The Europeans (1979)

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

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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.