The filmmaking team of Merchant Ivory—director James Ivory, producer Ismail Merchant, and the less heralded but equally important screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala—is perhaps one of the longest running in film history, working together for over 30 years. In 2003, they began releasing many of their lesser known films on DVD, setting up a boutique label through the Criterion Collection. This March (2003) saw the fifth and sixth installments of the series, including Quartet (1981).
Paris of the 1920s is usually portrayed as a flashy, indulgent party, and though darkness is often glimpsed through the jazz and champagne bubbles, generally it’s a hiccup. One might be hungover in the morning, but drinks will be served again come evening. In Quartet, Merchant Ivory don’t necessarily suggest that this Paris is a lie, but they certainly set out to show that the buzz wasn’t a constant for everyone.
The titular love square involves two couples—Polish art dealer/con artist Stephan Zelli (Anthony Higgins), his English wife Marya (Isabelle Adjani), and the elder British couple, H.J. and Lois Heidler (Alan Bates and Maggie Smith). When Stephan is pinched by the cops and sentenced to a year in prison for trafficking in French artifacts, the Heidlers open up their home to lovely Marya. The pretense is that they want to help the poor girl, and perhaps Lois can paint the beautiful creature; the reality is that Heidler has a strange appetite for girls in trouble, and his wife indulges him, most likely in the hope that it will all end badly and he’ll come running back to her. Marya is unaware of this, and is sucked into a deviant world where romance can only survive when distorted. As Miss Nicholson (Bernice Stegers), a single aristocratic woman, tells her in an attempt to save her, married couples will do the strangest things to keep their relationship afloat, and it’s best not to become a part of it.
Adjani is a porcelain beauty, and her radiance makes the fact that just about every character in this film is obsessed with her believable. She plays Marya as a fragile butterfly without the wit or the talent to carry herself through this world. The Heidlers work a devious game on her, breaking down her self-esteem and better judgment to get from her what they want. By the film’s end, Marya can’t tell if she is coming or going, and the viewer isn’t quite sure who she loves any longer—her self-centered husband or the heavy-breathing Heidler (probably neither).
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about James Ivory’s direction is how unremarkable it is. He never relies on complicated camera movement or visual tricks. His shots are set up and held steady, resolved to see the scene through with the basics of life—not unlike his characters. In Quartet, his fanciest move is his use of mirrors. Maggie Smith looks in them often (even on the DVD cover), usually when Lois Heidler is either fretting over someone else’s misfortune or lending advice to Marya. It’s a clever device, playing up the vanity of Heidler. She isn’t really concerned about these other people, everything is about her. Her life is built upon the drama of her circle of friends (and enemies). Without the constant presence of strife, she has nothing. She indulges in it like an alcoholic, happy for the succor the plots bring, while also resenting her requiring them.
All in all, Quartet is a savage psychological dance. Each participant needs the others to make his or her moves, and ultimately end up spinning in a circle. The new DVD is perhaps the best looking of the Merchant Ivory series so far. Picture and sound are perfect. One sees every blush on Adjani’s cheeks, hears every one of Bates’s grunts. As on all the discs so far, a short interview with Ivory, Merchant, and screenwriter Jhabvala gives some insight into what went into the making of the picture. (Musical composer Richard Robbins is also featured.) Perhaps the most interesting revelation of all is that Jhabvala was against the idea of adapting the Jean Rhys novel, thinking it was too dark to be a good film. It’s a testament to her skill that she proved herself wrong, and proceeded to wring it for every nasty cent it had.