Poor Little Rich Girl
The House of Mirth is Terence Davies’ adaptation of Edith Wharton’s classic novel about Lily Bart (played here by Gillian Anderson), a New York socialite on the hunt for a “miserably rich” husband. Like the novel, the film indicts the immoral, vicious underside of the Gilded Age, exposing it as a world of shallow, ever-fleeting pleasures. Wharton announced this indictment in her title, which she took from the Bible: “The house of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth” (Ecclesiastes 7:4). While both novel and film show that Lily is a fool to set her hopes on the house of mirth, they also ask whether we can blame her for refusing to live in the house of mourning.
In Davies’ movie, Lily first appears as she disembarks from a train amid a swirl of steam, stepping out of shadows into a thin shaft of light. The seductive sway of her hips is delineated in silhouette; tightly bound by her corset and draped in the most fashionable finery of the day, Lily knows that she is perfectly lovely. More importantly, as we will come to see, Lily knows that her beauty is her best means for maintaining her place in high society, and a commodity she must manage carefully, for it can also bring her the “wrong” kind of attention from men and promote dangerous jealousy in other women. But Lily has something else to sell—her status as a member of a venerable New York family. Because she’s not personally wealthy, Lily is dependent on her friends and wealthy old aunt, Mrs. Penniston (Eleanor Bron), for everything—her aunt provides Lily with a room in the ancestral mansion and she pays the dressmaker’s bills, but she gives no her niece no spending money. Lily’s friends take her on grand tours and cruises, to the opera and out to dine, yet she longs to be independent. To that end, she denies her love for the relatively un-wealthy lawyer Lawrence Seldon (Eric Stoltz) and seeks the attentions of better-connected suitors. After years of compromising her desires, Lily feels lonely and frustrated.
Davies has a difficult task in making all this apparent in the film. Where the novel does it through dialogue between characters who comment on Lily and a narrator, who describes Lily’s feelings (“She always hated her dark room at Mrs. Penniston’s—its ugliness, its impersonality, the fact that nothing was really hers”). Instead of relying on a voice-over, as Martin Scorsese used in his adaptation of Wharton’s Age of Innocence, Davies indicates Lily’s alienation by focusing on the literal darkness of her world. As in the opening scene, when Lily emerges from the gloom, the settings are repeatedly dreary and pierced by a single shaft of light. When Lily begs her Aunt Penniston for help in paying some gambling debts, the room is completely dark except for the flickering firelight, which makes the Aunt look somewhat ghoulish.
Not only is Lily immersed in shadows, but she is also often relegated to passive postures, draped over chaise lounges or posing as a famous painting in a tableaux vivants. These scenes also highlight the connection between Lily and the commodities she so covets and needs. The House of Mirth was published just six years after Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class, in which he coined the term “conspicuous consumption.” While Wharton certainly decries her characters’ vanity, she is more concerned about the lack of familial and social responsibility in a community obsessed with possessing and parading their worldly goods. By emphasizing the importance of Lily’s appearance, Davies conveys her own sense of tension, as she feels like an object and also a desirous person who wants to look good.
Another challenge for Davies results from what we might call “historical distance.” Wharton chronicles a period when acceptable behavior for women were far more rigid than today, and she depictes the upper echelons, where the rules were perhaps most demanding. So, Lily’s detractors can use her slightest slip-ups—for instance, smoking a cigarette or gambling at cards—as weapons against her—in her set, women’s smoking is considered improper and even a sign of promiscuity. To today’s viewers, the enormous consequences of these minor acts—her elderly Aunt is stricken with a terrible illness when she learns that Lily has actually lost money at cards—may be confusing. Similarly, viewers used to saying what they want might find it hard to understand Lily’s inability to express her love for Seldon. A lawyer who travels with her crowd, he appears, on the surface, to be a good match—and surely, less offensive than the affluent boors who are presented as possible mates. Seldon, however, is not quite rich enough to make a suitable husband. And so she and Sheldon share a mutual attraction and disdain for social niceties. In one sexy scene, they share a cigarette, leaning closely toward one another in the swirling smoke, as their ardor is indicated by Lily’s heaving bosom. Unfortunately, the “heaving bosom” shot is repeated a few too many times in other scenes—in reaction to Seldon, bad news, and unwelcome advances.
While the film’s recreation of the era recalls the intricately restrained depths of a Sergeant painting, its main weakness is in Anderson’s portrayal of Lily Bart. Her attempts to portray Lily’s poise and reserve come across as stiff and artificial, sometimes even a little reminiscent of the skeptical Agent Scully. This may not Anderson’s fault, as the film’s dismal interiors and soap operatic close-ups are by definition limiting. The intensity that this visual style demands from Anderson—who is in nearly every scene—wears thin after two and a half hours, especially when compared to the subtleties observed by Jodhi May as Lily’s treacherous cousin Grace Stepney and Laura Linney as Lily’s rival, Bertha Dorset.
As well, in focusing on the visual dynamics and stripping the dialogue to its bare essentials, Davies occasionally makes it a little difficult to get a full sense of Lily or those around her. For instance, he misses a chance to reveal more about the prejudice of this world when he chooses to sidestep the particular reason that Lily’s friends “dislike” Sim Rosedale (Anthony LaPaglia). In the novel, Wharton articulated exactly what is veiled in the film version—Rosedale is Jewish and so, though he’s very (and newly) rich because of his “investments,” he is unable to break into New York’s blatantly anti-Semitic upper class. One of the many men who court Lily, his outsider status at first repels her; she can’t imagine associating herself with someone so inimical to polite society. And while he is frank that he wants to use her to break in to that society, he also cares about her. She eventually comes to admire his straightforward manner and ability to speak the truth, and realizes, too late, that marriage to him might not have been a mistake after all, both because he does make a successful incursion into her group, and because he truly cares for her. Rosedale is the only person who honestly tries to help her, once her social stock diminishes.
Our own understanding of Lily may also be hampered by The House of Mirth‘s refusal to adhere to a standard “woman’s” storyline. Unlike many other nineteenth-century tales adapted for the screen, it is not a romance. It centers on a young woman who refuses to adhere to codes of behavior and in particular, the quest to find a husband. Lily indignantly remarks to Seldon that, regarding marriage, “A girl must and a man if he chooses.” For Lily, it is not clear if her love life will work out and it is even more uncertain what a successful resolution would look like. If Lily were to marry for money as she plans to do, is that success? Or, if she marries for love and loses her place in society, is that success? The film’s concern is the tragedy of both options. For Lily, in fact, they are not options. An intelligent woman born into a society that discourages intelligence in women, Lily has instead “been brought up to be ornamental.” As ambitious and spirited as she is, her Achilles’ heel is her confessed love for luxury and leisure, a weakness both personal and produced by a society that associates women with consumption and consumerism.
Why should viewers care about Lily? How can they be expected to feel sorry for a woman who seems to have it all—a respected family line, beauty, and social favor? The film suggests that she deserves sympathy because she pays a terrible price, both for wanting in and wanting out. She must associate with cruel, selfish people in order to benefit from the luxuries they provide. And so, even her small indulgences, her ways of rebelling, come back to haunt her. While everyone around her cheats and deceives to get what they want, Lily refuses to follow suit. Davies remains true to Wharton’s careful plotting of her downward spiral: as Lily sees her position slipping away and her chances to marry well wither, she notes with characteristically limited insight, “We resist the great temptations, but it is the little ones that pull us down.” It is a telling observation, revealing her complexities as well as her failings. With so few films focusing on complex and intriguing female characters and with the visually compelling story that Davies creates, The House of Mirth is a qualified success.