Spite Club

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

As he does so often, Davies invokes his impoverished Liverpool childhood (born in 1945, he was the youngest of seven children), which he serenely memorialized in The Long Day Closes. "I look back to a period in my life between age seven and 11, when I was ecstatically happy all the time. I could never re-create that. We were a large, working-class family living in a slum, we had nothing, but we had each other, and we had a community. My sister had an American boyfriend, a seaman, and to have an American boyfriend back in the early '50s was just the most wonderful thing in the world. And I remember, he came down the street in a white suit, and he was horrified by the way we lived. He thought it was Dickensian. Well, it was. But the rapture of being alive, of discovering the world every day, of being taken to the movies all the time, I mean, it was a state of permanent ecstasy. In a way, that comes from naïveté, but I rue the loss of that. I knew the conditions were pretty bad, but emotionally that's not what you remember."

Loss and recollection suffuse Davies's bleak, beautiful films like predawn light. (All of Davies's films previous to The House of Mirth will screen during the Walter Reade's retrospective December 29 through January 4.) Searing memories of his abusive, alcoholic father, an odd-jobs man who died when Terence was seven, provided the rumbling bedrock of his first feature, Distant Voices, Still Lives.

"No matter how old you get, you want your family to be proud of you. It was very traumatic to show them Distant Voices because half of them thought it shouldn't have been made. The way my family came to terms with their history was they talked about it, and my way is simply more public.

"But I realized one day last year that I don't hate my father anymore—I don't forgive him, either. It was a true relief. I think it's possible because having my mum die three years ago—and having lost two of my brothers as well—it profoundly changes you. Because you slowly realize they are gone, and it is terrifying. We spoke every day. At six o'clock, my mum would pick up the phone or I would ring her. For the first year after her death I kept wanting to pick up the phone at six o'clock. And I think I have been going through a profound change these last three years, because before that—talk about a delayed adolescence."

In 1960, at 15, Davies left school, where he had been beaten and terrorized by bullies for years, and took a job as an accountant; he worked for 12 years in a Liverpool office across the street from the Cavern Club of pre-Beatlemania fame, but never went inside its doors. (Davies's relationship to popular culture is endearingly bipolar: Though The Long Day Closes nibbles on snatches of pop songs and snippets of movie dialogue like madeleines, he can't remember the last current-release film that he's seen, and had never heard of The X-Files before casting Anderson in his film—in fact, he still hasn't seen a single episode. Meanwhile, an interview question about The House of Mirth's present-day resonances gives rise to an impassioned rant on the evils of Robbie Williams.) After acting in amateur theater productions for years, he entered drama school in 1973, where he wrote the script for Children, his first short film.

His early work was characterized by its elliptical dreaminess, naturalist performances, and always, the beatific use of natural light. Reviewers were hard-pressed to locate his cinematic forerunners; artists who came to mind were Rembrandt, Joseph Cornell, Edward Hopper, and, of course, Proust. A few writers invoked tableau vivant—a medium, coincidentally or not, that provides for a crucial scene in The House of Mirth—to describe Distant Voices, Still Lives. Davies counters, "I never saw my early films as tableaux. It was only afterwards that someone said, 'Oh, these are like snapshots come to life,' but I thought, 'No, because we didn't have a camera!' We couldn't afford one. There was one Box Brownie on the entire street, and if you wanted to take a photograph you had to knock on their door and ask could you borrow it. The images were just the way I saw it in my mind. I think the nature of memory is also peculiar—moving through memories that trigger other memories that may not have a direct narrative link, but they have an emotional link."

Perhaps the most blissful marriage of Davies's painterly instincts and his recent movements toward linear storytelling (begun with his ill-received Cinemascope adaptation of John Kennedy Toole's The Neon Bible in 1995) is the film's transition from New York to Monte Carlo, a gorgeous intermezzo in which the camera glides from rain upon a cobbled path to sun spilling on the azure Mediterranean, scored to an angelic Mozart trio. "You've heard quite a lot of talk, so I wanted a moment where you look. I had to mirror what Lily is feeling, the hope for a new beginning." His efforts were lost on the Cannes selection committee (which, confoundingly, rejected The House of Mirth), but not on the family members who accompanied Davies to the Edinburgh Film Festival for its premiere. "One of my sisters and one sister-in-law went up with me and saw it and they were terribly proud, they said it was like a real MGM moo-vay," he says.

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