Fall from grace

House of Mirth navigates the social hierarchies and sexual mores of turn-of-the-century New York

Terence Davies' adaptation of Edith Wharton's novel House of Mirth is a smart, absorbing affair drenched in the kind of verbal subterfuge and elaborately finessed double-crosses that send bookish hearts aflutter.
Gillian Anderson, whose angular face, plump figure and milky skin suggest a Victorian cameo, performs with remarkable skill and grace all the nuances required of Wharton's complicated character Lily Barton, a beautiful orphan whose sole purpose in life is finding a proper spouse to support her in the life she's grown accustomed to. But Lily's defiant, independent personality makes her resistant to that narrow social pigeonhole. Though a match with the wealthy and dull Percy Gryce (Pearce Quigley) would guarantee a life of leisure, Lily resists. Perhaps she sees a bad omen in making a life with a man whose personal fortune rests on a device that sucks the fresh air out of hotels.
A threat to married women who envy her freedom (and a dangerously tempting bauble to their husbands), the confoundingly single Lily is moved about the social world of turn-of-the-century New York like an unwitting pawn on a chessboard. Her own meager fortune, begrudgingly doled out by her aunt (a puckered crone who has her nieces read her obituaries for amusement), is not substantial enough to keep her in the life she desires. It's only in mixing with society's wolves that Lily can enjoy life's niceties: European cruises, weekends in the country and a taste of the glittering good life her aunt's colorless existence denies.
Lily first appears in House of Mirth as the very picture of aristocratic, feminine grace. But her relationship with the beguiling (and financially challenged) Lawrence Selden (Eric Stoltz) reveals rivers of possibility beneath Lily's placid, ladylike facade. The pair has engaged in a serious flirtation throughout the years, but Lily's insecurities — and Selden's changeable nature — seem to keep her from making a commitment to the man.
Selden brings out the font of passion lurking within Lily's heart, a lustiness other characters also seem drawn to and angered by. Scenes between Stoltz and Anderson have a heady, powerful chemistry. Seated under a tree or in a secluded grotto at a party, they both become suddenly sodden with desire, their movements and words suggesting two sleepwalkers in a stuporous embrace. The reality of such moments tends to vaporize every false, deceptive moment of Lily's other world — a world she mistakes, at her own eventual peril, for a safe one.
Something of a hapless lamb who realizes too late she's dealing with wolves, Lily is at times an annoyingly obtuse and self-involved woman. Davies does justice to the complexity of Lily's mindset, painting her just as often as a snob, a self-indulgent girl whose own taste for the good life blinds her to lurking danger in the form of lust-drunk husbands and scheming wives who take advantage of her naiveté.
There is a feeling throughout House of Mirth that Lily is in a kind of trance, and it is only with the terrible outcome of the film that her stupor is replaced by an all-too-palpable reality. Sleep proves a compelling motif, not only in the film's halting, molasses rhythm but in the visual suggestion that Lily is, literally, sleepwalking through her world.
Women's tumbles from society into the working class are rarely pretty, but Davies' achievement may be in making society look almost as tomb-like and oppressive as the supposed ignominy of poverty, or as Lily's married friend Carry Fisher (Elizabeth McGovern) confides, "The world is vile."
Though it may not be immediately apparent, Davies prepares us well for Lily's fall from grace. She suggests that the New York aristocracy of balls and cruises is as much a moral sewer as the lower-rungs of city life, where a feeling of being sucked down into a dark, secret life of poverty and grim loneliness prevails. There is a telling airlessness and pall to the rich surroundings of Lily's privileged world as she walks around her aunt's parlor surveying the Victorian baubles, the cobwebs of lace and all the calcified regimen of the upper classes. Even the promise of escape in marriage seems a poor alternative, just the trading of one misery for another.
Moving from wounded nobility to haughtiness to a desire for rescue, Lily performs the gestures expected of her social station, while also flexing a personal will and true integrity that demonstrate the force of her own personality. Lily sees her need for an eligible suitor as a business, though for such a clever girl, she is reluctant to grasp the applicability of "politics" to describe her entanglement in polite society. Too bright and complicated for her own good, Lily seems to suffer from the same fate as more contemporary "Sex and the City" and Bridget Jones damsels: Unable to find her intellectual equal and her financial better, she remains tragically alone. And while a woman alone may be tolerated in 21st century New York, she is a threat in turn-of-the-century society, a threat to be exorcised in Wharton's sympathetic, cautionary and bleakly resolved drama.