The Europeans: I’m Not Looking for a New England, by David Bax
It can be difficult to pinpoint exactly what it is about James Ivory’s films that sets them apart from standard issue costume dramas and classic literature adaptations. There’s certainly nothing outlandish or self-consciously unique about them. In fact, it may be through that very confident lack of showiness that Ivory and his longtime collaborators–producer Ismail Merchant and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala–are able to develop the quiet, hypnotic rhythm that makes you want to move into their stories and never leave.
That’s certainly the case with 1979’s The Europeans, a 40th anniversary restoration of which from Cohen Media Group opens in Los Angeles and New York on Friday. It starts out so unassuming it almost seems amateurish before eventually wrapping you up in its dizzying swirl of articulate romance. In 1850s Boston, or just outside of it, the Wentworth family consists of three siblings–Gertrude (Lisa Eichhorn), Charlotte (Nancy New) and Clifford (Tim Choate)–as well as a stern and pious father (Wesley Addy). They reside near their cousins Robert (Robin Ellis) and Lizzie (Kristin Griffith), who live with their mother (Helen Stenborg). All of the above are thrown into what passes for a tizzy amongst the pastoral quality of the mid-19th century when even more distant cousins Felix (Tim Woodward) and Eugenia (Lee Remick) arrive from Europe. Despite all being related, everyone starts falling in love with one another, which was the style at the time.
Ivory’s tendency toward wide shots often makes even exterior scenes feel like they’re on a stage, while the romantic woodwind score and soapy, flowery dialogue evoke what people who never watched Masterpiece Theatre think Masterpiece Theatre is. Yet, despite all of that sounding like critique, it’s this commitment to dramaturgical execution that makes The Europeans counter-intuitively immersive.
Plus, the flat, low-contrast lighting makes it all the easier to see and appreciate the well-appointed sets and costumes. While certain cuts of both cloth and hair betray the late 1970s production, the fold of every duvet, the pattern of every cravat, the placement of every piece of cake are perfection.
Despite the English accents of Felix and Eugenia, the Europe to which the title refers is strictly continental. In particular, they are from France and so, to the puritanical Mr. Wentworth, they are papists and thus libertines to be treated with the utmost suspicion. Most of the more entertaining conflict comes from this culture clash. But it’s not only Mr. Wentworth and the Unitarian minister Mr. Brand (Norman Snow) who are made to look foolish. Eugenia’s patronizing invocation of the American stereotypes she thinks are quaint (the word “negress” comes into play) are downright cringe-inducing.
That’s especially true since the Wentworths, under the tutelage of their patriarch, are civil and polite–in the face of insults and declarations of love alike–to the point of insanity. When Gertrude says, “I think I wish to scream,” it’s both cathartic and hilarious. With everything so tamped down, the tiniest resemblance of an emotional response can be overwhelming.
There is no finer invocation of a 19th century New England autumn in all of American cinematic history. Apparently loved by President Jimmy Carter in the troubled and waning days of his Administration, this is the only Ivory-Merchant production that has a kind of potent and compelling atmospheric strength beyond any of their other later and more-acclaimed period productions of the 1980’s and 1990’s, especially since it was one of James Ivory’s earliest directorial efforts. 1850’s autumnal Boston IS the main character, where these sad and pathetically repressed characters are no different than the dying leaves scattering through the pastoral landscapes; lost stick figures in nature’s passing cycle from summer’s fire into winter’s sleep, with only the artist and his in-love muse aware of it’s transitory beauty, and therefore desperate to be alive to life itself.
Originally released in late October and early November of 1979, if one wishes to perceive it as such, it can actually be read as a surreal historical allegory for the waning sexual and artistic passions of the late 1970’s, which was the era in which it was filmed, and the shadowy and soon-to-be conservative religious encroachments of the dawning Reagan era of the early 1980’s.