The twenty best films of this decade were determined by polling all the major and continuing contributors to Reverse Shot in the publication's history.
Always True in His Fashion
Michael Koresky on The House of Mirth
When discussing the greatest movies of any given decade, we tend to talk of those that seemed particularly prescient or simply of their time—films that somehow spoke to the era in which they were created or that pushed forward the medium in some technical or structural way. It shouldn’t be ignored that such a method for measuring quality is dubious since a film’s relevance often boils down to fashion. It’s no surprise that so many films made in the past ten years intended to create a dialogue about the World in Which We Now Live (Crash and Babel being the most insidious, phony examples, with more provocative titles such as Caché and demonlover on the higher end of the spectrum) already seem, variously, banal, alarmist, or, at best, quaint. Conversely, those that were less aggressive about their topicality, or were, to employ an overused term, “timeless” in their focus on character, spirituality, and situation (The New World, anything by the Dardennes) rather than contemporary social codification now seem more vital.
And then there are some films that are such pure, unpretentious exemplars of the medium—that are slavish only to their own being and rationale—that of course they were destined to be either forgotten or gently patted on the head before being sent away. Terence Davies’s The House of Mirth is such a film, one so exquisitely wrought and seamlessly shaped that it almost needs to be scrutinized with a magnifying glass as though a diamond. The problem with such subtle artistry is that you actually need to be looking at it to notice its flawlessness; that might have been too tall an order in 2000, when Davies’s film was released up against such flashier gems as Requiem for a Dream, Dancer in the Dark, and Bamboozled, all of which, for better or worse, were embracing and foregrounding new forms of moviemaking. The House of Mirth was hardly such a headline-maker: its greatest claim to fame outside of rarefied, art-house circles seemed to be its dramatic star turn from The X-Files’ Gillian Anderson. Otherwise this was merely the latest offering from a critically acclaimed British filmmaker whose difficulty in financing his few-and-far-between projects had hardly made him a household name with audiences, and for some the film’s origins as an Edith Wharton novel gave it the whiff of a high-school requisite. And besides, didn’t Martin Scorsese just dip his toes in this pool seven short years earlier with The Age of Innocence?
It mustn’t have helped that Davies’s adaptation forewent even the dazzle of Scorsese’s own retreat to turn-of-the-century New York. The Age of Innocence was a measured, contemplative work by the American director’s standards, but compared to Davies’s film it was a veritable roller coaster of camera and color sensations, even when ensconced in drawing-room innuendo. It also had ready-made talking points: the press’s common approach at the time was that Scorsese’s unexpected portrait of a repressive pre-World War I upper-class community was at heart no different from the hermetic, unforgiving New York gangster enclaves of Mean Streets and Goodfellas; tying his latest film to his own personal artistic continuum was a way of making accessible a seeming aberration. By contrast, Davies’s House of Mirth had no widely known filmography of its maker’s to fall back on (certainly this was as off-topic in Davies’s oeuvre as The Age of Innocence was in Scorsese’s, but Davies’s intensely personal tales of his Liverpudlian upbringing, such as Distant Voices/Still Lives and The Long Day Closes, were hardly easy reference points for many). Furthermore, it was unapologetic in its historical and literary specificity. As announced by onscreen text at the beginning, this is, unalterably, unmistakably, New York, 1905. When in a more pointed repeat at the film’s tragic end, we read New York, 1907, Davies catches the moment in a freeze frame, which ever so slowly dissolves into painterly ether. The House of Mirth is a lovingly petrified object, preserved in celluloid amber, perhaps even a cautionary tale, if we choose to see it that way. It is also pragmatic in its approach: the past is past, and it’s impossible to return to it, but we can learn from our mistakes in its recollection.
