THE EUROPEANS -- Outer Cirle 1.
It's an enormous pleasure for a devoted Henry James admirer to rejoice in the beauty of James Ivory's film of "The Europeans" -- almost enough pleasure to compensate for the outrage of Francois Trufaut's "The Green Room," a travesty of James' "The Altar of the Dead," earlier this season.
Truffaut used James' text as an excuse to make a modern statement of his own about necrophilia that was stylistically and philosophically unrelated to anything for which the story continues to be valued. Ivory, with a screenplay by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, has interpreted on film an important and interesting book.
"The Europeans," one of the simpler James novels, lends itself gracefully to drama. The juxtaposition of naive and good Americans with sophisticated and decadent Europeans was treated with increasing complexity in several of his works, culminating in what this devoted H. J. admirer regards as the greatest novel ever written, "The Golden Bowl."
This film skips over one of the essential ingredients of the theme: that James' Europeans are drawn to his Americans by greed for American money. Yielding to modern prudishness about mentioning the connection between marriage and money, which Victorians considered a fact of life that had to be put in the open, it leaves only a yearning for restful simplicity as the motivation for a baroness, who is the unhappy morganatic wife of a reigning German prince, and her brother to court their American cousins.
But that aspect of the theme is treated magnificently. The pale colors and bare surfaces of a 19th-century American mansion, so different from the contemporary luxurious houses of the European rich; the sweetness of an American girl's unadorned face and direct smile, in contrast to the fascinating wiles of a European woman; the unmanipulated New England landscape in autumn -- all of these sights capture the essence of naturalism's great appeal. At the same time, the seduction of European subtleties of dress, conversation, courtship techniques, manners, pastimes, attitudes -- even facial expressions -- are shown with equal strength as they work on the Americans who resist them as well as the ones who yearn for them.
As an example of the way James delineates the contrast, there is the baroness' prompt deduction, after her brother tells her that one of their two cousins is pretty, that he has fallen in love with the other. The film enhances such points: Lisa Eichhorn makes Gertrude be, in fact, not pretty, but only incredibly lovely, and Lee Remick makes the baroness seem to follow James' description of having bad features but carrying her head "like a pretty woman." (In both cases, these qualities are conveyed through acting, not through accidents of physical appearance.)
Tim Woodward, as the baroness' charming and penniless brother, and Robin Ellis, Norman Snow, Kristin Griffith and Helen Stenborg as the Americans supply similarly exquisite character portraits.
James, who must have been spinning in his grave after "The Altar of the Dead," has a new and fitting memorial here.