They flourished their masks, the independent pair, as they might have flourished Spanish fans; they smiled and sighed on removing them; but the gesture, the smiles, the sighs, strangely enough, might have been suspected the greatest reality in the business.
– Henry James, The Wings of the Dove1

More than any other film industry, the French have worked hard to rescue Henry James from the horrors of ‘heritage cinema’. Films like La chambre verte (The Green Room, François Truffaut, 1978) and Aspern (Eduardo de Gregorio, 1982) are not without their flaws. Yet they are honest and stylistically bold attempts to translate James stories into authentically cinematic terms. The post-New Wave classic by Jacques Rivette Céline et Julie vont en bateau (Celine and Julie Go Boating, 1974) was inspired in part by James’ little-known melodramatic pot-boiler The Other House. So in adapting a James novel for his first big-budget film, Benoît Jacquot was following in an honourable if commercially problematic tradition.

Since its release in 1981, the Jacquot film Les ailes de la colombe (The Wings of the Dove) has vanished almost entirely from public view. Despite the presence of major stars (Isabelle Huppert, Dominique Sanda, Michele Placido) and the deployment of dazzling widescreen photography on Venetian locations, it is unavailable on DVD or Blu-ray, and has been absent from major festival retrospectives of Jacquot’s work. Rarely seen and even more rarely written about – in English, at least – it is one of those intriguing lacunae of which film history is all too full.

The reasons for its abject commercial failure are not hard to fathom. Stylistically, it is at odds with both prevailing currents of French cinema in the ’80s. While the story has been rigorously updated, Jacquot’s mise en scène has nothing in common with the flashy cinéma du look of directors like Jean-Jacques Beineix and Luc Besson. It has still less in common (if that is possible) with the resurgent cinema de qualité embodied by Le Dernier Métro (The Last Metro, François Truffaut, 1980) or Le Retour de Martin Guerre (The Return of Martin Guerre, Daniel Vigne, 1982). In its austere refusal of spectacle of any sort, The Wings of the Dove is recognisably the work of a man who spent years as an assistant to Marguerite Duras.

Above all, it offers an intriguing contrast to the later (and commercially successful) film of The Wings of the Dove (1997) directed by Iain Softley. That film wooed big audiences and Oscar nominations by laying on spectacle aplenty: Oriental soirées and masked carnival balls, opium dens and naked soft-core sex. All that is agreeable enough on its own terms, but none of it has anything much to do with Henry James. Worst of all, the Softley film takes the inherently melodramatic premise of the novel’s plot – a poor but ambitious girl manipulates her fiancé into seducing a dying heiress, so the two of them may inherit her money – and strips away most of the subtlety and ambiguity that was evoked by James’ prose. As Alan Nadel so rightly points out, “Softley removes James’s murkiness, giving the plot the crispness of a 1930s melodrama or a 1950s soap opera.”2

In contrast, Jacquot’s The Wings of the Dove is an attempt to film James in all his rarefied and often tortuous complexity. Jacquot – by some queer paradox – is trying to create a visual counterpart to a prose style that relies, as often as not, on ornate forms of concealment. In his version, Kate Croy is no longer a penniless girl of good family. As played by Dominique Sanda (and renamed Catherine), she is a Parisian hooker de luxe who has learned the hard way that people are worth only what she can get out of them. The casting of Sanda (a big international star in the 70s) is quite possibly the film’s trump card. As Pauline Kael wrote of her work for Bernardo Bertolucci, “She is all visual: the image, the essence, of movie glamour, Garbo without depth – a trifling Garbo.”3 Her opacity as an actress becomes a living metaphor for the opacity of James’ prose.

