“It is possible for a writer to make, or remake at least, for a reader, the primary pleasures of eating, or drinking, or looking on, or sex,” A.S. Byatt’s narrator observes in Possession. But novels “do not habitually elaborate on the equally intense pleasure of reading.” That, of course, is the self-reflexive subject of Byatt’s celebrated literary mystery—in which, thanks to a series of purloined letters, a dotty pair of English academics discover a hitherto unknown love affair between two Victorian poets, the Robert Browning-like Randolph Henry Ash and Christina Rossetti-esque Christabel LaMotte.
Shuttling back and forth betwixt the centuries, Byatt’s novel not only involves lengthy missives but actual poems, tales, and other texts (all written by Byatt) to be savored and decoded by two increasingly obsessive scholars, glam feminist Maud Bailey and post-doctoral drone Roland Michell. Which is to say, Byatt’s Possession is, by and large, a leisurely assemblage of exquisitely detailed period pastiches offered up for the delectation of the amazed reader. Montage and parallel action may be inherently cinematic devices, but literary as it is, such a novel is essentially unadaptable to the screen—save in the most rigorous Straub-Huillet or reductive Merchant-Ivory terms. Neil LaBute opts for something closer to the latter.
In the Company of Men and Your Friends and Neighbors, as well as the plays Bash and especially last year’s The Shape of Things, established LaBute as a delicately brutal purveyor of anti-romantic bedroom comedy (or is that cruelty?)—an artist at once austere and lascivious, punitive yet provocative. Does the maestro of mean sex have something to prove? Directed from someone else’s script, his Nurse Betty was an intelligent, exceedingly credible, almost feel-good entertainment. Possession represents another sort of self-effacement. It demonstrates that, given material of sufficient delicacy, LaBute can crochet a cinematic doily fit for the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow.
As reconfigured for the screen, Maud (Paltrow) and Roland (LaBute axiom Aaron Eckhart) are necessarily less eccentric—not to mention less nerdy—than in the novel. Still, Possession is a movie about academics in love. Maud and Roland break all the rules in ransacking libraries and researching manuscripts; panting eagerly for new revelations concerning Ash’s chaste marriage or the fate of Christabel’s jealous longtime companion, they are no less ardent than the grappling adulterers of an Adrian Lyne film. For Byatt, this moist and breathless enthusiasm is poignant and amusing, hence the bodice-ripper title. LaBute takes the notion somewhat more literally—subsuming, or perhaps desublimating, the odd couple’s light-fingered literary adventurism in a more conventional romance that is hampered by the lack of Paltrow-Eckhart chemistry.
In the novel, Maud and Roland’s grave-robbing academic rivals are rich, idiotic Americans. LaBute upsets that particular symmetry by making Roland an American abroad. (Paltrow, of course, plays Maud as British.) Both within and outside the narrative, Eckhart serves as a constant source of irritation. His big cleft chin perpetually unshaven and deep-set beady eyes scanning the set for obstacles, he looks more like a dissolute tight end than an oppressed research assistant. Thus the director inserts an insecure surrogate into the twittery proceedings—although, to judge from his press, LaBute must be the most highly regarded American playwright in London.
In its own generic realm of period adaptation, the movie is less sentimental than cheerfully bucolic, not so much genteel as blandly picturesque—although the obtrusive score and sluggish flow do combine for an unpleasant treacle effect. But then Possession, which was optioned by Paula Weinstein over a decade ago and credits two writers besides LaBute, is a producer’s movie at heart. LaBute’s usually cold-eyed direction is here coolly impersonal; his scenario is genially meandering as opposed to aggressively formalist. The structure is fluid, but never startling. The situation’s perversity is muted while the touching final revelation is grossly overplayed.
LaBute is a demonstrably gifted director of actors, for whom he can provide whiplash dialogue, yet none of the performances in Possession are very much fun. There are plenty of supercilious Brits—with Paltrow’s Maud the most supercilious of them all. A suave ironist in Gosford Park and Enigma, Jeremy Northam seems unmoored in the more romantic role of Randolph Henry Ash. Perhaps he’s been hypnotized by the round-faced, green-cloaked poetess Jennifer Ehle, whose gracious smile and wide-eyed twinkle as Christabel LaMotte have the uncanny animation of a young girl’s favorite doll come to life.
