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
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
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
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.