Outside, Looking In
Jeff Reichert on The House of Mirth

“Why is it when we meet we always play this elaborate game?” Heroine Lily Bart’s signature mid-embrace declaration from Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth signals her creator’s hyper-awareness of societal relations as a series of complicated maneuvers bound by codes, practices, and rituals. As traced in the novel and Terence Davies’s film adaptation—luminous, but not at all absent the text’s quietly cascading cruelties—Lily’s undoing is a direct consequence of her misapprehension of the rules of the game. She’s unwilling, whether from naiveté, honor, or some tortured combination of both, to fully believe the worst in others until well after her public persona has been irreparably tarnished, and she refuses to wield similar duplicities to better her situation; Lily’s fall from grace is of her own making, and mournfully ironic. She’s the only member of New York’s clubhouse of virtuous decorum unable to speak plainly from both sides of her mouth, knows her status as une jeune fille à marier with little desire to be married is precarious, yet still holds out faint hope, and risks herself further by dallying with her erstwhile suitor Lawrence Selden. Lily begins The House of Mirth comfortable in her status as the truest of insiders, yet even then the cracks in the facade are beginning to show. The full revelation of the vast chasms in her education of high society machinations—marking her as wholly outside (leaving herself “exposed” as she puts it)—proves too much to bear.

Needless to say, there’s a been a fair bit of water under the bridge since Wharton left Lily, wholly bereft of options, dead of an overdose in tenement squalor. Today, with roles for both genders more fluid, and men and women on a generally more equal footing than in the turn of the last century (though, inevitably, a hundred years hence our descendants will look back on this first decade of the 21st century as one of unspeakable repressions and inequalities), the heterosexual mainstream has turned its obsessive eye for scandal onto queer nether-regions that for ages have been only whispered about. It’s an odd moment, which has seen the specter of gay rights crusader Harvey Milk celebrated in theaters and awards ceremonies while the honorable Senator Larry Craig, and doubtless many others, continue to surreptitiously adopt wide stances in public restrooms. A third of the way through 2009, a pair of men can get legally married in downtown Des Moines, but not San Francisco’s Haight, or in New York’s West Village. And the quiet (non-)debate continues to rage around one of America’s worst-kept secrets: the increasing numbers of homosexuals serving in our country’s military (a non-debate, perhaps because, in practice, most actually serving don’t really care, and this revelation would quickly upend all the imbecilic rationales trotted out for the maintenance of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy). Even in the wake of Prop. 8 and other hate legislation passed in a variety of states in 2008, the idea of homosexuality as a viable “normative” lifestyle seems closer to breaking into acceptance than at any point in memory.

Is progress happening fast enough? Answers will vary depending on which side of the cultural divide you occupy. All that can be said for certain is that those forces who do proffer up “traditional values” as defense against the encroaching pink tide will eventually find themselves on the losing end, and will either die out or grudgingly accept into society an increasingly powerful and vocal minority. Tradition, of course, is a collapsible, malleable thing, but so long as there are delineating borders between people, we’ll likely find natural commonalities at the margins of hegemony. So, it’s no surprise that Terence Davies, ever a chronicler of fissures in the monolithic images of societal norms, would find a special kinship across time, nationality, gender, and sexual orientation with Lily Bart.

With his obsessive (bordering on fussy for detractors) elegance, Terence Davies doesn’t exactly fit the mold of an outsider artist, especially given that watching his films often seems like a literal re-entry into the womb. But for all the total-art immersive qualities of his cinema that find sound and image tracks untethered from traditional narrative restraints and uncannily re-coordinated through the logic of dreams, Davies’s highly circumscribed worlds exist as if under glass, viewed through the sides of a snow globe, or through the haze of an old-timey photographic lens. If this description conjures the watery warble of an ancient music box, then all the better. Some moments in his films hit with the pinpoint accuracy of a clearly remembered, long-guarded emotion, others come swathed in the haze of fading memory. As much as The Long Day Closes or Distant Voices, Still Lives, present coherent, enveloping aesthetic worlds, each of his images (often framed as a kind of tableau) betrays itself as image, and Davies’s trademark choreographed tracks and fades render his episodic fits-and-starts storytelling artificial so as to better control and calibrate emotional impact. Pun intended: he casts a queer eye on everything he films, re-casting familiar narratives of childhood and adolescence as roiling cauldrons of eccentricities and oddness.

Given the autobiographical tint of many of his films, and their strategies of invitation and distanciation, it’s as though Davies has welcomed us into a cozily musty old apartment to look at his family album, but only from across the room, the individuality of each photo lost to the fuzziness of a whole scrapbook half-seen. The unanswerable, but no less tantalizing question, then becomes: To what degree is Davies’s unique style related/attributable to his homosexuality? This is dangerous territory to tread—the kind of thing that pushes into realms of essentializing eugenics. We can locate plenty of filmic instances of offbeat visualists from the heterosexual set (like, say, Douglas Sirk), and by that same token plenty of homosexual filmmakers working well within the aesthetic closet (perhaps George Cukor). At the same time, because his oeuvre is small and coherent (his style has changed little since his initial triumvirate of films, together titled The Trilogy, of living closeted in Liverpool), it’s especially tempting to view his concerns as springing directly from the specifics of his life story. Davies’s films have grown more lush since his early forays into 16mm B&W filmmaking, but the signature images from The Trilogy, in which he films homosexual desire with the same foreboding as he does Catholic religious iconography and practice (often daringly conflating the two), echo throughout his work. Everything is viewed from the perspective of the outsider, someone watching, someone usually only halfway understanding.

