Spite Club

Terence Davies on the Cruel Inventions of ‘The House of Mirth’

Terence Davies's flawlessly measured, immensely moving adaptation of The House of Mirth depicts a world at once luxurious and forbidding, visually sumptuous but cold to the touch. In Edith Wharton's bitterly satiric tragedy, set among the elite ranks of 1905 New York, marriages are often no more than blatant business arrangements, and the unwritten rules of decorous conduct are as rigidly enforced as blood contracts. "These people are savages," says the Liverpool-born, London-based Davies. "The levels of cruelty, the levels of hypocrisy, are staggering. There's something chilling about people doing horrible things with politeness and courtesy."

Best known for his autobiographical, radiantly melancholic films Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) and The Long Day Closes (1992), Davies first became interested in filming The House of Mirth 15 years ago, when he heard an actress on BBC radio reading Wharton's letters to Henry James. (It was James who famously implored Wharton to "do New York!"—a suggestion that arguably led to her first great novel.) "When The House of Mirth was written, America was becoming the dominant world power, which the First World War confirmed," says Davies in his gentle, heavily italicized singsong. "You would have expected American society—even moneyed society—to be more flexible. Yet it was infinitely more rigid than anything in Europe or Britain. When Edith Wharton went to England, she was introduced to society as 'Mrs. Wharton who writes.' No one in American society would mention that she wrote, because it was considered vulgar. Well-bred women did not work for a living, and they did not write. You were required to be decorative and reproductive." Davies identifies these met expectations in John Singer Sargent's portraits of upper-crust dames: "When you look at one of his women, you see a gaze of absolute security in who she is and her wealth and her superior position. His women are thin, dry, and moneyed."

Wharton once wrote that "a frivolous society can acquire significance through what its frivolity destroys." The House of Mirth's idle fellowship achieves its terrible significance by its treatment of the charming, beautiful, and underfinanced Lily Bart (Gillian Anderson), who hasn't found a wealthy husband by the advanced age of 29, and only loves the ironical and decidedly unmoneyed Lawrence Selden (Eric Stoltz). Davies's script is largely faithful to the novel, with a few economical elisions and a subtle reshaping of Simon Rosedale (Anthony LaPaglia), a baldly ambitious social climber and thwarted suitor of Lily's, whose portrayal in the novel is tainted by bigotry (though some Wharton scholars would disagree). "I couldn't bear to write those lines that are anti-Semitic," Davies explains. "The important thing was that Rosedale is not socially acceptable. He's not even nouveau riche; he's a self-made man. But people come up to me and say, 'He's Jewish, isn't he?' and I say, 'Well, yeah.' He's also the only truthful character. And at the end, he's the only one who gives Lily true compassion, completely altruistically, with no hidden agenda."

Shot in Glasgow, Scotland, on a tight budget, the film is very much a chamber piece, furnished according to interior photographs of the era ("I found that the rich houses were littered with all this incredibly expensive junk, positively suffocated by it"), but illuminated by Vermeer, Davies's favorite painter. "He was the first to paint his subjects through a camera obscura, which is almost like early cinema," says Davies. "What I love is the ravishing use of light falling through a window upon a subject." The director sees Lily's story as a forerunner of "the so-called women's picture that was very popular in the '50s," perhaps epitomized by Douglas Sirk's melodramas. "They are utter tripe, yet devastating. When the ending is fulfilled, we feel replete, because though we knew this was the inevitable outcome, we did not want it to be so."

Another touchstone was Max Ophüls's own tragic ode to a romantic heroine, Letter From an Unknown Woman, starring the sylphlike young Joan Fontaine. "The film begins with the letter: 'By the time you read this, I shall be dead.' My god, what an opening!" Davies enthuses. "Because we haven't even seen the heroine yet, but we know that she's doomed." The House of Mirth's sensuous attention to reflecting surfaces—marble mantels, mirrors, train-car windows spackled with late-afternoon sun—stems from Ophüls as well. "When [Fontaine] first goes into his apartment—it's all glass, etched glass and looking glass, the surface of the piano that is almost glasslike. She opens the door and he sees her, for the first time, through glass. It's forbidding and yet there's something so incredibly erotic about it."

Agonizing and meaningless though Lily Bart's fate may be, neither in the novel nor the film is she a simple martyr to an immoral society—a society in which she desperately wants a secure place, but one which, at heart, she seems to abhor. "It's only by going through that journey and realizing her own integrity and morality that she realizes that her world was false, but still, she is horrified by what she has lost," Davies says. "Because we all are. It is the human condition to mourn."

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