The House of Mirth (The Cornfield #43)

The language of smoking: Anderson and Stoltz

For a variety of reasons, the next few weeks in the Cornfield will be devoted to “Ten Years Gone”: movies released in 2001. This is my Film.com review of an under-appreciated gem.

Gillian Anderson’s performance as Lily Bart in The House of Mirth is weirdly un-modern—the actress seems to have tapped directly into the mindset of the Edith Wharton novel, and found a style predating ironic distance. Anderson maintains this even though the film’s dialogue and line readings are (rightly so) pitched in a way that heightens the artificial nature of the New York social scene, circa 1905. Anderson, whose performance often has a trapped, corseted intensity, gets Lily’s tragedy: it’s not that Lily doesn’t understand the rules of the game, it’s that she does, but she thinks her wit and beauty can skirt that calcified code.

Anderson is especially compelling in her scenes with Eric Stoltz, as the lawyer Lawrence Selden, who should be Lily’s mate but is not in the correct economic bracket for her status as a socialite. We understand from the way they light each other’s cigarettes (that time-honored form of movie shorthand) that they are meant to be together, but neither is capable of taking the step across tangled expectations and hesitations. Which is how Lily puts herself in position for her downfall, as a financial arrangement with the piglike Gus Trenor (Dan Aykroyd, physically a dead ringer for the book’s Gus) turns into a series of social gaffes that eventually bloom into scandal.

The stylized quality of these social encounters are right up the alley of director Terence Davies, whose previous “memory films” are composed with a painterly eye—somehow both stark and lush. In The House of Mirth, Davies captures the surfaces of privilege, and keeps them surfaces. (Curiously, the one scene that seems short-changed is Lily’s appearance as “Summer” in a tableau vivant at a party. The phenomenon of the tableau isn’t explained for anyone unfamiliar with it, and the stunning effect of Lily’s beauty on the men is left implied.)

Davies has cast some amazing faces in the picture: the strange angles of Jodhi May, as Lily’s apparently innocent cousin, the ghostly severity of Eleanor Bron (unrecognizable as the deft comedienne from 1960s British films) as the disappointed matriarch of Lily’s family, the cagey practicality of Anthony LaPaglia as the outsider financier Rosedale. Laura Linney is devious as Bertha Dorset, Lily’s nemesis—now this is a modern performance. Linney owns the film when Bertha sizes up the various vectors of power and desire at an opera house; as her satisfied face slides behind the black curtain of her box, a shudder passes through Lily’s world.

If the rhythm of the film is stately, it nevertheless always feels alive; there’s a push-pull going on in every scene that creates a buzz: the tension between one’s inner life and the outer world, the distance between things spoken and the more important things left unsaid, the withholding of information on principle, the language of glances. The only thing I really missed from the novel was the quickness and depth of Lily’s wit (and yes, wit can be profound), which adds another level to her tragedy. The casting coup of Gillian Anderson—watching a science fiction goddess tackle Wharton—is itself a kind of push-pull event. With all the other pleasures of the film, it offers the exhilaration of an actress arriving.

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