PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

The Europeans (1979)

Chris Elliot

The Europeans revisits the usual Merchant Ivory themes, most notably, culture clashes and individual desires to 'connect'.

The Europeans

Director: James Ivory
Cast: Lee Remick, Robin Ellis, Wesley Addy, Norman Snow, Timi Choate, Lisa Eichhorn, Kristin Griffith, Nancy New, Tim Woodward
Distributor: Home Vision Entertainment
Studio: Merchant Ivory Productions
First date: 1984
US DVD Release Date: 2003-08-19

Director: James Ivory
Cast: Christopher Reeve, Vanessa Redgrave, Madeleine Potter
(Merchant Ivory Productions, 1984)
DVD release date: 19 August 2003 (Home Vision Entertainment)

by Chris Elliot
:. e-mail this article
:. print this article
:. comment on this article


Home Vision Entertainment, The Criterion Collection, and Merchant Ivory Productions have teamed up to bring us the "Merchant Ivory Collection," which, as the name suggests, will provide Ismail Merchant and James Ivory's films on DVD. The first two installments of the collection are adaptations of Henry James novels: The Europeans and The Bostonians. (Bombay Talkie, Heat and Dust, Maurice, and Quartet are slated for release later this year.) To their credit, these first two DVDs lack the overdose of extras we've come to expect on Hollywood releases: it's just you and the film (with the addition of a brief conversation with the filmmakers included on each disc).

Set against a crisp, autumnal 1840s New England landscape, two manipulative Europeans and their seriously religious American cousins are the focus of Merchant and Ivory's 1979 rendition of Henry James' antebellum comedy, The Europeans. It's a light jaunt, but not without narrative complexity, containing enough tangled love interests, confused suitors, and cunningly played matrimonial endgames to satisfy even the most avid consumers of period romances.

It also revisits the usual Merchant Ivory themes, most notably, culture clashes and individual desires to "connect." The Europeans stages conflicts between "Old World Europe" and "New World America," dissipated old money and vibrant new capital. The film begins with the unannounced arrival to the New England Wentworth homestead of the "European cousins," Felix (Tim Woodward) and Eugenia (Lee Remick), who enter into their extended American family's staid lives like two courtiers from a European court. Close to penniless but very urbane, the two have high hopes of achieving some manner of stability courtesy of the American Wentworths; they're quick to take up residence in the guesthouse and in the Americans' web of relationships.

Love, or the game of love, is their preferred mode of insertion. Gertrude Wentworth (Lisa Eichhorn) becomes Felix's target. She's also being wooed by the austere Reverend Mr. Brand (Norman Snow), who is, in turn, loved from afar by Gertrude's sister Charlotte (Nancy New). For her part, Eugenia trawls about the party scene like a shark, targeting well-to-do bachelor Robert Acton (Robin Ellis) -- cousin to the Wentworths -- but he's a wish-washy sort, and, well, she's still married to that prince in Germany. To top it all off, Clifford Wentworth (Tim Choate) is feeling romantically disposed toward perky Lizzie Acton (Robert's sister, played by Kristin Griffin).

The plot is filled with such complications, requiring subtle manipulations. Which is to say, it's all very European, as Europe here signifies opaque refinements and elusive intentions, a predilection for intricacies of language and manners; of Eugenia, Mr. Wentworth (Wesley Addy) says, "I only wish she'd speak French. It would seem more in keeping." At the heart of these delicate social processes is the question of taste, which confounds the Americans at every turn, what with their naïve moral certitude (as when they look to the Bible to cure all ills, including Clifford's predilection for drink).

Neither category -- American or European -- is entirely stable in The Europeans. Identity is a malleable thing: "Are you French?" asks Gertrude. "No," says Felix, "though I could easily be French if you'd like." Such complications sort themselves out a bit too quickly (like, in the span of five minutes near the end of the film), so it's not a paradigm-shifting experience for the viewer. But it is the film that launched Merchant and Ivory into the James oeuvre, setting the stage for a film version of The Bostonians, in which the game of love is more complexly situated.

The Bostonians opens with an ominous pipe organ rendition of "God Bless America," a typically American clarion call to look to the heavens for divine protection. But it's also an indication of their proclivity to ascribe to the heavens a moral authority and duty (i.e., to guide and protect the nation) that is more appropriately assigned to the imperfect people on the ground. It muddies our understanding of responsibility. And responsibility, intellectual and political, is a central theme here. Beginning with this musical exultation in divine right, a heady deferral of one's place in the dirty mechanics of material reality, the film plows down into the more difficult and uncertain terrain of real personal relations and politics.

Set in mid-1870s Boston and New York, it's about a budding suffragette movement in conflict with established patriarchy, about desire and love in conflict with traditionally gendered relations, and, ultimately, about the post-Civil War transition into the 20th century. The plot centers around an intense love triangle involving well-known suffragette Olive Chancellor (captured wonderfully by Vanessa Taylor), her Southern cousin Basil Ransom (a surprisingly effective Christopher Reeve), and their mutual love interest, the charismatic young feminist speaker, Verena Tarrant (Madeleine Potter). Verena is the talk of Boston's enlightened intelligentsia.

A sort of walking cult-of-personality, Verena immediately sweeps Olive and Basil off their feet. Olive, at once strong-willed and vulnerable, filled with intellectual passion but also monumental self-doubt, sees Verena as the perfect voice for her movement. Basil, an inveterate chauvinist who is nonetheless disarmingly witty, sees Verena as a perfect plantation wife. Each makes particular demands on the young woman: Olive that she promise never to marry and Basil that she recant the movement.

Caught in the middle, Verena seeks advice alternately from Olive and Basil. Her confusion and indecisiveness ("Tell me what to do, Olive"), and the fact that she's willing enough to consider Basil's advances, give the lie to her supposed feminist roots. In fact, she's neither feminist nor particularly intellectual. Under Olive's tutelage, she becomes more polished, but also more obviously the pretty mouthpiece for Olive's rhetoric. Perhaps ironically, she also proves to be an agent of transformation for Olive, whose muddled vision of herself drives her attraction to Verena in the first place.

Under the hyperkinetic surface of the love triangle lurks a story about a transformation of the feminist movement into something better and truer to itself. It's no stretch to argue that in The Bostonians, Olive and feminism are one and the same thing. So her transition from ghostwriter of Verena's stage act to an active, public agent represents the movement's own evolution.

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.


15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.


Sixteen Years Later Wayne Payne Follows Up His Debut

Waylon Payne details a journey from addiction to redemption on Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me, his first album since his 2004 debut.


Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.


Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.


Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.


Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.


The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.


British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.


Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.


​Patrick Cowley Remade Funk and Disco on 'Some Funkettes'

Patrick Cowley's Some Funkettes sports instrumental renditions from between 1975-1977 of songs previously made popular by Donna Summer, Herbie Hancock, the Temptations, and others.


The Top 10 Definitive Breakup Albums

When you feel bombarded with overpriced consumerism disguised as love, here are ten albums that look at love's hangover.


Dustin Laurenzi's Natural Language Digs Deep Into the Jazz Quartet Format with 'A Time and a Place'

Restless tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi runs his four-piece combo through some thrilling jazz excursions on a fascinating new album, A Time and a Place.


How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.


Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.


CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.


Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.


While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.