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 societyeven moneyed societyto 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 surfacesmarble mantels, mirrors, train-car windows spackled with late-afternoon sunstems from Ophüls as well. "When [Fontaine] first goes into his apartmentit'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 societya 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."
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 anymoreI don't forgive him, either. It was a true relief. I think it's possible because having my mum die three years agoand having lost two of my brothers as wellit 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 thattalk 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 filmin 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 vivanta medium, coincidentally or not, that provides for a crucial scene in The House of Mirthto 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 peculiarmoving 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.
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 gayand 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 daywhat 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 namesMartin 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 modestyI 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."
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 anotherthat'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.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.