Film Review from the Film Gang

February 16th, 2001- Cathy Soussloff reviews House of Mirth

The House of Mirth, Directed by Terence Davies

The House of Mirth, directed by Terence Davies, is the most recent film adaptation of Edith Whartonís so-called ìnovels of manners.î  Her novels portray the lives of the American upper class in their fin-de-siecle opulence and hypocrisies.   Like most of Whartonís heroines, the beautiful Lily Bart, in The House of Mirth, is trapped by her obligation to wed a man of wealth and status.  Possessing adequate means at the beginning of the story, Lily toys with the eligible men of society.  Her heart belongs to Laurence Seldon, and his to her, yet they cannot admit it to each other.  The binding conventions of their class exert powerful controls over Lily and Laurence.

As Lily becomes ever more entrapped by a network of upper class infidelities she comes to see that each statement signifies a collage of hidden meaning and immorality.  In the oppressive chambers and manners of the house of mirth, Lily is disgraced over a bad debt and shunned by Society.   The culture that thrives on deceit and exploitation manifests in the strictures of containment found in corsets, gloves, and overly heavy jewels.  Lilyís body pays the price for her rectitude through a slow physical deterioration brought about by addiction to morphine.  The final tragic outcome illustrates most poignantly the complete abjection brought upon women through a situation in which to be the object of unspoken love is to exist.

Gillian Anderson plays Lily Bart with a surprising talent for providing a window into the subtext of emotions that lie beneath the opaque surface of costume and custom.  The feelings and strengths of Lily and the other women in the film are hidden behind veils of hats, the feathers of headdresses, and the brims of boaters.  The film consists mainly of close-ups of Lily, with an occasional silhouette shot against a dusky background.  The motif of the clock predominates because, as Seldon says to Lily: ìYou always do the wrong thing at the right time, or vice versa.î  Such is the view that ethical behavior gives to those concentrating on the niceties of superficial behavior.

In contrast to the women, the men in the film, with the exception of Seldon, reveal passions, often in ways made more abrupt by the suppressions of female desire.  Davies enhances the tale of manners by bringing into visual focus gender demarcations.  Every element of ornate dress and decoration serves as an allegory for the pains inflicted upon women by the roles they must play.  The strengths of the film belong with this delineation of symbolism and the acting by Anderson, Eric Stoltz who plays Seldon, Dan Aykroyd, and the rest of the supporting cast.

Yet, in the end, The House of Mirth, like Martin Scorseseís adaptation of Edith Whartonís Age of Innocence, remains far too textual a vehicle for the cinematic movement of film.  The constraints brought to bear upon the visual medium by the complexity of these stories, results, like the corsets worn over the opulent flesh of the women, in an awkwardness.  Abrupt edits, unmotivated lingerings of the camera on water and flowers, detract from any sense of visual grace.   In these days, costume drama fares much better as Gladiator than it does in the intricate social mores of a society closer to our own times chronologically, but much farther away in terms of real life than even a movie can imagine successfully. The House of Mirth plays at the Nichelodeon in Santa Cruz. 

For KUSP and the Film Gang this is Cathy Soussloff, having fun at the movies.

Copyright Cathy Soussloff 2001