The House of Mirth

My Rating:

9 stars: Amazing costumes and period props! Can't beat the scenery!
Add 1/4 star if you really like period costumes.
Add 1/4 star if awards like "The Village Voice Film Critics Poll" and "The British Independent Film Award" mean a lot to you.

Bitable Bytes:
"Bravo to Terrence Davis for editing down a very long novel!"
"A look into a world that means nothing to me!"
"Scene after scene is intense with bold proclamations!"
"Clever how we never actually see any 'mirth'!"

What to do while watching:
Pray for mirth.

What to eat while watching:
Crème brulee a la peche.

Edith Wharton's name rings a bell for yours truly, an English major for six years. She was a novelist in the early part of the 20th century. Since my emphasis was on poetry and on the latter part of the 20th century, I scaped with my M.F.A. never having read one of her books. But having seen this film, I'd sure like to pick one up because I think it would fill in a lot of what is missing in this Hollywood adaptation.

Hey, I'm totally cool with Cliff's Notes. I like Books on Tape. You get the gist of the story and you only have to sit still a couple of hours. Bravo to director Terrence (Distant Lives, Still Voices) Davis for editing down what might be a very long novel indeed into a condensed (but certainly never too condensed) 140 minutes!

This film, for me, was a look into a world that I knew nothing about and that means nothing to me: the world of high society, New York, 19-aught-6. Lilly is the old-for-a-debutante debutante at the dead center of high society's glitz, betrayal, lies, posturing, ostentation, resentment, alienation, shallowness, hypocrisy, duplicity, manipulation, greed, pride, lust, sloth, and glamour! She's in the unenviable position of needing to get married to one rich lout or another in order to maintain her idle lifestyle, which she was born into.

We find out that she's really in love with this young barrister--let's call him "Digby Dinglebert," played by Terry Kinney, I assume. Dibgy is a high society boy slipped from the uppermost echelons of wealth just enough to have to work for a living, but not enough to have given up visits to the French Riviera, and trysts with wealthy adulteresses. Intrigue? You betcha!

Digby seems a good-hearted sort because he is so present for Lilly, quick with friendly advice, and always ready to make kissy-face with her. Lilly better get her act together and marry a rich man soon because she's lost almost all of her fortune on bridge. Cards that is. Gambling for money. Bob Stupak would be proud.

So though she needs the rich husband, she manages to alienate one rich mogul after another. The first gets shocked by her excesses, the second puts her off with his brusqueness. The third turns out to be a real jerk, attempting to take advantage of Lilly's financial woes by not unconditionally giving her a handsome sum of money. Although he is married, he expects a certain repayment from Lilly, and, when she refuses, he compounds her financial woes by demanding repayment--on top of sullying her reputation.

The women of high society are no better. Bertha, flagrantly cuckolding her husband George, a millionaire for whom she bares no love, manages to manipulate Lilly into the wrong place at the right time. She manages to turn society's attention to Lilly, framing her in a social, not legal, sense as her husband's mistress. Lilly's name is ruined.

Scene after scene is intense with bold proclamations of dignity in the face of adversity, desire for happiness amid miserable intrigues, longing in spite of losing, etc. When Lilly finally does sink to the bottom--all the way into the working class--she would seem to transcend the folly of the rich. Except she commits su-- Oops, I almost gave it away! Anyway, she never really gets over the loss of the glamorous lifestyle. Which, I guess, is not surprising since the idle rich really didn't know how to survive without tons and tons of lucre and butt-sitting time.

So it's nice how subtle is the moral of this story. It's not really clear how the author feels about the wealthy and all their ickyness. I mean, if they really are as shallow and manipulative as the entire film makes them out to be, why does the entire film focus so exclusively on them? Why does it seem to deliver the truth that a rich single woman who follows her heart will become bankrupt, then miserable, then crazy? It's too subtle for me. Again, I say, "Bravo, Terrence 'Mr. Subtle' Davis!"

It's also very clever how we never actually see any mirth. In spite of the title, all laughter was on the part of the people in the movie--not watching it--and all their laughter was of the humorless, bitter kind. Maybe that's what they call an "ironic" title, or at least what irony expert Alanis Morrisette would call "ironic." It's like when it rains on your wedding day. You just want to say, "Huh! Ain't that a kick in the pants!" It's pure using-your-fingers-as-quotation-marks "irony."

Anyway, if you like period pieces because they let you look at the clothing and props of days gone by, you will love this extensive and brilliant collection of cigarette cases, lace gloves, parapets, buggies, top hats, and high-collared, New-Yorker-style shirts. The hairstyles are impeccably period, as well. Too bad Dan Ackroyd is such an anachronism, and such a good comedy actor that he isn't too hot with the serious role. And not to say that I'm at all disappointed, but I really was hoping for just a little actual mirth, maybe a good, old-fashioned pie in Gillian Anderson's delightfully lovely face.

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For your collection: The House of Mirth.

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