In short, Possession suffers from insufficient nastiness. Everyone, save the designated villains and professionally obnoxious Eckhart, is altogether too dear. I’d like to credit LaBute for the few zingers glimmering in the chitchat haze, but even these are disappointingly faint. Perhaps Maud’s characterization of Ash as a “softcore misogynist” is the director’s way of winking at himself.
Like Possession, Manoel de Oliveira’s I’m Going Home is a highly literary—or, at least, a highly intertextual—work, as well as an uncharacteristic one. Included in the last New York Film Festival, it shows the 93-year-old Portuguese master in a surprisingly humanist mode. Indeed, the story of an aging actor’s bereavement may be as close as Oliveira has come to making a commercial movie.
A rueful hurdy-gurdy provides the recurring theme. I’m Going Home opens with Gilbert Valence (Michel Piccoli) onstage, more whining about than raging against the dying light as the title character in Eugène Ionesco’s absurdist intimation of mortality, Exit the King. This raggedy production is the first of the movie’s three lengthy quotations. (Oliveira also alludes to his own films by employing a number of performers familiar from his previous work; Catherine Deneuve and John Malkovich both appeared in Oliveira’s 1995 comedy of academic obsession, The Convent.) Oliveira’s staging is more avant-garde than the play’s; he willfully contrives to have Piccoli turned away from the camera. Something is happening backstage; after his curtain call, Valence is informed that his wife, daughter, and son-in-law have been killed in a car crash—leaving him only his 12-year-old grandson.
Oliveira does not invite the viewer to mourn Valence’s loss. The filmmaker’s concern is with the actor’s transformation. “Some time later,” per a formal title, we see the old man alone in a dark room on a beautiful day. Nevertheless, he can still smile, sign autographs, and riff with café waiters. Indeed, Valence is back onstage, playing Prospero in The Tempest. On impulse, he even buys a pair of expensive brogue shoes. These become one of the movie’s key metaphors. Oliveira grants them a lengthy close-up even as Valence’s pushy agent, who is hoping to land his client a role in a cheesy made-for-TV movie, suggests that he has become too isolated. “Don’t forget, I act—I’m constantly in someone else’s shoes,” Valence tells him. All is vanity. Leaving the meeting, the actor is mugged by a junkie who absconds with his footwear as well as his wallet.
A 93-year-old can scarcely be unacquainted with loss. Oliveira’s camera placement is blithely distanced. (The frequent scenes shot through shop windows effectively convert the action to pantomime.) Pointedly set on the eve of the millennium, I’m Going Home is restrained, precise, and unobtrusively wry. Luxuriating in “empty” moments, Oliveira is more interested in habitual behavior than human misery. The big dramatic turn comes when Valence is called for an urgent meeting with an American director (Malkovich) who is on location in France shooting an English-language version of the original unadaptable text, James Joyce’s Ulysses. The actor playing Buck Mulligan has come down sick and Valence is thrown into the breach.
Piccoli, a relative youth at 76, albeit a saturnine performer with no shortage of joie de vivre, enjoys a role that allows him full range: doddering monster, wise enchanter, genial celebrity, stubborn artist, doting grandfather, and, finally, miscast actor. Grossly made up in a wig and pasted-on mustache, Valence is hopelessly wrong for the part of Mulligan, even before he opens his mouth and his heavily accented, garbled English clashes with the rest of the cast’s brogues. Valence stumbles through the role, perhaps closer to Ionesco’s pathetic monarch than he would like to admit. To add to the dry comedy, most of the scene is played out in the mirror of the director’s impassively appalled reaction.
New beginning or false start? It’s suggestive that the film within the film never gets beyond Ulysses‘ first few pages. Escaping the studio, Piccoli is warmly affecting and so is this adroitly minimalist movie. Take the title as you will—Oliveira’s confidence is exceeded only by his serenity.
“Enter the King: Manoel de Oliveira’s Magic and Loss” by Leslie Camhi