"What a delightful retreat. I must admit I've fallen quite in love with your American arrangements. Everything is so tremendously natural, primatif, patriarchal."—Eugenia (Lee Remick)
Gertrude Wentworth (Lisa Eichhorn) fancies herself a free spirit, willing even to bypass church (and the handsome minister) for a pleasant walk in the woods or a romance novel. When her charming, aristocratic European cousins turn up on her doorstep one breezy autumn day, Gertrude is captivated, and her little corner of Boston is turned on its head. Felix (Tim Woodward) and his sister Eugenia (Lee Remick) are a hit with their bourgeois American kin. Romantic entanglements follow, as Gertrude falls for the energetic Felix and the married Eugenia, who fancies herself "a superior form of intoxication," flirts with both the brooding merchant Robert Acton (Robin Ellis) and the naïve Clifford Wentworth (Tim Choate).
But are these vivacious foreigners for real?
A friend of mine was once confronted with a test question in high school:
"Discuss humor in the work of Henry James." His response was, in its
entirety, "It isn't funny." The teacher was forced to admit that my
friend was, at least in principle, right. And I agree. I probably should not say
this, being an English professor and all, but I really cannot stand Henry James.
Sure, he's a master of prose style, blah blah blah. But his precious social
climbers and repressed sophisticates get on my nerves.
The Europeans is the first of several Henry James adaptations the Merchant/Ivory team (along with their frequent screenwriter Ruth Prawar Jhabvala) would create over the years. It passes for a comedy of manners, and there is a droll humor to be found here. Just watch as the awestruck Gertrude gushes about Felix being the prince of the tongue-twisting "Silverstadt-Schleckenstein." Generally, the humor is rather subtle, built out of the culture clash between the middle class New England residents, circa 1850, and the preening European fops who have come to show them how to have fun. Of course, in James' world, such poseurs usually find themselves overwhelmed in the end by honesty and sincerity. And since this is a comedy of sorts, you know it will all end happily for those willing to learn their lesson.
James Ivory, as always, directs dry, almost disconnected scenes, leaving the viewer to fill in the blanks. This puts an extra burden on the actors to give their characters sufficient depth that you might believe they are busy with their lives in between scenes. Fortunately, they are up to the task. Lisa Eichhorn makes the dreamy Gertrude amusing, and Tim Woodward's Felix has an easy chemistry with her. Eugenia, in the hands of Lee Remick, seems to have walked right out of an Oscar Wilde play, all slyness and wit. She loves to play the men around her and does so skillfully enough that we have a hard time disliking her, even when the film portrays her as deceitful.
The scaled-down, modestly-budgeted production lacks much of the pomposity of Merchant/Ivory's later films, and I wonder when Ruth Jhabvala lost the sense of humor she displays in her blithe screenplay. Overall, The Europeans belies the notion that Merchant/Ivory films are stuffy and staid.
Curiously, although The Europeans is ostensibly a part of the Criterion Collection, it is not labeled or numbered as such. Rather, it is officially part of a separate "Merchant/Ivory Collection." Nonetheless, Criterion has provided a breathtaking transfer. James Ivory and cinematographer Larry Pizer (who went downhill from here to photograph movies like Timerider and Mannequin 2) make effective use of the gorgeous New England autumn, painting every scene with a soft, almost impressionistic quality, as the spectrum of leaves melts together in a pastel blur. If only Criterion had remixed the monaural soundtrack into something with more depth, but the audio is clean and clear in any case.
In a 15-minute interview compilation, James Ivory admits he was not a Henry James fan until Ruth Jhabvala turned him on to The Europeans. Jhabvala and Ismail Merchant comment on James' social landscape, and composer Richard Robbins talks about his delicate score. A full commentary track would have been nice, but the team seems to make their points concisely in these interviews.
Richard Robbins is featured in a 1976 documentary short, Sweet Sounds that marks the beginning of his long association with the Merchant/Ivory team. This somewhat grainy 30-minute piece tracks 10 elementary school children enrolled in a special New York music program. Educators can learn quite a bit watching how jazz and classical idioms can teach basic critical thinking skills. A brief video introduction by Robbins explains the background of the innovative project. Why doesn't every school have music teachers like the ones in this film?
Every bad thing you have always heard about Merchant/Ivory movies—their mannered dryness, their dependence on prose over image, their costume-drama claustrophobia—these are mercifully kept in check in this early film. The Europeans is slim and fit and clever. The characters are sincere and likeable. And Criterion has polished this little gem to a fine luster.
This court directs Ismail Merchant, Ruth Prawar Jhabvala, and James Ivory to reexamine this film to find the sense of humor and modesty that their films have lost in recent years. Criterion is released, as usual.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Home Vision Entertainment
• "Sweet Sounds" Documentary
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