Terence Davies’ The House of Mirth

“Still Life”

I like this film but will no longer make excuses for it. Here are my critical thoughts on Terence Davies’ The House of Mirth:
Quite the intentionally haunting opening shot, and it initially turned me on quite a lot. But in hindsight, what does it mean? In the commentary, Davies mentions that it is meant to create a dream-feeling and to be used as a bookend for the film’s final shot: as a bookend I do not see how it has anything to do with the film’s wonderful final shot (the story is about the hell of social life); as an entryway to a dream-story I venture that this stretches credulity. The film’s dream-quality comes, to me, in the lack of long shots, the constant use of interiors and the lack of atmospheric sound (the film feels like it takes place in a vacuum), the universally merciless attitude of its characters and the general feeling of oppression, very pronounced and quite enhanced by the dialogue, which nobody would disagree is overly literary. Every line is spoken with such preparedness and measure that so few sound genuine, and incidentally one would be scared to not speak that way around such characters; a person who did not speak in this world in the contrived manner would cause pauses, glances, and be called “disconsolate and queer.”

That’s my long-winded way of saying that the opening shot is very little more than a big fat Davies homage to period novels and films: “You are now entering a period piece, a magical place where costumes and speech have refinement and interactions carry the subtext that the current generation takes for granted…” You should hear Davies on the commentary, it’s rare to hear a director speak of his own film with such excitement and immodesty. He loves it and thinks it’s excellent.
When I first passed this film on video store shelves I was struck at the casting, which at first seemed bizarre. I didn’t see Stoltz all that often and was happy for his presence, but Aykroyd? Terry Kinney? (he does seem frighteningly natural as the cuckold) But the casting worked so very well.
I find the interactions in this film strange, and I believe it is because of Davies’ methods of shooting and cutting. None of the shots are what I would call “bad shots” but there is a lacking rhythm to things, and most importantly, I am missing a feeling that Davies truly speaks the language of film. This effort seems almost experimental at times, and is obviously quite formal – too formal. Can you name one location where you have a realistic sense of space? One location that is memorable beyond its period knickknacks which were placed in the frame? The world is made of props and the characters are only more props; Davies is shooting a still life. (and now I realize that this is it, this is true, I’ve “got to the bottom of it.” This article is now titled).
This shot represents a prime example of Davies’ failure to speak Film. Bertha Dorset (Linney) has just stepped in and plunked herself down in the seat next to Gillian Anderson. Now, Anderson had been engaged in a conversation with this man, who we will only vaguely recall as Percy Gryce:Bertha Dorset is to become a very major character and this entrance is, if not merely unceremonious, confusing to the viewer. She seems unimportant without pretext and without focusing more explicitly on Anderson’s reaction to her. We stay in this silly two-shot.
One of many shots which “move past crap in rooms.” I don’t think Davies cares much for the sky.
And here we’re already having names dropped which one is unsure of: Lawrence Selden and Bertha Dorset. One is not quite positive if one has heard these names before or not, and if so in what context one is meant to regard them. Why is this confusion created in the sensitive viewer? It shouldn’t be difficult to keep track of a few characters. This is perhaps because our focus has been misplaced by the film’s eye. The shots are antiseptic and unengaging. Even a Brit like Greenaway is highly cerebral, but I don’t think one can accuse him of ever being anything but engaging… his provocative nature wouldn’t allow it.

And I now realize it’s also largely because of the line delivery. Davies is getting good actors and they’re working – but it’s stiff. Very, very stiff.

And since emotion takes a backseat to social agenda in every single spoken line… it’s difficult to care about a single line spoken… and ever difficult to engage the audience.
Here Bertha is remarking on how much she likes the quiet. After looking up the line in Wharton’s text, Davies’ version of how period characters spend their time is deficient. They are literally sitting around, letting time pass by, barely interacting with one another.

OK. I’ve got the central problems. This critique will end here, for now, and may continue as I explore some other Davies works and determine if he actually knows what he’s doing or not.

POSTSCRIPT: I realize now that much of the film’s result is due to low funding. Viewed this way, Davies has done an impressive job. But still. The film does feel cheap. I was under the impression Davies was too experienced to make such a mistake.

POSTSCRIPT PART 2: Started Distant Voices, Still Lives and I now realize that Davies’ specialty is “the past,” which puts this film in a different light. It’s kind of about his “image of a different time.” And there’s merit in that. Still doesn’t alleviate all my opinions about the film’s problems, which it seems were primarily caused by budget limitations.

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