James Ivory's burner has remained on low throughout a tepidly respectable directing career that stretches back to "The Householder" in 1964. Ivory's latest, "Quartet," now at the West End Circle, also fails to heat up sufficiently despite a literary source that seethes with racy, caustic, turbulent undercurrents -- the 1928 novella that launched the career of the late British novelist Jean Rhys.
"Quartet" continues a remarkably durable collaboration between Ivory, the screenwriter, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, and the producer, Ismail Merchant. