Spite Club

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

Edith Wharton's hawk-eyed panorama of the American vanity fair is far-removed from Davies's painfully personal attempts to come to terms with his past, as is Lily Bart's dangerous clique from the wonderful, terrible streets of postwar Liverpool. Lily's blameless humiliation, however, is of a piece with many of the abused women and children in Davies's films. "My view of life is essentially stoic, because I grew up with a violent father, I was beaten at school, I left school and realized I was gay—and in England that was illegal until 1967, so you were a criminal. So I have always just felt that you have to endure, and make the best of it. But that's being altered now slightly by a feeling of . . . not despair, but a disillusionment with the arbitrariness of everything. You then realize that suffering doesn't mean anything, and very often it doesn't make you a better person. It makes some people more compassionate, but others, it just makes them harder."

In person, Davies is an elfin, avuncular presence, voluble and eloquent, quick both to laughter and tears. But on the set, he's a stubborn perfectionist, not least with actors. Eric Stoltz, with fond indulgence, has said that Davies "doesn't so much direct as conduct." The maestro responds, "I know I'm rigorous, and I know what I want. I can tell an insincere gesture or an underfelt line like that. For me, direction is performative. I see myself as every single character, and I see myself as brilliant as every single character. I'm a terrific Lily." Do actors ever chafe at the tight directorial constraints? "Some actors will do that at auditions, and those auditions are stopped."

As Davies himself is the first to admit, however, he is exceedingly softhearted, and perilously thin-skinned. "My life is terror, perpetual terror. There's going to be a dinner for the film tonight, and I've been worried about it all day—what if I sit next to somebody I don't know, what if I've got nothing to say. When I think of people being feted, I think of big names—Martin Scorsese, people who are huge." (Scorsese, of course, mounted another Edith Wharton film, 1993's The Age of Innocence, for which Davies has "deep admiration.") "And I'm not huge. It's not false modesty—I don't feel it. And when people see my work and tell me they love it, I'm truly amazed, because it was made with such modest intentions. But it doesn't ease the difficulty of having to cope with that terror on a daily basis."

"It is the human condition to mourn."
photo: Robin Holland
"It is the human condition to mourn."

His day-to-day business for now consists of "reading, sleeping, and traveling," and he has no future projects in the pipeline. For years, he has spoken of developing an original screenplay called Vile Bodies (no relation to Evelyn Waugh), "a kind of gay film noir, but it is a very dark story, and I can't imagine any name actor wanting to play an art dealer who's into s&m. I haven't looked at the script in a very long time." He sighs in half-joking despair. "I'm hopeless, utterly hopeless. I've always done four, five, six years between films, and I cannot afford to go on that way, because I'm certainly not rich. I'm sick of struggling from one set of debts to another—that's just getting me down; I'm tired of it. It would be wonderful to be a journeyman director who could go from any old thing to another, but I don't have the talent for that. I wish I did."

Plus: Dennis Lim's interview with The House of Mirth's Gillian Anderson.

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