Such calculated austerity is the perfect mode for a cinematic translation of Wharton’s novel. As promised by the opening credits, in which a tendrils slither serpent-like across a flat, gray stony surface creating a web of Victorian conspiracy, this is the story of a nest of vipers. The woman at the center is Lily Bart, possibly American literature’s greatest heroine, an individual so complex that none of the traits or legacies her author painstakingly establishes for her can fully describe or excuse her ultimate actions, triumphs, and shortcomings: she’s a tapestry of contradictory impulses, noble and cheap all at once. Though she has, as she herself proclaims with knowing self-derision, “the reputation of being on the hunt for a husband,” Lily is hardly man-hungry; she’s archly principled, even if, as the story goes on to show, she can’t afford to be. Perhaps she aspires to wed for love, but more importantly she refuses to be coerced into a marriage based solely on capital or mutual beneficence—the sorts of unions that society makes all too frequently and eagerly. Yet with her parents long gone and her sole income based on allowances from her parsimonious Aunt Julia, with whom she lives, Lily simply cannot live the life of prosperity she so desires. She travels in New York’s upper-class circles, although she clearly is little more than a good-natured hanger-on, doing her best to stave off what in the book she constantly refers to as the “dinginess” of life. Through an intricate series of events, her existence gradually, terribly unravels, her wisdom, confidence, and morality functioning as though a trap set up to snap shut around her.
As Lily, Gillian Anderson brings an arch mannerism that works in glorious union with Davies’s stringent, patiently observed filmmaking. Starting out vibrant, a heavenly vision with parasol emerging from a cloud of locomotive steam at Grand Central train station, Lily is a candle that burns brightly from within; as the film charts her inexorable decline, she is gradually snuffed out. Anderson’s Lily Bart might seem enigmatic, her motivations somehow difficult to ascertain, but that’s because Davies forgoes narrative handholding, eschewing internal monologue or voice-over of any kind (Scorsese had the silky Joanne Woodward embody Edith Wharton’s incandescent irony as an expository backdrop for her characters’ actions). Here, like Lily, we’re unmoored. At first her stylized flirtations with Lawrence Selden (Eric Stoltz), her not exactly unrequited paramour and the first and last character she meets in this story, are disconcerting; yet her movements and self-conscious exaltations (“How delicious!”) turn out to be purposely mechanical: the last vestiges of a finely honed social persona as it breaks down.
The House of Mirth is structured as a series of emotionally loaded two-person encounters, in drawing rooms, parlors, on balconies and lawn chairs. Davies, a singularly sophisticated filmmaker, takes a remarkably straightforward approach; he knows this story requires little more than elegant shot-reverse shot set-ups and telling close-ups, and he barely embellishes, conveying atmosphere and mood through consistent use of slow dissolves and long pauses between dialogue (in both of these ways, The House of Mirth is remarkably similar to Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, another constricting dream of New York). Yet just as the basic framework and storytelling of The House of Mirth are considerably workmanlike—echoing the “tradition of quality” that cinephiles have still not quite reconciled with their own aesthetic notions ever since Truffaut drew a line in the sand in 1954—Davies interjects here and there with his own auteurist idiosyncrasies. The most dramatic of these, recalling the many moments in The Long Day Closes when his camera unhurriedly glides over uninhabited rooms and spaces, comes as an interstitial moment separating the two “books” of Wharton’s novel: after a rude awakening from Gus Trenor (Dan Aykroyd), her friend’s boastful, intimidating husband, who had agreed to invest money for her, unbeknownst to her in exchange for physical pleasure, Lily receives invitation from the meddlesome Bertha Dorset (Laura Linney) to accompany her and her cuckolded husband George (Terry Kinney) to the Mediterranean for the summer. To evoke Lily’s departure and the passage of time, Davies slowly pans across Aunt Julia’s living room, now drained of life, all of the furniture covered in ghostly sheets (a perfect representation of upper-class New York as a moneyed mausoleum); an aria from Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte drifts by on the soundtrack, calling out from some distance; we move out onto the grounds of the house, grey with mist and rain; we glide across a rain-spackled pond, which dissolves into the sun-dappled Mediterranean Sea.
