Death and the Maiden

At the turn of another century, The House of Mirth's heroine remains wedded to tragedy

Anyone expecting Merchant-Ivory or Masterpiece Theatre is bound to be disappointed by the film version of Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth. The rooms come with a view here, to be sure, and the dialogue is as colorfully frilly as the costumes. Yet the "masterpiece"'s tasteful reserve--the aesthetic that allows the comfy feeling that the plight of characters in corsets and cummerbunds has little to do with our own--remains in aptly short supply. Telling the grueling tale of a fragile woman who falls prey to societal prejudice and self-made shame, The House of Mirth is set, like the novel, in New York just after the turn of the century. But while the movie's meticulous period re-creations leave little doubt as to which century has turned, it's a further credit to the adaptation that Wharton's semi-autobiographical critique seems easily applicable to the here and now. At the risk of making an austere melodrama sound like a distaff Fight Club, the film rendition of The House of Mirth doubles as a timeless take on how materialism's ills might physically manifest themselves on the body of a woman.

That woman is Lily Bart, an aging society bachelorette and ambivalent gold digger whom Wharton efficiently describes as "a figure to arrest even the suburban traveller rushing to his last train." Like others in her rarified milieu, Lily is addicted to the opulent trappings of the upper crust, but, in order to attain them, she remains dependent on the financial good graces of a rather bitchy old aunt--or at least until she marries. In the business of selling herself to the highest bidder, Lily has several choices--all of them involving bullies or boobs of one sort or another--and little hope of snaring Lawrence Selden, a passive-aggressive lawyer whose relative poverty can't fully disguise his appeal as the only man she has ever loved. Wharton's excruciating narrative--made less unbearable by the wealth of satiric detail and psychological insight--charts the gradual narrowing of options available to a woman who never had that many to begin with. The heroine's longing for a seemingly uninterested white-collar worker makes her unavailable to those "men of substance" who'd provide her fortune unconditionally, and vulnerable to humiliation at the hands of her venomous rivals. When Lily eventually lands in debt, the noblesse begin to sense her imminent downfall, and come in for the kill.

A character martyred for no great gain may be a hallmark of modern fiction, but what gives Lily her longevity is how thoroughly she personifies the tensions between greed and principle that form the essence of America. You might say she's the 20th-century woman who "wants it all"--love and money, on her own terms--several decades before such a dream was even thinkable. (It's amazing that Lily never joined Mildred Pierce and Daisy Kenyon as a "women's picture" heroine of the Forties; here, if nowhere else, she would have fit right in.) The tragic irony of the story is that Lily's refusal to act with ruthless devotion to her base desires is both unladylike and, in an arena full of vipers, not a virtue in the least.

In terms of the adaptation, much has been made of the casting of Gillian Anderson in the lead role, to the effect that the star of The X-Files simply isn't beautiful or, um, refined enough to play Wharton's arresting Lily. Leaving aside the question of whether Anderson would manage to turn heads at the Amtrak depot, it is true that screenwriter-director Terence Davies has minimized the character's brash magnetism in order to type Lily as a naive outsider, a woman whose allure isn't quite sufficient to disguise the fact that social etiquette doesn't come naturally to her. Davies has famously reported that he chose the actor because he could imagine her as the subject of a John Singer Sargent painting, which makes perfect sense in light of his bid to make Lily appear at once striking and oddly indistinguishable from her showy surroundings. It's precisely the character's duty to blend in with the wallpaper, to become part of the social fabric. And, at first glance, she does, but that's also her misfortune. Complicit in the marketing of herself as a commodity, Lily unwittingly passes her expiration date and ends up, as she puts it, "on the rubbish heap."

Conveying this slow disintegration, Anderson communicates more through body language than through the eloquent insinuations of the dialogue, shifting from an almost feline seductiveness to jittery desperation and then, finally, into the curled fetal position of someone resigned to giving up her fight. (The performance appears even more clairvoyant for being grounded in Lily's own brazenly theatrical contortions.) For his part, Davies builds a mood of omniscient dread around an increasingly claustrophobic mise en scène: Everything about the film feels ornate but funereal, like an airless luxury suite on the last night of an affair.

Those familiar with the poetic, near-plotless languor of Davies's earlier work--including his painfully autobiographical family portrait Distant Voices, Still Lives, in which nothing much happens apart from the filmmaker's traumatic recollections--might naturally find it odd that he'd choose to take on the weight of Wharton's epic yarn for his first attempt at linear storytelling. Yet if anything, by inheriting the author's intricate narrative, Davies has expanded the emotional scope of his beautifully morbid images. In The House of Mirth, the vivid memory of a long-lost world feels even more agonizing for how the multitude of obstacles to Lily's happiness might have aligned themselves any number of other ways--but without altering her fate. Davies's subtle handling of the details is such that only by the end of the film are we fully aware of having witnessed something akin to the careful construction of a coffin.

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