The House of Mirth (review)

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A Woman’s Business

Lily Bart is a bad girl. She smokes. She gambles. She flirts with married men. She is quite, if quietly, shocking to the prosperous New York circles in which she moves. But her most egregious offense, in the eyes of her turn-of-the-century compatriots, is that she dares to be up-front about the things that most women of her day were circumspect about: love and money, and the uncomfortable correlation between the two.

The House of Mirth — based on the Edith Wharton novel and written for the screen and directed by Terence Davies — is a strikingly beautiful film about the discreet ugliness that characterized proper society at the beginning of the twentieth century, and how petty inhumanity set women up, almost inevitably, for ruination.
Lily (Gillian Anderson: The X-Files) is old money with no money, in love with a poor man, Lawrence Selden (Eric Stoltz: Jerry Maguire), who is forced to work for a living as a lawyer rather than live a life of leisure. Marrying him is simply out of the question for Lily, and so she has garnered a reputation of “being on the hunt for a husband” — or so says her acquaintance Bertha Dorset (Laura Linney: Running Mates, The Truman Show). It goes without saying that “husband” means “wealthy husband.” And yet Lily cannot bring herself to truly give in to the “business” of marriage in her world — she spurns real-estate magnate Sim Rosedale (Anthony LaPaglia) and courts the advice of financier Gus Trenor (Dan Aykroyd: Grosse Pointe Blank, Ghostbusters) in an effort to rebuilt her own fortune. But even such seemingly gentle defiance of the expectations that come with Lily’s gender and social standing are enough to force her into a morass of moral quandaries and difficult decisions. The rules of Lily’s world are unrelenting and unyielding, no matter how hard she tries to bend them even slightly.

Mirth looks like a Pre-Raphaelite painting, warm with rich jewel tones, and the ravishing Anderson is like a heroine out of a Rossetti painting, her gorgeous red hair piled atop her head, her every move imbued with an athletic voluptuousness. Davies frames every shot as if he were painting as well — the image of a contemplative Lily resting on the edge of an overstuffed couch lavishly piled with pillows may be the single most breathtaking still moment of film this year.

But lurking beneath this majestic beauty is the ugly reality of a time when women are deliberately left at the mercy of men. Denied education and hence the ability to fend for themselves, women are coerced into a state of weakness that forces them to turn to men for support. Friends and lovers are no refuge from a cold world when social interaction is just as mechanized as high finance or politics, turning friends against one another when it is expedient. Davies behind the camera and Anderson before it navigate this social quagmire like they were born to it, and The House of Mirth is mesmerizing in its depiction of unthinking cruelty.

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