The sunlight and European air is enriching, especially because Davies’s depiction of New York is so suffocating. Much of The House of Mirth seems to take place when the slightly bronzed sunlight of late afternoon streams through drawn curtains—that time of day that can seem most frivolous, when one, especially who doesn’t work for a living, is most apt to brood, to while away the hours. In many shots, Lily contemplatively moves about her quarters (which over the course of the film’s downward spiral, get increasingly smaller and gloomier), a lost soul, perhaps already a ghost, gently plunking at a piano or touching a throw pillow. Davies has said that his visual inspiration for this film was the work of painter John Singer Sargent, and indeed many shots here vividly recall his portraits of well-appointed folk idling in sitting rooms, bathed in cool light, just layered with an extra gloss of desperation.
Sargent’s specifically American portraiture is the perfect correlation for this very American film, which wisely employs such recognizable actors as Aykroyd, Linney, Kinney, Anthony LaPaglia (as unwanted nouveau riche suitor Rosedale), and Elizabeth McGovern (as social climber Carry Fisher) as characters who put on a show of sophistication yet can barely hide their crassness behind buttons and bows. Only Stoltz’s Selden and Anderson’s Lily seem to rise above such garish pomposity, and Davies has cast two palely beautiful redheads to emphasize the characters’ spiritual synchronicity. Anderson’s movements are particularly lovely to behold, as when she sensually cuts a page of her book with a letter opener before subtly calling out to a shy potential suitor seated nearby on a train, or when, late in the film, she clutches to her breathless bodice a stack of personal letters that have come into her possession which might be the dubious solution to her financial woes. Throughout, Anderson provides a faithful evocation of Wharton’s protagonist, imbuing Lily with her own moral hesitancy and gorgeous neuroses that are downright heavenly to watch. She is key to the success of this adaptation, her visage and being standing in elegantly and concisely for countless pages of interior monologue, every tremor of hope or disillusion wafting across her face with the right mix of inscrutability and open expressiveness; the gradual decimation of her studied restraint is simply devastating.
Anderson’s contribution to Davies’s version is incalculable, but the writer-director’s screenplay is of course equally essential, a thing of concise beauty to be studied by any who dare tread in the thankless business of adapting classic literature. With very few exceptions, the most notable being Lily’s final encounter with a poor, working-class woman with a new infant at her breast, Davies faithfully recites Wharton’s novel scene for scene (one would have to, so precise is the film’s clockwork structure, in which Lily’s decisions and encounters, business and romantic, set up one by one in deliberate fashion in the book’s first half, finally combust off of each other with fatal results), sharpening and fine-tuning each confrontation down to its essential, clarified moment, yet without hand-holding the audience with exposition. Davies proves here, after decades of making autobiographical memory films with the barest of narrative threads, that he understands that sometimes flourish must be subordinate to such elegant storytelling. Signaling this is his sparse yet revelatory use of classical music throughout, from Alessandro Marcello to Borodin, which never drowns out or buoys narrative, but simply creates mysterious, melancholy spaces within which viewers can store their ever-shifting emotions.
Though Terence Davies could never be said to have “defined” this decade of filmmaking (as undoubtedly some will say about such exciting trailblazers as Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Claire Denis, Arnaud Desplechin, and Quentin Tarantino), he nevertheless has bracketed it with two uncompromised personal projects that rank with the best of these past ten years. His only film following 2000’s The House of Mirth was 2008’s Of Time and the City (released in the U.S. in 2009), a treasure trove of found footage of the past half-century of Liverpool pieced together as nearly stream-of-conscious visual poetry that brought him back to memoir mode, narrated by Davies himself with a mix of honeyed nostalgia and poisonous wit. If one of the main things we ask of our artists is that they remain honest and true to their own vision, regardless of trends, then these two films are certainly more than enough evidence to classify Davies as one of the unsung artists of the decade. Like Lily Bart, he’s steadfast to his own principles, even if he might finally be raging against a dying light.