Stillborn scenes of bourgeoisie

THE GREEN ROOM Directed by François Truffaut THE EUROPEANS Directed by James Ivory

R.C. December 24 1979

Stillborn scenes of bourgeoisie

THE GREEN ROOM Directed by François Truffaut THE EUROPEANS Directed by James Ivory

R.C. December 24 1979

Stillborn scenes of bourgeoisie

THE GREEN ROOM Directed by François Truffaut THE EUROPEANS Directed by James Ivory

For any film-maker who has ever been called sensitive, or civilized, or good with actors, it must be tempting to try to bring Henry James to the screen. One of James’s signal achievements was to turn his perceptive eye on a parlor full of wily Europeans and wilful Americans, and construct a code of behavior, an ethic, a philosophy from every gesture and glance, every word and, even more, from the silences and stillness of a class of people supremely courteous of others’ feelings and inextricably absorbed in their own. James mastered the art of defining essences in terms of surfaces—which is just how American critic Andrew Sarris has described the art of the cinema, so a film from Henry James would seem to be a natural.

It hasn’t worked out that way. There have been a couple of effective movies made out of his stories, but the effects haven’t been his. Back in the ’40s, William Wyler turned Washington Square into The Heiress, a finely acted melodrama about a winsome spinster and her tyrannical father—which was not, alas, what James’s story was about.

And in the early ’60s Truman Capote and director Jack Clayton tarted up The Turn of the Screw into The Innocents, a full-blooded ghost story with oedipal overtones. Now James Ivory has filmed The Europeans; and François Truffaut has tackled The Altar of the Dead, and severely bruised it.

The Altar of the Dead is about Stransom, a man obsessed with death and with reverence for all his departed friends, for whom he has created a chapel lighted with dozens of candles, one for each of “the Others.” On his visits to the chapel, he is soon joined by another magnificent mourner, a woman who, it turns out, venerates only one Other—a man whom Stransom had never forgiven for committing some vague, terrible wrong against him. Truffaut, who has walked with love and death many times before, notably in The Story of Adele H. and The Man Who Loved Women, would seem an ideal translator for this tale of sanctified masochism. Not so.

In The Green Room, his own obsessions and his egotism have got the better of him. Not only has he peopled Stransom’s altar with photographs of his own “immortal dead” (film composer Maurice Jaubert and Oskar Werner as Jules in Truffaut’s Jules and Jim) but he has cast himself in the leading role. A good actor might have suggested some resonance through the flat tones of his voice, could have struck some subtle spark behind the grey, unblinking eyes, would have brought to life the moving, surefire ending of the story. Truffaut can only mope through the role. Someone should light a candle for him—and for his stillborn film.

In The Europeans James was playing with one of his favorite cultural collisions: sophisticated old Europe versus

puppy-ardent and aggressive young America. Eugenia, a plain but charming young woman who has spent some years in Europe, visits her New England cousins. As if at a masked ball conducted by Mozart, everyone selects a partner, changes partners and ends up with the person most suited to him. James describes the story as a sketch, and a film of it demands grace and wit and the lightest stroke imaginable. James Ivory {Roseland) does not have the lightest stroke imaginable. He just does possibly have the slowest—which brings Henry James’s gentle dance of manners almost to a standstill, while some attractive actors (Lee Remick, Robin Ellis, Lisa Eichorn, Tim Woodward) wait around for the music of the spheres to begin. The Europeans is certainly a pretty film, but it’s also pretty empty.

What these films miss is the eloquent and distinctive voice of Henry James. For him, the teller is the tale. James’s sentences, with their quick contortions of syntax and their shifting of conversational tones and their tendency to run on even longer than this one, represented a precise and heroic attempt to do justice to a moment in human time. It is to see it refracted through a dozen sensibilities and possibilities, a hundred small crucial choices with which each of us shapes our lives, our selves and the people and world around us. His stories are explorations and celebrations of what he called “the atmosphere of the mind.” But in The Green Room and The Europeans, we get only photographs of some handsome, furrowed foreheads. The intricate, exquisite workings inside remain a mystery which Henry James shared only with his readers. R.C.

R.C.