or watching it. This is a function of the director's use of tableaux, frames-within-frames, meditative camera movements, and lingering close-ups of such objects as a piece of carpet on which the light dances (The Long Day Closes) or a sheet on a washing line (The Neon Bible). It is a confessional cinema ? and a cinema of ultimate intimacy.
While that observational quality is sustained in The House of Mirth, Davies liberates it from self-consciousness. He uses his camera here to describe Lily's social entrapment. Compressed and airless, except during the bravura sequence that, through a series of pans, Steadicam shots, and ominous dissolves, delivers Lily to the scene of her humiliation by Bertha Dorset (played with Machiavellian relish by Laura Linney) in Monte Carlo, the film is an homage to claustrophobia. Whereas Scorses showed an unironic Visconti-like appreciation for plush decor in The Age of Innocence, Davies sees it as the background to a baleful turn-of-the-century melodrama. (William Wyler’s 1953 Carrie is the obvious analogue.) Lily’s glorious, self-defeating tableau literally enfolds her in the embrace of all the pointless elegance.
Davies artfully changed the theme of Lily's tableau. In the novel, she appears as the subject of "Mrs. Lloyd," one of Reynolds’ society portraits. "She had shown her artistic intelligence in selecting a type so like her own that she embody the person represented without ceasing to be herself," writes Wharton. "It was as though she had stepped, not out of, but into, Reynolds’ canvas, banishing the phantom of his dead beauty by the beams of her living grace." Davies, instead, shows Lily as "Summer," the Rococo painter Watteau’s sensual evocation of that season as a languid nymph who has bared her shoulders and casually parted her legs beneath her shimmering pastel pink gown, and who holds, in her left hand a small scythe that is turned inward, toward her body. A youth at her side has gathered in a sheaf of wheat. It is an image of fecundity fulfilled, but with a warning of summer's evanescence.
When, in the film, a flunky opens the curtains on Lily clad as "Summer" as the tableau is announced, we see her arranged exactly as Watteau’s figure, though alone and clutching a frighteningly large scythe. I don't want to be fanciful, but there is an element of self-laceration in Lily's charade that is not only prophetic but turns the scythe into a symbol, although Lily's "Summer," unlike Watteau’s, will remain unreaped. She will die a virgin, the "beams of her living grace" doomed to fall on stony ground. Her initial expression of self-absorption gives way to the faintest of narcissistic smirks, before Davies cut to two highly impressed figures standing at the front of the oohing crowd: her admirer, Selden (Eric Stoltz) and her cousin, Grace Stepney (Jodhi May). We next see Lily objectified, from their POV, as she drops her eyelids in fake modesty, before Davies cut again to Selden and the vapid Grace. Though in love with Selden, like Lily herself, and jealous of her sex appeal, Grace observes she as never seen her looking more radiant, a compliment she then snidely qualifies.
Selden, a lawyer whose comparative impecuniousness has led him to assume, wrongly, that Lily is unavailable to him, receives Grace’s opinion ruefully, but then tellingly remarks, "She has in it her to be whatever she is believed to be. We must think the best of her." Wharton then has Lily indelicately lapping up praise from other male members of the party, but Davies, who has already shown her being harassed by Trenor and Rosedale (Anthony LaPaglia) at this party, cuts to Lily and Selden strolling arm-in-arm to a bench in the garden where, beneath Chinese lanterns, he fastidiously rebukes her for surrounding herself with admirers. He also kisses her for the second time in the film ? it's a kiss bittersweetly prolonged by the knowledge they share that their love is to remain unconsummated, yet it is also as decorous as a stage kiss.
Selden’s comment on Lily recognizes a mutability in her for which he feigns approval but transparently finds disgusting, because, in his perception, it (sexually) excludes him from her ring of monied admirers. In fact, given her love for him, revealed in the lantern-lit scene when she pleads for him to help her, Selden brings about the same kind of Oedipal capitulation with which Newland Archer thwarts his own desire in Wharton’s The Age of Innocence.