Les ailes de la colombe (The Wings of the Dove, 1981)

Cast as the dying heiress Milly Theale (and renamed Marie), Isabelle Huppert looks convincingly unwell. Yet she entirely lacks the ethereal radiance that should make Milly so alluring. It is significant that Jacquot, who strips the story of most of its 19th century trappings, retains the device of Milly’s queer resemblance to a portrait of a beautiful dead girl by Bronzino. A staple of Gothic narratives by Ann Radcliffe and Edgar Allan Poe, Sheridan Le Fanu and Oscar Wilde, this device is exploited by Jacquot, as it is by James, for its distinctly Freudian resonance. As Denis Flannery writes of the novel:

If it can be suggested that the Bronzino is in some ways Milly’s double, and if, as Freud suggested, the double is both tortuously ‘an assurer of immortality’ and ‘an uncanny harbinger of death’, then the prophecies of death in the Bronzino scene would appear to be derived not solely from the painting’s qualities but from the imposition by others of the Bronzino onto Milly, an imposition which is mirrored by her own habits of mind.4

In a very real sense, Huppert’s performance can be seen as a warm-up for her better-known roles – among them Malina (Werner Schroeter, 1991), La Pianiste (The Piano Teacher, Michael Haneke, 2001) and Elle (Paul Verhoeven, 2016). In each of these, she plays a woman whose primary conflict is less with another character in the narrative than with her own subconscious demons.

Yet the most profoundly Freudian aspect of Jacquot’s mise en scène lies in his contrasting spatial and visual manipulation of the film’s two locations: Paris and Venice. Paris in The Wings of the Dove is an anonymous and strictly functional space made up of expensive but spartan hotel rooms and expensive (and equally spartan) bourgeois apartments. It appears to lack any autonomous existence of its own; it functions solely as a backdrop to the characters and their conscious needs and desires. Venice, in contrast, is a vast and resplendent living labyrinth in which the characters wander like figures in a mosaic – the victims of drives and desires that transcend their conscious will. This architectural and psychological labyrinth is an ideal outward manifestation of James’ prose, a realm in which Camille Paglia says “the reader, both invited guest and intruder, is lured and misled”.5

Les ailes de la colombe (The Wings of the Dove, 1981)

Expertly replicating the Freudian realms of Ego (Paris) and Id (Venice) Jacquot populates the latter with the ineluctable drives of Eros – the attraction both women feel to the handsome but hapless Sandro (Michele Placido) – and Thanatos – the overpowering lure of death and destruction. For Huppert’s character, this means the death of her physical body and her romantic illusions about love and friendship. For Sanda’s, in contrast, it means the destruction of the only real friendship and the one authentic love she has ever known. The destinies of both women come to a head – as they do in the novel – during a sumptuous candlelit soiree at Marie’s rented Venetian palazzo. For this one sequence, Jacquot sets aside his fastidious disdain for spectacle and visibly revels in the sight of elegantly dressed socialites drifting and shimmering through a labyrinth of candles and mirrors. As Peter Brooks writes of another scene in the book: “The mirrors reveal two abysses, the one mortal and empty, the other erotic, full of vitality – which is why it generates seductive traps, and why it must be hidden from view.”6

For this one scene, Huppert is transformed into the idealised and otherworldly vision that James’ descriptions of Milly Theale conjure up. Her gown of white moiré silk and her necklace of dazzling white pearls (at once exquisite and uncomfortably and alarmingly tight) seem to catch fire and blaze amid the candle flames. Sanda – slouching about in a man’s black jacket, white shirt and jeans – looks more than ever like some gorgeous androgynous boy. She and Placido – whose performance is as ineffectual as the character he plays – withdraw into a corner to size up their victim. Suddenly, the serene flow of Vivaldi in the background is interrupted by Marianne Faithfull singing the abrasive post-punk anthem “Why D’Ya Do It”. With its graphic four-letter obscenities and screeching and discordant guitar riffs, the song sounds the one note of obtrusive modernity in the film. We are pulled up short by the raw vulgarity of one line: “She had cobwebs up her fanny and I believe in giving to the poor!” It spells out the sexual subtext in the seduction of the rich, dying girl.

Shortly after, we witness Jacquot’s transposition of the book’s central moment of crisis. This comes when the unassuming hero – driven to breaking point by his bad conscience and pent-up sexual frustration – effectively blackmails his fiancée into sex. He tells her bluntly that he will proceed no further with their scheme unless she will come to him for the space of one night. This crisis gets lost entirely in the 1997 film, where the guilty lovers (played by Helena Bonham-Carter and Linus Roache) seem to be at it like laboratory rats from the first until the very last scene. As Dianne F. Sadoff astutely points out: “By playing elegant lighting and sets against porn tropes and story lines, Softley’s film goes distinctly middlebrow – as porn has gone mainstream since the 1980s.”7 All this unrestrained copulation is inherently, not to say jarringly, un-Jamesian; it becomes the film’s one insurmountable flaw.

