The House of Mirth
ften we watch a Hou Hsiao-hsien film as if it was Jerry Bruckheimer product. Maybe The Wedding Crashers has more in common with Preston Sturges than audiences thought. Thanks to the relative ease with which the modern consumer can attain a restored older film or once out-of-print foreign film, A Second Take allows a writer to describe why a film was overrated or overlooked the first time. We do not expect our readers to agree, which is precisely the point: consensus occludes independent thinking.
A beautiful woman who cannot machinate is without use to a high society as fluid as New York’s in 1904. When, thanks to ambitious parvenus, even the terms under which this society operates are open to revision, the failure of a Lily Bart to cement a position seems doubly unfortunate. The heroine of Edith Wharton’s novel and Terence Davies’ film has considerable gifts: beauty, yes, but also a penchant for danger unborn of calculation; intelligence, certainly, but unsullied by the urge to fetishize the acquisition of dusty volumes of Americana which is really a quiet example of social climbing on the part of her would-be suitors Lawrence Selden and Percy Gryce; hungry for a stable income beyond the handouts of a sanctimonious aunt, sure, but lacking the ruthlessness of her silent enemy Bertha Dorset, whose bland smile is a weapon, equally deadly when encouraging a lover, silencing a husband, or destroying what remains of Lily’s standing.
That The House of Mirth preserves the implacability of its source material is impressive; but that it dusks the hues of Wharton’s characters by freezing their minutely calibrated gradations in scenes as static any in Hou Hsiao-hsien is an achievement that hasn’t been stressed often enough. The baffled reviews with which the film was greeted upon its original release mirrored how Wharton’s novels were evaluated. Dismissed for too long as a female Henry James, the authoress of an arctic, corseted masterpiece every high school student dreads reading (Ethan Frome), Wharton in fact had little in common with the Master. Actually, she was never feebler than when attempting psychological acuity; her specialty was the witticism—direct, acidic, and indelible—which when there were enough of them turned first into bricks and then a mausoleum in which her unhappy characters were entombed (her novels were about as subtle as a riding crop). Thus, Selden on Lily: “He had a confused sense that she must have cost a great deal to make, that a great many dull and ugly people must, in some mysterious way, have been sacrificed to produce her.” Creating grotesques with impeccable manners delighted Wharton, and Davies’ film is filled with them: an aquarium in which moray eels, barracudas, and sharks gobble uncomprehending minnows.
Perfecting the transition from skepticism to quiet horror on The X-Files makes Gillian Anderson the ideal Lily. If The House of Mirth still hasn’t gotten the recognition it deserves, blame the chatter over the casting of Anderson. She’s not beautiful exactly—reread Selden’s observation above and you’ll understand why not—but she’s striking, and her talent for doing the wrong thing at the right time enforces the impression that she doesn’t belong in this society. Even Anderson’s voice-coached stiffness works in her favor; it’s as if Lily had had barely enough time to memorize the lines required for a scene she’s nevertheless played a hundred times. The scene in which Lily and Bertha Dorset sun themselves on the latter’s yacht is a study in contrasts: Bertha, listening to a would-be lover read Verlaine in schoolboy French, affects detachment so badly that it’s only a matter of time before the young man will struggle to unsheathe her petticoat; Lily, meanwhile, projects such a convincing stillness (aided in no small part by Davies’ lighting and rare gift for felt life; the pastel-hued sea air looks suffused with dust) that it’s no wonder she intimidates potential suitors.
Wharton would have chuckled heartily at the supporting cast of has-beens and could-have-beens. Eric Stolz, as the lawyer-dilettante Selden, has never put his smug boringness to better use, so that his disinclination to save Lily from her mistakes becomes more repellent as the film progresses. Jodhi May and Elizabeth McGovern shine as, respectively, Lily’s cousin and a dowdy expatriate condescended to by Lily’s friends (the suspicion that they’re reenacting their own stalled Hollywood careers gives their scenes a ghoulish pleasure, especially when Davies has McGovern pronounce, “My dear, the world is vile”). As Gus Trenor, the husband of Lily’s best friend, who wants, ahem, compensation for making Lily some money on the stock market, Dan Aykroyd waddles with porcine self-righteousness. Most impressive is Laura Linney. The scene in which her Bertha Dorset subtly reminds Lily of what’s at stake—before delivering the deathblow at the subsequent dinner party—is the best she’s ever played. The commingling of malice and social niceties was so thorough that I had to walk away from the TV.
Such is the audience’s investment in Lily’s fate, of which there are worse than descending into shabby lower-class gentility—if you’re a man. As for the man behind the camera, a director best known for two memorable, enervated memory pieces, Terence Davies surely understood what was at stake for him: Merchant Ivory-style bric-a-brac, suitable for your Aunt Estelle; or the hyperventilated kinetics of that other recent Wharton adaptation, Scorsese’s compelling misfire The Age of Innocence. Given this, it’s no surprise that his camera is as pitilessly exacting as Wharton’s prose—without its periodic strained attempts at elbow-in-the-ribs nastiness (at her worst she’s like the intelligent town gossip who can’t wait for you to ask about who’s sleeping with whom). Davies’ triumph is the closest American film has come to approaching Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game (and by an English director no less). But consider: America’s elite was nothing like its French equivalent in Balzac, which wasn’t afraid to look and act vulgar. By reflecting exactly how its characters saw themselves—proper and utterly humorless—The House of Mirth’s apt, facile conclusions would have pleased its chuckling, matronly creator.