The House of Mirth
Directed by Terence Davies
Shadow of the Vampire
Directed by E. Elias Merhige
Lions Gate Films
Directed by Peter Howitt
There are some admirable things in Terence Davies’ film of Edith Wharton’s The House ofMirth, but what struck me most forcibly was the director’s high estimation of his audience. Where other adaptors of major (and minor) novels insist on spelling out motivations for the lazy and undiscerning viewer (to the point of larding the action with now-fashionable narration), Davies has made a movie that will likely be intelligible only to telepaths. Who but clairvoyants and Wharton aficionados will have a clue why the beauteous, social-climbing heroine, Lily Bart (Gillian Anderson), would succumb so readily to poverty and degradation when unjustly exiled from her circle? Who but mind readers will fathom the bizarre non-courtship between Lily and the vaguely iconoclastic Lawrence Selden (Eric Stoltz), whose reproach of Lily exacerbates her own ambivalence and (along with several 19th-century melodramatic contrivances) propels her into the abyss? I can’t recall another movie that cries out so incessantly for running commentary.
Perhaps that’s because running commentary is built into the book. Wharton was one of the last novelists to explore the conflict between social artifice and inner truth without having made up her mind in advance that the former was a wholly bad thing. She lingers almost lovingly over the opulent surfaces of townhouses and country estates; at the same time, surfaces (and spoken dialogue) tell only a fraction of the story. The real drama is in the heads of her protagonists, who vainly attempt to reconcile their (frequently erotic) impulses with rigorously prescribed codes of behavior. There is a vast, subterranean world of longings, antipathies, and stratagems at which the characters’ utterances only hint; the rest is filled in by the author herself, adept at skipping from one teeming head to the next in the manner of her mentor, Henry James.
Terence Davies, who by choice or limitation works in a formal, often symmetrical style, has decided to relay The House of Mirth through a series of ceremonial tableaux. And there is, to be fair, a kind of excitement in his procession of house parties and banquets and strolls over manicured landscapes and the shrugs of pretty ladies with big hats and parasols—in the rituals that must be re-enacted before a spontaneous word can be uttered. But Davis’ visual integrity (or whatever) proves demented. Viewed in long shot, as through the wrong end of a telescope, scene after scene is inexplicable, blurry, muddled.
Or miscast. Gillian Anderson is a beautiful woman, but in a small, fine-featured, slightly recessive way. She doesn’t have the movie-star bloom that you expect in a Lily Bart—the kind of stature that magnetizes the heads in a room, male and female. Anderson’s airs are rather strident. She gives a truthful, at times brave performance, but she has to work too hard to be Lily Bart, which means that Lily Bart has to work too hard—which means that the turning point of the story, Selden’s attack on her social ambitions, comes off as needlessly cruel, since the poor girl is barely pulling off her act as things stand. You don’t even register that Selden is mad about her, since Stoltz is incapable of projecting ardor (or anything else): You come away thinking that it’s Lily’s love for him that’s unrequited and that she’s rather pathetic even before her downward trajectory commences.
It’s true that fatal ambivalence isn’t easy to portray on screen (even the swooping camera of Martin Scorsese in his 1993 The Age of Innocence couldn’t fully dramatize the ebb and flow of the characters’ inner longings), but Davies doesn’t attempt to pull you into Lily’s head and make her willful martyrdom compelling—or compelling in ways that transcend bathos. To be honest, I don’t find Lily’s fate especially convincing in the novel either, but Wharton, at least, steers you through her heroine’s tortured thought processes. All the irritable objections to Lily’s passivity that the viewer of Davies’ movie will raise are also raised—and answered—by Lily herself. Wharton shows you why this woman chooses her fate without in any way endorsing it or making it seem inevitable. Lily simply cannot bring herself to live in this “house of mirth,” and she believes herself to be unfit to exist outside it. The woman on screen, on the other hand, just seems mulish in her faith in the purifying powers of poverty—and a strong candidate for Zoloft.
The filmmakers smooth out the novel’s anti-Semitic portrait of the financial speculator (and Lily devotee) Sim Rosedale by making him a lovable teddy bear and casting an Italian (Anthony LaPaglia). Clever! Laura Linney, with her devious sidelong glances and self-intoxicated laugh, saunters off with the picture: It’s fitting that in this topsy-turvy House of Mirth the villain should end up the life force.
