Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Europeans (1979)

          I’ve never forgotten a remark that Martin Scorsese made while addressing my class at NYU’s film school: Asked about Merchant-Ivory films, which were peaking in popularity at the time, Scorsese said the films reminded him of “Laura Ashley wallpaper.” Then and now, I couldn’t agree more. Even though the myriad literary adaptations created by director James Ivory, producer Ismail Merchant, and screenwriter Ruth Prawler Jhabvala are intelligent and tasteful, I find them so restrained as to induce catatonia. Case in point: the soft-spoken Henry James adaptation The Europeans, which set the somnambulistic template that Merchant-Ivory followed throughout ensuing decades.
          In the turgid drama, attractive actors play repressed upper-crust characters amidst gorgeous vintage clothing, location, and props. (There’s a reason a critic once characterized Merchant-Ivory pictures as “real estate porn.”) Lee Remick plays Eugenia Young, a spirited lady of leisure from the continent who shows up unannounced at the lush Massachusetts estate of her puritanical cousin, Mr. Wentworth. Eugenia and her brother, Felix, cause all sorts of tumult in the Wentworth household, because the patriarch’s adult offspring are fascinated by Eugenia’s seemingly liberated ways. And while that simple plot should be a springboard for effective culture-clash drama, the Merchant-Ivory team treats the material in a way that’s both painfully polite and painfully page-bound.
          Actors move slowly through static compositions, barely adjusting their facial expressions or vocal rhythms while speaking reams of perfectly grammatical dialogue, so the piece lacks almost any detectable excitement. In fact, Wentworth actually warns one of his daughters against getting excited, which makes sense for his character but explains why viewers craving stories about warm-blooded human beings should seek their cinematic fancy elsewhere. As Wentworth says, “We’re to be exposed to peculiar influences. We should employ a great deal of wisdom and self-control.”
          There’s no disputing the historical accuracy of that sentiment, but the dialogue demonstrates how little is done to translate James’ nuanced observations about class differences into actual dramatic conflict. Remick is solid, if a touch affected, and Lisa Eichhorn matches her spunk and luminosity, while Wesley Addy is effectively stern as Wentworth. Yet despite sincere acting and fine behind-the-camera craftsmanship, The Europeans is not a cause for (ahem) excitement.

The Europeans: FUNKY


Juanita's Journal said...
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Juanita's Journal said...

I don't think that "THE EUROPEANS" is a good example of all of the Merchant Ivory films. Which is why I refused to accept Scorsese's final word on their films. Yes, the 1979 movie is a bit too stoic. But James Ivory managed to put more flair and drama into his later works.

Besides, who is Scorsese to talk? His 1993 movie, "AGE OF INNOCENCE", makes "THE EUROPEANS" look absolutely lively.