A Sinking Lily Bart and Her Unforgiving Circle

Terence Davies’ The

House of Mirth , from his own screenplay, based on the novel by Edith

Wharton, is one of several end-of-year releases that has made 2000 a better

movie-going year than anyone could have anticipated at the beginning of

December. The best movies, by and large, remain individualized productions that

seldom zoom into the box-office stratosphere in their first week at the nabes.

With The House of Mirth , Mr. Davies has

achieved that rarity of rarities in movies: an uncompromising chronicle of

social failure by minute miscalculation and a stubborn adherence to principle

at the wrong time. The downfall of Lily Bart (Gillian Anderson) in the New York

high society of the turn of the century cannot be attributed simply to

the cruelty and hypocrisy of her

unforgiving circle, but also to her failure to perceive that she did not have

as strong a hand as she thought she did.

Significantly, her gambling losses at “friendly” bridge (and

with her limited income) should have made her more cautious about the games of

real life in which she engages. The House

of Mirth is more explicit about the role and rule of money than most period

adaptations, and Lily clearly never has enough to be so high and mighty with

her various marital options. Worst of all, she invariably overestimates the

kindness and discretion of the people with whom she makes her dangerous

maneuvers. She is finally undone by the most malicious gossip from one source or

another.

The various men in her life form a gallery of weaklings and

scoundrels. Foremost among the latter is the duplicitous Gus Trenor (Dan

Aykroyd), a married man with adulterous ambitions and a liar and a swindler

besides. Yet Lily deceives herself that she can harmlessly beguile him into

making good investments for her. She is rudely disillusioned when he makes an

unwelcome lunge for her after she has allowed herself to be placed in a

compromising position for all to see. Sim Rosedale (Anthony LaPaglia), a grubby

arriviste in her eyes, is kept

dangling with his offer of marriage until Lily decides to accept in

desperation, only to be told that it is too late inasmuch as she no longer

offers him a reputable entree into high society. The very wealthy, eligible but

dull suitor George Dorest (Terry Kinney) is so rudely rebuffed that he falls

into the arms and clutches of Bertha (Laura Linney), Lily’s deadliest enemy,

who helps engineer her final disgrace after posing as her friend. Lily’s

meek-seeming cousin, Grace Stepney (Jodhi May), poisons the mind of their aunt,

Mrs. Peniston (Eleanor Bron), against her to the point that Lily is virtually

disinherited. Lawrence Selden (Eric Stoltz), the one true love of her life,

fails her at every juncture, until futile remorse seizes him at the end.

The casting of Ms. Anderson as Lily has been criticized in

many quarters, partly because the television show which discovered her, The X-Files , is perceived as too vulgar

a launching pad for an art-house career. Yet whatever reservations one might

have about Ms. Anderson’s early scenes of coquetry-and I have none-her final

scenes of falling outside the society in which she once belonged are as

harrowing and overpowering as anything I have seen this year. Indeed, Ms.

Anderson soars as an actress as Lily sinks as a character. As I ponder the

lasting impact of Lily’s fatal descent from social grace, I can’t help feeling

that the end is preordained from the beginning, and that this is Mr. Davies’

greatest achievement in his adaptation of a dense and complex novel. As Louis

Auchincloss says of Lily in his afterword to the novel: “When we first see her,

through Selden’s eyes in Grand Central Station, she is beginning to lose her

purity of tint after 11 years of late hours and dancing, yet everything about

her is still ‘rigorous and exquisite, at once strong and fine.'”

Unlike Martin Scorsese and Jay Cocks in their adaptation of

Wharton’s The Age of Innocence , Mr.

Davies declines to employ narration as a net to harvest novelistic nuances.

This is not to say that narration per se is always ill-advised, or that

non-narration is necessarily preferable. In this instance, the two stories are

very different: Innocence ending with

despair, Mirth with defeat; Innocence with waste, Mirth with loss; Innocence with pathos and poignancy, Mirth with tragedy and catharsis. If I give a slight edge to Mirth , it is because I find Ms.

