Home Vision Entertainment // 1981 // 101 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Dan Mancini (Retired) // March 29th, 2004
"It's all so abominably sordid." -- H.J. Heidler
Merchant Ivory's Quartet is based on Jean Rhys' (Wide Sargasso Sea) semi-autobiographical first novel of the same name. The book was inspired by Rhys' affair with the very married Ford Maddox Ford in 1920s Paris, and its story of two couples' seedy entanglement in infidelity ironically parallels the subject matter of Ford's own 1915 novel, The Good Soldier.
It's little surprise that the milieu of bohemian Paris in the 1920s would prove irresistible to the Merchant Ivory team, and so we have their 1981 film, Quartet. This DVD is part of the third wave of the Merchant Ivory Collection, produced by Home Vision Entertainment in association with The Criterion Collection, and under the supervision of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory.
Marya (Isabelle Adjani, The Story of Adele H, Nosferatu the Vampyre) and Stephan (Anthony Higgins, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Bride) Zelli are an attractive young couple trying to make a life for themselves among the literati of Paris in the 1920s. Stephan is an art dealer whose sometimes-illegal activities land him in hot water with the French police, who come down on him hard because they believe he's a Bolshevik. After Stephan is sentenced to a year in prison, Marya is forced to turn to an English couple, the Heidlers, for support. H.J. Heidler (Alan Bates, Zorba the Greek, The Rose), it seems, has a history of inviting naïve young girls to stay in the couple's spare room, then turning all of his charm and wile toward their seduction. Lois Heidler (Maggie Smith, A Room with a View, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Gosford Park) is aware of and unhappy with her husband's peccadilloes but, out of self-preservation, dismisses them as a forgivable character flaw. Lonely and broke, Marya struggles to maintain her connection to Stephan as both the Heidlers manipulate her towards an affair with H.J.
Quartet is a fine entry in the Merchant Ivory oeuvre. The direction, acting, and period set production are top-notch, but it's perhaps Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's screenwriting that is most impressive. Her script is smart without the pretension a lesser writer may have been coaxed into, considering the Parisian locale. She allows the simple, character-driven drama to speak for itself sans the sort of writerly flourishes that would be an irresistible temptation for most screenwriters whose characters are flitting about in the milieu of the Lost Generation. In the Conversation with the Filmmakers interview segment that accompanies the feature on the DVD, we learn that Jhabvala was skeptical about adapting Quartet for the screen because she found none of the characters likable. Yet she doesn't soften them in her screenplay, and perhaps that's what makes the film so successful. You'll find no romantic tuxedoed swells and wacky flappers competing with one another to see whose repartee is wittiest, getting slowly drunk on gin. Oh, those characters are there; they just aren't romantic. In Jhabvala's vision of swinging Paris, they're the vacuous affluent whose lack of meaningful existence makes them dangerous to anyone foolish enough to take them seriously.
The film chronicles the disintegration of Marya Zelli's personality as the Heidlers coerce her into falling in love with H.J. Marya's realization -- only after her previous life has been destroyed -- that the couple are hopelessly insipid, their charity toward her never charity at all but an act of wanton cruelty, is the true cause of her downfall. The performances of Bates, Smith, and Adjani in these difficult roles are extraordinary. The Heidlers are thoroughly loathsome, both so self-absorbed they can't be bothered with the pain they inflict on Marya or each other. H.J. pursues the girl tenaciously, then manages to pity himself for his moral weakness, while Lois does everything she can to ensure Marya is financially dependent on them and living in their house, then lashes out as the woman scorned when the inevitable happens. Bates and Smith have a wonderful time in the roles without giving in to the lure of soap-operatic camp or the actor's workshop mumbo-jumbo of finding a way to make the characters sympathetic. The Heidlers aren't villains in the classic sense, just overgrown children, the crass idle rich. As for Marya, she's maddeningly obtuse. Adjani's performance suggests an awareness of her own beauty, coupled with an almost willful naïveté regarding the power of that beauty, that leaves us not quite able to sympathize with the girl even though she's ostensibly the victim of the tale. There's something wonderfully enigmatic about Adjani's performance that leaves us unsure of the degree to which she's cognizant of the game of sexual cat-and-mouse being played out between herself and H.J. A more clearly defined portrayal would have made for a lesser film.
The go-to man for Merchant Ivory pictures set in France, Pierre Lhomme (Jefferson in Paris, Le Divorce), provides beautiful cinematography. Quartet brims with warm colors and careful use of shadows. Lhomme's work makes the most of Jean-Jacques Caziot's period production design, which strives for an unromantic historical rendition of Paris that uses accents of Art Deco without overdoing them.
Home Vision Entertainment's DVD presentation of the film is easily the best of the Merchant Ivory Collection titles I've seen. The picture's not quite perfect (there are minor source flaws here and there), but it's close. The transfer accurately renders the warmth of the colors and depth of the shadow detail, but also handles the pops of vibrant color (Adjani's red lipstick, for instance) carefully planted throughout. As with the very best of HVE's transfers, Quartet on DVD looks much like a well-preserved piece of celluloid.
The single-channel mono track is also quite impressive. Dialogue is clear, and the ambient space of the track is convincing. The disc's packaging, by the way, lists optional English subtitles, but it's actually more complicated than that. One can choose no subtitles, subtitles only for the film's French dialogue (the default), or closed captions for all of the dialogue.
As with the previous waves of Merchant Ivory Collection titles, the disc has an 11-minute Conversation with the Filmmakers segment in which James Ivory, Ismail Merchant, and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala sit down and discuss the genesis and production of the film. The only other extras are trailers for Quartet as well as four other Merchant Ivory Collection titles: The Bostonians, The Europeans, Heat and Dust, and Shakespeare Wallah.
Whether you're talking about Quartet as art or DVD, this is the best of the Merchant Ivory Collection titles I've yet seen. It's a must-own for Merchant Ivory fans, and is highly recommended for anyone else.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Home Vision Entertainment
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 101 Minutes
Release Year: 1981
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Featurette: Conversation with the Filmmakers
* Theatrical Trailer
* Bonus Trailers
* Merchant Ivory Official Site