Lily Bart (Gillian Anderson) begins The House of Mirth (Terence Davies, 2000) a member of New York high society whose parentage, beauty and intelligence easily compensate for her lack of wealth. She ends it dead, a member of the working classes without even a job. Davies presents her story as a series of tableaux. The film even has an actual tableau – “Miss Lily Bart as Summer by Watteau” – in which a curtain is drawn back, revealing her for a moment before it is closed again. Almost every sequence has some tableau quality, from the inverted photograph that begins the wedding party to the windows that bookend so many scenes. This emphasises a sense of inevitability about Lily’s fate. She begins the film echoing Anna Karenina, emerging from the steam of a stationary train, an elegant figure made up of a series of interlocking triangles – torso, veil, hat, skirt – and ends poisoned by her own hand, like Emma Bovary. Despite such literary shadows, however, Lily takes herself to her end by a series of choices.

In each section of the film, Lily chooses – often surprisingly, almost always disastrously, yet also mysteriously. It’s useful to look at one of these moments in detail. At a country house party, it has been made clear that wealthy but priggish Percy Gryce (Pearce Quigley) has been invited specifically for Lily: a marriage with him would solve her financial and social problems. Indeed, on the train journey, we see her try (sometimes painfully hard) to interest him, and this strategy seems to be succeeding. The shy man is opening up, and asks if he can accompany her to church the following day, an invitation she accepts; next morning, though, when he waits by the carriage, she does not come.

This is not the first choice we have seen Lily make. Earlier, she takes a deliberately risk in going to tea at Lawrence Selden’s (Eric Stoltz) flat, but this one is harder to comprehend. The energy between Lily and Selden is obvious, though both seem to agree that neither has enough money for marriage to be a possibility. With Selden, Lily outlines why a good marriage is her only option, and, despite her frustration with her own situation, we later see her trying to attract Gryce; yet now, she deliberately scuppers herself. Why? Is this part of a plan to capture him? Has something happened to change her mind? Is she simply giving in to a momentary impulse? As the film progresses, we understand better the tensions in Lily between what she wants, who she is and where she is; but at this point, she is still a mystery.

The House of Mirth is full of dissolves, transitions that are languorous and enigmatic, and this sequence begins with a dissolve. As he watches Lily go upstairs, the unexpectedly touching image of Gryce’s sweet smile when his invitation is accepted melts into that of Gryce at the carriage the next morning, no longer smiling. The bitterness of his expression, anger masking pain, will be familiar to many. Lily watches from her window, dressed for church. We cut to what she sees: the carriage below, horses in sunlight, the man waiting in the harsh oblong shade of the house. When he looks towards her window, a quick cut shows Lily as she backs away, moving out the light and into shadow. Ladies more pious or compliant than Lily enter the carriage, and, with one hurt yet hopeful look back, Gryce joins them and they drive away.

The House of Mirth is a wordy film with a coded dialogue that is complex and challenging, but this little moment is silent, and feels critical. Lily is making a leap, one that she will make again and again. “I thought I could manage my own life,” she weeps to Grace Stepney (Jodhi May) later. Of course she did! Smart girl that she is, she acts with the recklessness of someone who simply cannot comprehend the lived reality of the consequences that she is quite capable of imagining. Lily knows that accepting Gryce would take her somewhere she doesn’t want to go; what she doesn’t understand is that not accepting him can be equally dangerous. We, though, watching, see the darkness she deliberately moves into. Light is everywhere in this film: on water, glinting in mirrors, finding its way through dense tree cover. People are continually trying to shade themselves against it – with parasols, blinds, curtains – but light is life, like the stamping foot of a waiting horse. Shadows, darkness are different.

Light, shadows, curtains, windows, water: all come together in a sequence at the centre of the film, one made of multiple dissolves, tracks and pans that, literally, spans continents. With a duration of over three minutes, against an aria from Mozart’s Così Fan Tutte,1 it’s a moment of transition I haven’t seen equalled. Lily, stunned by Selden’s failure to come to tea and Sim Rosedale’s (Anthony LaPaglia) surprise offer of marriage, answers the telephone2 and accepts Bertha Dorset’s (Laura Linney) invitation to a cruise on the Mediterranean. As Lily talks, the camera pans to the mirror, one Lily has previously gazed at, now reflecting the white light coming through windows. A dissolve keeps the same framing, but with disconcerting differences. The room is deserted, the dust sheets over the furniture creating a society of static, ghostlike creatures. The sequence continues through other closed-up rooms – rooms one recognises but cannot quite place, rooms that progress from domestic to formal – before a pull-back through some entrance way takes us through darkness (mirroring Lily’s own step back into shadow) and from interior to exterior. The light that previously came through windows is replaced by grey. The camera roams over gardens – sheets of rain undulating over grassy paths, as though, with the absence of humans, nature is reconquering these spaces – until we move over water. The mesmeric dance of raindrops on river morphs into sunlight on water, a boat’s prow cutting forward. We do not need the golden quality of the light on the sea, nor the glowing city ahead, to let us know we have arrived somewhere completely different.