One of the key questions for any civil movement towards social equality remains how best to balance the bridging of universal connections across categories against maintaining the specificities of the particular group seeking greater rights, access, etc. “We’re just like everyone” only goes so far, when, well, no one’s truly just like everyone, and some folks are plainly different. For me, a hetero American male, locating what is specifically “queer” in the work of a homosexual British man over thirty years my senior is a prospect fraught with pitfalls. What kind of validity would any guesses I could hazard about his aims possibly have? Yet, even as his first three major works—counting The Trilogy (1976-83) as a piece, along with Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) and The Long Day Closes (1992)—present themselves as too-ready signposts towards simplistic “he’s gay, therefore” critical arguments, it’s his choice of The Neon Bible (1995) and then The House of Mirth (2000) for adaptation, outsider tales both, that more clearly signal how his background on the margins of rigid homosexual-unfriendly orthodoxy led to a kinship with loners, dreamers, and those who don’t quite fit in. Davies manages to fully enfold both The Neon Bible’s David and The House of Mirth’s Lily in layers of compassion; the mark of a great artist, yes, but made possible through identification with outsiders.

The House of Mirth represents a departure from Davies’s familiar Liverpudlian tales—not only in that it’s an American story but also because for the first time the director’s protagonist is a heterosexual female. Even so, she ends up just as confused and bewildered by the machinations of “regular” society around her as the adolescent protagonists in The Long Day Closes or The Neon Bible, both of whom only halfway understand the gamesmanship of the adults around them. By letting herself be outmaneuvered by her inability to read the glances and gestures that dictate the rules of engagement, Lily proves just as much an outcast as the Terence Davies stand-in of The Trilogy. The tragedy of the story lies in the distance traversed over the course of the film from how “inside” Lily believed herself to be to her outsider end. The triumph of the art lies in how smoothly an out artist inhabits Lily’s world.

In many ways, The House of Mirth seems the director’s least artificial film yet, odd considering its distant period setting, usually fertile ground for fakery and pageantry. There are only a few overtly constructed set pieces (the backlot train station overture, a few faux trips via rail that recall The Neon Bible, a view through an antique camera, a cruise through the Mediterranean), Davies’s usual fading tableaux make more sense in this costumed universe, and his typically baroque stabbing employment of classical music on the soundtrack is in full force, but aside from that, one could skate through the film barely noticing how unsettling its naturalism is. Listen more closely: there’s the very typically Davies halting, broken diction that renders nearly every interaction strange (and which likely turned off the regular audience for this kind of movie in its deliberate refusal of traditional linguistic anachronism). Conversational gaps and silences carefully managed by off-rhythm edits abound, puncturing the warmly lit interiors of country homes, perfectly manicured lawns, and overstuffed offices, rendering spaces born out of a societal need for control and order frightening and fraught with tensions and simmering violence. Observing that the decorum of gentile society often masks boundless barbarity and seething passions isn’t novel, but rubbing this up against the quiet elegance of Davies’s crisp aesthetic makes The House of Mirth amongst the best, queerest of all historical films.

We first see Lily Bart in the film’s opening shot emerging from the steam of a waiting train, backlit and shrouded in mystery. Davies withholds a clear look at his protagonist until three shots later, preferring instead to build suspense, even introducing us to Eric Stoltz’s lithesome Mr. Selden first. Their initial conversation is overflowing with meaning and sexual longing left unspoken, yet underscored by editing—a public waystation pickup, 1905-style. It isn’t long before the two have taken the “risk” of retiring to Selden’s apartment, alone, to discuss Americana, society, and marriage. Lily will risk exposing herself and Selden, here on behalf of passion—a bit of a thrill-seeker and gambler, she’s excited by the danger. But her blunders catch up with her: friendly Gus Trenor (Dan Aykroyd) loans her money, but expects sex in return; grinning nemesis Bertha Dorset (Laura Linney) invites Lily on a lengthy cruise, only to use the unwitting girl as a mask for her own indiscretions; Lily’s even betrayed by her own cousin. Early on Selden notes of Lily that “She has it in her to become whatever she is believed to be.” She falls because her perception of her own public persona (a mask that she’s carefully cultivated and maintained) is far neater, stronger, and smarter than how everyone else views her. She’s highly conceited and not untarnished at the film’s opening, but her dalliances pale with the accrual of exploitations she’s subjected to.

Lily Bart’s romantic yearnings and continued propriety render her queer to the casual savagery of normative society around her, and Davies is clearly drawn to this innocence—naiveté of differences often befalls those left out of the club, to the most disastrous results. Edith Wharton has been described as the consummate insider—perhaps not unlike the Gossip Girl of her day—and one can imagine her knowing, or at least wishing for a Lily Bart in the scene to help provide some whiff of moral sense (or perhaps blood in the water?). Lily should have been a gift for a filmmaker like Davies who has always found difficulty getting his films made, and thus has subjected his small, loyal audience to nearly decade-long absences between films. The House of Mirth could have been an easy sell here with audiences (the casting of Gillian Anderson, most famous at that point for the X-Files, remains a strangely brilliant stroke), yet by producing a typically Terence Davies film (which is to say, queer), he only ended up with a box-office flop, and further on the margins. Witness his recent essay film Of Time and the City to see just how far out of step from the world mainstream he feels (damn those Beatles for ruining popular culture!). It’s this view from the outside, looking in, that’s allowed for some of the most striking images and films of the last three decades—so let’s hope he stays that way.