"She has it in her to be whatever she is believed to be." With emphasis on "believed," this line ? provided by Davies ? gets to the core of the notion that Lily is a sublime actress in the theatricalized New York society of the early 1900s, yet it contains special ironies. Trenor and Rosedale want to make her a kept woman, a role she could easily play but is too principled to accept. The role Lily covets ? Selden’s wife ? is the one she blindly refuses. Fortunately, Davies provides enough scenes of Lily and Selden fighting off their passion for each other to enable us to enjoy the Titian-like harmony of Anderson and Stoltz.
Davies’ facility for teasing out the maximum emotion from charged situations involving sexually or socially repressed protagonists is perfected in these scenes, as it has been throughout his career. So, too, is the play with theatrical layering that is also germane to Wharton’s novel and makes author and filmmaker such a fine fit. In readying herself for her caustic analysis of destructive "society of irresponsible pleasure-seekers," Wharton found that "what began to press on her imagination," as biographer R.W.B. Lewis has written, "as the permeating ... quality of the mirth-loving society was its theatricality."
Lewis has further remarked that The House of Mirth is "exceedingly cinematic," a formulation bolstered by a 1981 PBS dramatization of the novel. In particular, in one scene the camera literalizes Lily's impressions of her fellow diners at Bellomonet, the Trenors’ country house, as grotesque animals ? a sequence incidentally echoed in Neil Jordans The Company of Wolves. The novel, meanwhile, consistently deconstructs social occasions as scenes in which all the characters are actors, save Selden, who sees through their hypocrisy and malice but whose voyeurism renders him as impotent an onlooker as the adolescent Bud in The Long Day Closes. His afternoon in the Bellomont woods with Lily leaves him full of "admiring spectatorship." His attitude to the tableaux vivants is such that "he could yield to vision-making influences as completely as a child to the spell of a fairytale" ? of which The House of Mirth is an acerbic adult version. Yet he is unable to yield to the flesh-and-blood Lily, and his detachment, which has the effect on Lily of "readjusting her vision," renders them both spectators of rather than participants in their unrealized romance: "Selden and Lily stood still, accepting the unreality of the scene as a part of their own dream-like sensations."
Accordingly, Selden and Lily never get beyond acting out their designated roles in the film, as when Lily risks her reputation by taking tea in Selden’s flat and they indulge in mannered flirting full of Pinteresque dialogue ("Do you collect Americana?"), when they trade wisps of Sternbergiancigarette smoke, or when they kiss in the stone arbor. Their theatricalized hesitancy is not a construct imposed by Davies but a result of both the confining social imperatives of their age and their emotional cowardice. Although Wharton wrote The House of Mirth as a critique of social exclusion, the movie lays bare the characters’ psychological flaws. Selden, of course, is not so discreet that he will not sleep with a married woman ? Lily's nemesis, the sexually rapacious Bertha ? yet, when it comes to love, he is as emasculate as Tucker. As for Lily, she is a naive woman who has bought into the myth of her own feminine beauty, which, by the end of the film, has palpably passed its sell-by date. "Summer" is over...
Davies balked at my suggestion that he had been interested in Wharton’s theatrical layering. "I've never seen what I do as theatrical," he said. "And when people have described it that way, I've always been a bit miffed. To some people it does look staged, but I see it as naturalistic." Fair enough. It is not that Lily and Selden and their friends and enemies are theatrical in the pejoratively rhetorical sense, however, but in the scene that they are actors trapped in a tragedy of their own making, as Edith Wharton wrote them. In fact, in its heightened authenticity, The House of Mirth actually outdoes The Long Day Closes as an example of what film critic Raymond Durgnat describes as Davies’ "especially delicate realism" ? which, if not quite a paradigm shift, indicates as a subtle evolution in the director's beguiling blend of form and content.
Graham Fuller is film columnist for Interview and an editor at the Daily News.