Dreary and delusional at the same time, The White Countess may be most notable for being the final Ismail Merchant/James Ivory collaboration. Set in 1936 Shanghai, it revisits the filmmakers’ usual concerns — loss, desire, and nostalgia for a moment that never quite existed. It does in images that are exquisitely (shot by Christopher Doyle) and tinged with longing for olden-days imperialism.
Here the primary losses are embodied by two expatriates, literally blind former diplomat Jackson (Ralph Fiennes) and mournful former Russian countess Sofia (Natasha Richardson). She first appears as she gazes in a mirror, applying lipstick before she embarks for work at a nightclub where she is one of several prostitutes. Sad and resigned, Sofia’s eyes reveal a history of disappointment: once carelessly privileged, now burdened not only with the task of supporting her Aunt Sara (Vanessa Redgrave), Uncle Peter (John Wood), and 10-year-old daughter Katya (Madeleine Daly), as well as her mother-in-law Olga (Lynn Redgrave) and sister-in-law Greshenka (Madeleine Potter). All of the Belinskys save for Katya is bitter about their changed fortunes, and all resent Sofia as the sign of that change — this even as they depend on her to eat, which only makes their rage more painful.
This pain emerges in suggestions that Sofia keep her distance from Katya, so as not to taint the child or give her the idea that painted lips and floozy dresses are proper accoutrements for a lady. Sofia, feeling ashamed, tends to go along with these judgments, hanging her head and closing her door on Katya even when the little girl pleads to visit with her. (The fact that Sofia’s room has partial windows as walls exacerbates the simultaneous lack and overdetermination of boundaries among these furious family members.)
Sofia’s fortunes change again when she meets Jackson, about to be mugged by two of her seedy nightclub’s clients when she steps forward, offering him her watchful eyes and protective company. Inspired by the nobility he senses in her, Jackson decides to pursue his longtime ambition, to open “the bar of my dreams.” Here he means to conjure “a balance between the erotic and the tragic” — precisely the qualities he envisions in Sofia. In this haven of a club, Jackson imagines, patrons might forget the forces of history beating against the doors. “She’s the one,” he says mysteriously to his attendant Liu (Luoyong Wang), “the one that they’re looking for.”
This being Shanghai in the ’30s, the forces of history are imminently devastating — Japan’s invasion of eastern China (here positioned as the film’s climax, 14 August 1937, known as “Bloody Saturday”) and the ensuing Sino-Japanese war (1937-1945) will be brutal, and no effort to forget can succeed. Still, Jackson pushes forward, offering to free Sofia from the drudgery (and sexual expectations) of her current employment and providing her with an elegant new wardrobe, suitable for her new role as figurehead for the club, “The White Countess.” While Jackson surely has his own stake in forgetting (his catastrophic history involves a dead child and the explosion that caused his blindness), he projects onto Sofia something approximating “the end of history”: “She has everything,” he pronounces, “the tragedy, the weariness. She knows that history has no place for her kind anymore.” Her knowledge, in this formulation, rather exceeds his, as he can’t quite own his part in the ongoing problem of war and imperialism. Instrumental in constructing the League of Nations (“I heard you were at Versailles for at the signing of the Great Treaty,” notes one acquaintance), now he waits to be overwhelmed by events, holding out as long as possible with his establishment, illusory by definition.
Jackson’s blindness works all ways in Kazuo Ishiguro’s script: willfully bringing together opposed ideologies and loyalties within the space of his club, he delights in the resultant bits of aggression and conflict. At the same time, he befriends Japanese businessman Matsuda (Hiroyuki Sanada) — more precisely, they entertain themselves by engaging in witty-seeming conversation, pondering the world’s tribulations while imagining themselves untouched (or, if touched, righteously poignant). That Matsuda turns out to be working with the Japanese government toward the invasion isn’t exactly a surprise, but it does underline Jackson’s abject inability to see himself in any sort of pragmatic or immediate context. All his dreams are romantic in the most egregious sense, premised on his desire to arrange environments as if they were board games.
He can’t achieve his ends, of course. In this film’s weird logic, this failure makes him a victim. Though he poses as if he’s arrogant and knowledgeable, it turns out he’s really afraid, like most everyone else, and in the end, neither powerful nor genteel, though he tries mightily to convince himself of same. To this end, his relationship with Sofia is crucial, as she represents, for him, all that is beautiful and broken, beloved and lost forever. While Jackson is constrained by those buffeting forces for history, violence inflicted by others, and, to an extent, his own culturally constructed, severely self-involved yearnings, he finds in Sofia a damaged soul that mirrors his own. If history has no need of either of them, they need one another.