The Poignant Rootlessness of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

The itinerant Merchant Ivory screenwriter (1927–2013) understood what made people tick — regardless of where they came from


“The main purpose is that I have such a good time,” the novelist and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala told Philip Horne in an interview with the Guardian in the year 2000. She was speaking then about working on The Golden Bowl (2000) — directed by her frequent collaborator, James Ivory — and her unalloyed passion for endearing us to worlds that are long gone. For Jhabvala, this mainly consisted of the pristine upper-crust echelons of British regality. Whether in the form of The Golden Bowl, Howards End (1992), or even A Room With a View (1985), Jhabvala had a passion for the delicacies of richness, both in life and — surely — in character. Jhabvala’s ability to bring compassion to unlikable men and women or charm to the enduring boredom of the leisure class sparkled in movies ranging from 1963’s The Householder (about the insecurities of a newlywed Indian husband) to 2003’s Le Divorce (about the bleak romantic operatics of blonde Americans in Paris). Everything came down to Jhabvala’s incredible mastery at understanding people and the hidden mechanics that make them tick.

Jhabvala was a novelist first, but she came to be known primarily for her collaboration with the great Merchant Ivory, the landmark production company founded by Ivory and the producer Ismail Merchant. The long-lasting association among the trio formed a brilliant and symbiotic operation. Merchant once exclaimed of the melding of personalities: “It is a strange marriage we have at Merchant Ivory. I am an Indian Muslim, Ruth is a German Jew, and Jim is a Protestant American. Someone once described us as a three-headed god. Maybe they should have called us a three-headed monster!” Jhabvala — who died at her home in Manhattan in 2013, at the age of 85 — was the ardent team’s prolific screenwriter. Five years after her passing, the Quad has organized “In Her Words: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, the Woman Behind Merchant Ivory,” a deep-dive retrospective that began last week and runs through this Thursday.

Jhabvala was born in Cologne in 1927 to parents who, a dozen years later, fled to London owing to the Nazi occupation. Once there, Jhabvala found renewed purpose, studying at Queen Mary College, University of London, and acquainting herself with Dickens and the classics. Here began her reverence for literature. Nine years after her family emigrated, her father took his own life after learning that most of his family had died in the Holocaust. In a 1993 profile, Jonathan Freedland of the Independent wrote that Jhabvala had the acute ability to understand “people’s powerlessness to escape their fate or to deviate from their essential character.” This was something Jhabvala grasped inherently, and is surely part of what made her such a gifted observer of human nature.

In Mr. & Mrs. Bridge (1990), the venerable real-life couple Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward play parents navigating the sexual dynamics of aging. Jhabvala finds the subtlety in everyday minutiae, whether it’s a son reading Bettie Page pre-porn porn or a daughter languidly drinking a lemonade in yellow swimming trunks. In her look at repressed white America in the Thirties, Jhabvala exposes the fragility of individual personhood. She also sharply dissects the damning sexual energy that exists underneath the despair, lingering like a faint yet dank smell.

We see this in the chastising of a young couple that dares to get too close on the dance floor, or in the strange sexual negotiation between father and daughter in a way that’s both relatable and honest, removed from total perversity. It’s evident even between the awkwardness of two older people pursuing sex, desiring desire: a man trying to seduce his wife, who verges on an oblique depression as she navigates a new age, incapable of being intimate in her body while simultaneously watching her daughter mature and blossom. These depictions of mother against daughter, and the ways in which both women, young and old, change and morph, is remarkably candid. The performances by both Woodward and Newman are among my favorites for each actor. At one point, Newman’s face changes at the glacial pace of the slow-motion sun shifting across the mountains: A grimace turns into a straight line, the onset of madness into a smirk.

In Le Divorce, the last film Ivory, Merchant, and Jhabvala all collaborated on together, we see a gaggle of Americans in Paris — Carrie Bradshaw types but with less Patricia Field glamour. Kate Hudson and Naomi Watts play Isabel and Roxeanne, sisters navigating the elegant austerity of the French — particularly the way they freely talk about all manner of things except money. (They will talk about the diuretic capabilities of asparagus, but money? Mais non!) The movie boasts a wonderfully rich cast, a shared trait of numerous Merchant Ivory productions. Standouts include Glenn Close as a famous American writer who enumerates the ways French women wear their scarves (tied in the back, looped in the front); Stockard Channing as the California mom that’s all chill, dripping in stylish turquoise; and Stephen Fry as an art consultant who deems a family heirloom to be an authentic Georges de La Tour.

Jhabvala’s tendency to create grand pastiches — tapestries of beauty and elegance — frequently accommodated the most glamorous of actors, who willingly downplayed their fame and immersed themselves in the embedded moods of the stories Jhabvala conjured. Whether interpreting Henry James or E.M. Forster, Jhabvala created worlds to get lost in — a reflection, perhaps, of her own rootlessness. In a 1979 lecture, she exclaimed: “I stand before you as a writer without any ground of being out of which to write: really blown about from country to country, culture to culture, till I feel — till I am — nothing.” And in that 1993 Independent interview with Freedman, she offered: “I don’t think I’m anything particularly. Born in one country, brought up in another, gone to live in a third, and resettled in a fourth. I’m just like everybody else in New York: come from somewhere else and quite happily living here.” In that essence, there’s a cyclical nature to this retrospective, held in the city where she died, in the country that was her final home. Her rootlessness was palpable in every etching of her stories. Jhabvala was forever someone who came from another place — and always, in her words, searching for a good time.

In Her Words: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, the Woman Behind Merchant Ivory’
Quad Cinema
Through June 14


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