NYFF38: Terence Davies’ “The House of Mirth”

The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth. —Ecclesiastes 7:4

For some admirers, myself included, Terence Davies will always be defined by the pair of astounding autobiographical features that launched his career. Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes captured the texture of working-class Liverpool life in the mid-20th century with a languid, painterly visual sensibility at once wholly inappropriate for the subject matter and entirely fitting, even necessary, for their protagonists: shy, lonely young boys gazing at life from its fringes as if composing mental still lives. They were heavy on music and short on dialogue, thin on incident and rich in evocation. One critic called Davies "the proletariat Proust."

That is, until The House of Mirth (NYFF '00). Here we have a film based on the most novelistic of novels, one in which psychology is everything and dialogue its chosen means of expression. How un-poetic! Gone, too, is the milieu that had so shaped Davies' life and work, replaced by the stuffy, luxurious drawing rooms of turn-of-the-century New York social climbers. Issues of class and social position, present only implicitly in those early works (politics for Davies have always taken the role of a necessary but tangential footnote), are poised to take center stage. Can this possibly be a Davies film?

That, ten minutes into The House of Mirth, we find ourselves wondering why Davies didn't turn his gaze on the social struggles of the wealthy elite sooner proves the extent to which this man's emotional preoccupations transcend class, nation, or environment. The House of Mirth is, like those earlier works, a film about longing in all its myriad forms and expressions, always unfulfilled. Davies didn't compromise his poetic sensibility one bit while adapting Wharton's dialogue-heavy prose: if anything, he continued to perfect, in impossibly subtle ways, his mastery over light, motion, texture and color. A brief, wordless segment mid-film, consisting entirely of slow, graceful tracking shots through abandoned living rooms and culminating in an ecstatic celebration of the movement of light on water, feels less like a departure from what came before and more like its fulfillment. Davies is one of the few narrative filmmakers of this or any era whose every frame could be appreciated as a work of abstract art.

What has changed is the relationship between the content and the presentation: the mannered, distanced style that in The Long Day Closes seemed a natural product of our hero's lonely, passive existence here seems to impose a similar isolation on Wharton's protagonists—mirroring the social conventions against which they struggle and which they eventually, grudgingly, accept. In those earlier films the figures seemed suspended, bodiless, like a trove of family photographs sprung to life. Here they are still suspended, but weighed down almost unbearably. Every gesture is a struggle, every movement a straining against an invisible force. It can be said of them what Mikio Naruse said of his protagonists: "if they move even a little, they quickly hit a wall." In both cases, the opposing force is economic, though we’re dealing now on the opposite end of the spectrum. And here, as in Naruse, that imposition is mirrored in the unyielding rigor of the shots themselves.


Images courtesy of GRANADA/ARTS COUNCIL/FILM 4 / THE KOBAL COLLECTION / BUITENDIJK, JAAP

Yet Davies' eye is, at the same time, inexplicably compassionate: both a reflection of and a response to the rules and conventions that prevent his heroes from seeing their longing realized. There is a warmth, a richness, even a sensuality to Davies' style that is completely absent from the chilly, soulless grandeur of his new milieu.

Every action and, particularly, every word in The House of Mirth seems as impersonal and obligatory as a ritual, and this, too, imposes a great burden on Davies' protagonists: even in the most emotional of situations they're bound to a specific way of speaking, as if the words have been written for them in advance (which, of course, they have been). Their raw outbursts instantly take on the form of sculpted, polished declarations, as if their social setting controls even the methods by which they may struggle against it. As if to compensate, Davies infuses each shot with all the warmth and feeling denied the characters themselves, even as his chosen style also reflects the very sort of inflexibility that robbed them of that warmth.

Davies has always had particular compassion for people who—out of nature or out of obligation—cannot say what they feel. And so the final, desperately sad confession that closes The House of Mirth feels also, in some completely immaterial way, like a sort of triumph—a victory against the societal laws that prevented its expression for so long, until it was too late. Davies takes Wharton's title to heart: just as in the director's previous films loners longed to abandon their rarified poetic reveries and join in the tomfoolery of youth, so here propriety and decorum—what society would deem wisdom—leads only to the tomb. We glimpse the house of mirth only in merciful, but ultimately insufficient, reflections: in the light spilling from a window in early afternoon or glinting off the waves at sea; in the softness of flesh and the tenderness of a longed-for, brief and unrepeatable kiss.

Combine tonight's screening of The House of Mirth with a meal at Indie Food and Wine in our Film Center with our unbeatable Dinner and a Movie deal for just $25! And make sure to check out the rest of the 50 Years of the New York Film Festival lineup, including next Tuesday's screening of Manoel de Oliveira's I'm Going Home (NYFF '01), films by Pedro Almodóvar, Lars von Trier and more!

Below is a list of films that played alongside The House of Mirth at the 38th NYFF:
Dancer in the Dark
Lars von Trier, Denmark/Sweden/France, 2000

Pollock
Ed Harris, USA, 2000

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Ang Lee, Taiwan, 2000

Amores Peros
Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu, Mexico, 2000

Before Night Falls
Julian Schnabel, USA, 2000

Boesman and Lena
John Berry, France/South Africa, 2000

Brother
Takeshi Kitano, USA, 2000

Chronically Unfeasible (Cronicamente Inviável)
Sérgio Bianchi, Brazil, 2000

Chunhyang
Im Kwon-taek, South Korea, 2000

The Circle
Jafar Panahi, Iran/Italy, 2000

Comedy of Innocence
Raúl Ruiz, France, 2000

Eureka,
Shinji Aoyama, Japan, 2000

Faithless (Trolösa)
Liv Ullmann, Sweden, 2000

George Washington
David Gordon Green, USA, 2000

The Gleaners and I
Agnès Varda, France, 2000

Gohatto (Taboo)
Nagisa Oshima, Japan, 1999

In the Mood for Love
Wong Kar-Wai, Hong Kong, 2000

Kippur
Amos Gitai, Israel/France, 2000

Krapp's Last Tape
Atom Egoyan, Canada/Ireland, 2000

Platform
Jia Zhang-ke, China/Japan, 2000

Smell of Camphor, Fragrance of Jasmine
Bahman Farmanara, Iran, 2000

Seven Men from Now
Budd Boeticher, USA, 1956

The Taste of Others
Agnès Jaoui, France, 2000

Yi Yi (A One and a Two...)
Edward Yang, Taiwan/Japan, 2000

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