Anderson’s Lily Bart appropriately forceful and outgoing, whereas Michelle

Pfeiffer’s Countess Olenska strikes me as too passively narcissistic in a role

that calls for more boldness and vivacity. Still, all in all, the ghost of

Wharton must be more pleased with her recent film adaptations than one can

presume for the ghosts of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway.

A Korean Romeo and Juliet

Im Kwon-Taek’s Chunhyang , from a screenplay by Kim

Myoung Kon, is reportedly the 97th film directed by Mr. Kwon-Taek in a close to

40-year career. This suggests how little we know about one of the most prolific

and perhaps prodigious film industries in the world. Chunhyang is a stylized retelling of an ancient Korean epic love

story. Mr. Kwon-Taek has integrated his narrative with the ancient operatic

tradition of pansori -an

audience-arousing art form combining dance, music and song, all punctuated by

the rhythmic beating of a gong-like drum.

At first, the single pansori

singer seems to be addressing us through the camera, but as the film progresses

he is seen facing a theater audience as if he is telling the story without any

filmic accompaniment. At other times, he serves as an off-screen narrator of

actions in medium- and long-shot that do not lend themselves to on-screen

dialogue. The resultant varieties of perspective create layers of irony for the

simple story.

Chunhyang (Yi Hyo-jeong)

is a beautiful and virginal 16-year-old courtesan’s daughter who catches the

eye of Mongryong (Cho Seung-woo), the young son of the provincial governor.

Despite the disparity in their social rank, Mongryong secretly marries

Chunhyang and happily initiates her into the secrets of the flesh. There ensues

a brief idyll of carefree love-making, expressed with an interestingly

unabashed sensuality from an ethnographic point of view-which is to say that

the Korean cinema is less repressed than the Iranian and even the Chinese

cinemas, though the Koreans have had their share of censorship problems.

One day word comes that

Mongryong is being summoned to Seoul to complete his education and join his

father, who has been promoted to a post as one of the king’s advisers.

Mongryong promises Chunhyang that he will return to her when he completes his

studies, but she is inconsolable nonetheless, clinging shamelessly to him as he

rides away slowly on a small horse until she can cling no more.

When a new governor is

installed, he orders Chunhyang to become his concubine, and when she refuses,

he has her imprisoned and tortured. Her resistance to an unjust ruler is

celebrated throughout the countryside by the oppressed farmers, who see her as

a symbol of freedom and the crossing of class barriers. Meanwhile,

Mongryong-having completed his studies with distinction-is appointed by the

king to inspect the governance of his home province. The spectacle is virtually

miniaturized to accommodate the operatic tradition of the pansori , and the characters are imbued with a charming folk

innocence rendered in terms of Capraesque populism and Christ-like

suffering on the part of Chunhyang, a Mizoguchian

heroine created by another woman-oriented Asian director.

On the Set of Nosferatu

E. Elias Merhige’s Shadow of the Vampire , from a screenplay

by Steven Katz, constitutes a curious tribute to F.W. Murnau (1888-1931), whom

some of us regard as the greatest director of all time, though not necessarily

because he made Nosferatu (1922), the

first vampire movie. Mr. Merhige and Mr. Katz go Murnau one better by making

Max Schreck, the obscure and weird-looking actor who played the title role, a

real vampire.

John Malkovich plays Murnau as a fanatical filmmaker who

won’t let a little thing like life-threatening blood-sucking on and off the set

interfere with his shoot. But top acting honors go to the uncanny Willem Dafoe,

who squirts all the juice out of the outrageous role of the revamped Schreck at

both the cast and the audience. The rest of the players include Udo Kier as

Albin Grau, the film’s producer; Cary Elwes as Fritz Wagner, the second

cameraman; Catherine McCormack as Greta Schroeder, the leading lady; Eddie

Izzard as Gustav von Wangenheim, the leading man; John Aden Gillett as Henrick Galeen,

the screenwriter; and Ronan Vibert as Wolfgang Muller, the first cameraman, who

becomes indisposed from a mysterious case of anemia.

With Schreck capable of devouring the entire cast and

crew-and quite willing to do so-Murnau desperately tries to finish the film

before he runs out of co-workers. The shoot must go on, and all that.