Paradoxically, the way Jacquot handles the sex is a good deal more subtle for being more blatant. Catherine in his film is not a virgin, but a prostitute. In an opening that evokes the Elizabeth Taylor trash classic Butterfield 8 (Daniel Mann, 1960) we see her naked in bed after an encounter with a client. When he tries to leave without paying, she reminds him and he scatters her fee contemptuously on the floor. When Marie first sees her, she is on her hands and knees trying to pick it up. Naturally, she goes to bed with Sandro shortly after meeting him. (In a weird but liberating reversal of roles, she actually gives him money.) Yet she abruptly withdraws her sexual favours once she conceives the plot to entrap Marie. If Sandro is to enjoy them again, he will have no choice but to do precisely as she says.

It is during the party that he rebels against this prolonged sex strike. Using almost exactly the same words as in the novel, he tells Catherine he will not seduce Marie unless she gives in to his sexual demands. What he is demanding is not something he has never previously enjoyed – as it must be, inevitably, in the book – but something he has grown used to and now regards as his right. In this way, Jacquot replicates the dramatic situations created by James in the context of a society that has changed beyond recognition in the eighty-odd years since the novel was written (one of James’ last major works, The Wings of the Dove was published in 1902). Rather than soup up a ‘period’ movie with anachronistic soft-core sex, Jacquot – by a neat sleight of hand – brings the emotional and psychological rigours of Victorian fiction into the post-1968 era of sexual frankness, rock music and free love. In this way, Jacquot’s film is true to James in ways the 1997 Wings has not so much forgotten as never known in the first place.

Writing perceptively of the novel, Peter Brooks says: “The image is of melodrama pervasive but refused, carefully maintained within consciousness.”8 The 1997 Wings of the Dove is not only melodrama at its ripest, but melodrama given the sweaty visual ambience of a ’90s ‘erotic thriller’ like Basic Instinct (Paul Verhoeven, 1992). Yet Jacquot’s 1981 Les Ailes de la Colombe preserves – like James’ novel – the emotional content of melodrama while eschewing the vulgar and hyperbolic theatricality of said emotions. With its employment of Freudian doubling and mirroring effects and its deployment of Venice as a vast subconscious labyrinth, The Wings of the Dove is less a psychological film (in the conventional melodramatic sense) than one that is consciously and overtly psychoanalytic. It has, like its dying heiress, “a ferocious modesty” whose pain is all the more acute for being so well hidden.

Left alone in her anonymous hotel room at the end, a defeated Catherine intones one of the great closing lines in the annals of movies: “I still have so many people left to disappoint.” Her words are not idly spoken. Back in 1981, those sparse audiences who saw Jacquot’s The Wings of the Dove were disappointed indeed. The film has since vanished into one of those distribution ‘black holes’ where so many enterprising and unusual motion pictures go to die. It has been rescued, if at all, only by the occasional showing on French cultural TV. Yet anyone who manages to see it may catch at least a glimpse of the authentic Henry James.

Endnotes:

  1. Henry James, The Wings of the Dove (London: Penguin Classics, 2008/1902), pp. 341–342.
  2. Alan Nadel, “Ambassadors from an Imaginary ‘Elsewhere’ – Cinematic Convention and Jamesian Sensibility” in Henry James Goes to the Movies, Susan M. Griffin, ed. (Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 2002), p. 204.
  3. Pauline Kael, When the Lights Go Down, Boston & London: Marion Boyars, 1980), p. 330.
  4. Denis Flannery, Henry James: A Certain Illusion (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2000), p. 183.
  5. Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson (London: Penguin Books, 1991), p. 620.
  6. Peter Brooks, The Melodramatic Imagination: Balzac, Henry James, Melodrama, and the Mode of Excess (New Haven, CT & London: Yale University Press, 1995), p. 182.
  7. Dianne F. Sadoff, “‘Hallucinations of Intimacy’ – The Henry James Films” in Henry James Goes to the Movies, op. cit., p. 271.
  8. Brooks, op. cit., p. 192.