Anyone who has shivered through F.W. Murnau’s great Dracula adaptation, Nosferatu (1922), has wondered about the otherworldly stick figure with the head of a rat and the jokey moniker “Max Schreck.” The irresistible mystery posed by Shadow of the Vampire is whether Schreck (Willem Dafoe) is a Stanislavski-trained actor insanely immersed in his role or a real vampire—a former Transylvanian warlord now wizened with age and bitter over his loss of potency. The movie asks: What if Murnau (John Malkovich), in his monomaniacal pursuit of realism, unearthed this fiend and made a bargain to feed him members of his cast and crew in return for the glory of capturing him on celluloid for all time?
It’s a fantastic premise, abetted by splendid Nosferatu re-creations and Expressionistic East European set designs, but once you know it (and once you’ve seen the hilarious trailer, which has all the high spots), there’s almost nothing left to discover in the film itself. The screenplay, by Steven Katz, suffers from arch, almost unspeakably theatrical dialogue, and, as Murnau, John Malkovich recites his lines as if monomania were synonymous with monotonic: He drains the drama of blood.
In some ways, Shadow of the Vampire seems just as informed by the 1979 Werner Herzog Nosferatu remake as the Murnau original. The tension between the obsessive director and his crazed star, Klaus Kinski, was legendary, and it’s just possible that Herzog could have agreed to feed the actor women (Kinski’s sexual appetites were vampirically all-consuming) in return for his cooperation. Dafoe combines the most hilarious aspects of Kinski with the eeriest of “Schreck.” When he sniffs the air and announces of a starlet, “She has a beautiful boo-som,” he seems like some pestilent, coke-addled old voluptuary. There are times when Dafoe’s accent strays into Billy Crystal Yiddish, but the notion of Vlad the Impaler aging into a finicky old Jew has its own kind of piquancy.
It was inevitable that someone would make a paranoid conspiracy thriller with Microsoft as a high-tech SMERSH and Bill Gates as Blofeld, and that’s how AntiTrust feels—inevitable. [ Correction, Jan. 17: It’s S.P.E.C.T.R.E., not SMERSH.] The computer geek hero, Milo (Ryan Phillippe, fer sher), works out of a garage with his righteous buddy Terry (Yee Jee Tso) and believes in open-source code, but Milo’s promptly seduced by the devil (sorry, Gates [sorry, “Gary Winston”]) at Microsoft (sorry, “NURV”) into moving to the Pacific Northwest to work on satellite transmissions that will “connect everyone on every device simultaneously.” Every time an independent programmer dies in a mysterious accident, Gates (sorry, Winston) drops by Milo’s desk with a new string of code developed by vague “others.” Hmmm …
The suspense comes from: 1) Will the Chinese buddy get offed after an hour or an hour and a half? 2) How many of Milo’s friends and lovers will turn out to be company pod people watching his every move? 3) How will Milo convince people that Gary Winston isn’t just a rapacious capitalist but a fascist, paranoid psychopath—and what’s the difference, anyway? (Spoiler: I’ve heard some dumb movie ideas in my time, but hiding cameras above the desks of computer geeks all over the world and peeking at their monitors is right up there with Mr. Freeze moving the polar ice cap to Gotham City.)
The director, Peter Howitt, does tight work; the designs (especially Winston’s lakeside spread, part spaceship, part bat-cave) are witty; and the picture moves along and develops some momentum. It’s always a treat to see the sleepy-eyed Claire Forlani, that alluring noodle. But the movie is written in very old code. Good lefty that he is, Tim Robbins will drop everything to play another right-wing fascist. He makes you laugh at Winston’s calculations—at his studied informality, his attempts to convey boyish enthusiasm (stuffing his mouth with potato chips and enthusing over some high-tech gizmo), his hairpin swerves into mania. But this hambone performance—and this movie—is a libel on one of the true visionaries of American business in the 20th century, a man unfairly demonized for doing what others strove to do but doing it faster and better.
AntiTrust ends with a ringing endorsement for open-source code and the proclamation that “human knowledge belongs to the world.” I wonder how fast the studio, MGM, would revise that proclamation if I made James Bond a character in a screenplay …
After the hurly-burly of the Christmas movie season, I’m going to be taking next week off to recharge. Click for a special New Year’s message to Slate readers.