This sequence claims The House of Mirth as a film, a visual experience, despite its literary roots. It not only moves us through time and space, but it also clarifies purely through images what is at the heart of the film’s world. We are bombarded with surfaces. Dust sheets cover one thing but make another. Mirrors show what looks like truth but isn’t. Windows are surfaces but also apertures, framing devices, separators of space, reminding us that this is a society where one is always being watched. Veined marble, a hat’s lace veil, blurred reflections, smoke: all exist to mask something. This exquisite society is brutal; all its beauty is directed towards the destruction of an individual. Though Monte Carlo is lovely, it is the rain that dominates the sequence with its grey, doomy quality.

Nobody is happy in this film. Bertha may always get what she wants, but she is clearly miserable. Aunt Julia (Eleanor Bron) is grimly desiccated; Grace is poor, even when she inherits everything; and Selden, who spends most of the film smiling, ends it weeping on his knees. The rain that dominates the transition sequence falls on everyone – is everywhere. In Monte Carlo, Bertha destroys her friend’s reputation by insinuating that Lily is having a relationship with her husband. After publicly dealing with the situation, Lily whispers desperately to Selden, “Do you know a quiet hotel? […] It’s too wet to sleep outside.” This muttered line, swiftly moved on from, is shocking: a glimpse of the unprotected, naked body. Under those strange shapes the dust sheets make is a society of such brutality that it leaves one breathless.

It is raining, too, as the film closes. Lily walks through the precipitation as we hear a line from a speech about the injustices suffered by the Russian people under the Tsar – a heavy-handed moment in an otherwise controlled film, too controlled to imagine that it is not deliberate. Lily does not stop to listen to the street-corner agitator; she already understands that the system is rotten, but she doesn’t want to overthrow it. It’s all she knows, and it has its beauty. Capitalism makes exquisite surfaces, but it is a system that eats everything eventually.3 Lily ends up on that rainy day at Selden’s flat, where she weeps, “I am a useless person.” The uselessness of her education for anything but a good marriage was at the heart of their first discussion, too; then, it was arch and elegant, made electric by the ricocheting of desire against the boundaries of society and self. Back then, she thought there might be a way out. Lily is clever, and beautiful, and moral, but not quite enough of any of those things. She thought she had options, but just thinking that – thinking it is within her power to choose, and choosing – eradicates them. It is always too wet to sleep outside, but if she won’t sleep with Gryce, or Rosedale, maybe there’s nowhere else. Even Selden, when she comes to him, sodden and weeping, offers tea instead of dry clothes. In this system, love can only be openly declared to a corpse.

There she lies, as Selden declares it at last without provisos or games: a virgin bride of death on a bed of rumpled sheets, stained not with hymenal blood but with the red chloral hydrate that pours from the bottle in her limp hand. Also in the mess of bedclothes, just visible, is a coronet of red and blue flowers. We saw them, only briefly, early on, when she was “Summer by Watteau”, a thing to be admired until the curtain closed, but at that time she was hopeful still. Hope has gone, but these paper flowers remain in their circlet, one that caught her, much as it did Karenina and Bovary: different women united by the desire for more than was allowed by their time and place. Perhaps death is the only real choice, after all.

• • •

The House of Mirth (2000 UK/USA/France/Germany 135 mins)

Prod. Co: Three Rivers Production, Granada, Arts Council of England Prod: Olivia Stewart Dir: Terence Davies Scr: Terence Davies Phot: Remi Adefarasin Ed: Michael Parker

Cast: Gillian Anderson, Dan Aykroyd, Eleanor Bron, Terry Kinney, Anthony LaPaglia, Laura Linney

Endnotes:

  1. This is the opera Lily attends earlier in the film, one that serves as a strange but prescient running mate for the film. The lyrics in this aria – “may the wind be gentle, may the waves be calm, may all the elements be kind and grant our desires” – aid the transition from domestic New York interior to the Mediterranean Sea, just off the coast of Monte Carlo.
  2. Much could be said about the juxtaposition of old and new in this film: this telephone call comes in the afternoon after a morning in which Lily sends her invitation to Selden in a note delivered by hand; while, elsewhere, Gryce comes to the house party at Bellomont by train, goes to church by horse and carriage and leaves by motor car.
  3. As Rosedale says, “In a deal like this, nobody comes out with perfectly clean hands.”

About The Author

Tamara Tracz lives in London, where much of her time is spent in the care and company of three children. She can’t break the habit of thinking of herself as a filmmaker, and is currently collecting footage for a project titled Seven Years Watching Light Move. In 2013 she published a set of Artist Books, Three Books, an exploration of memory, trauma, loss and the use of text as image, extending over space and time. She writes on film for Senses of Cinema and is working on a novel.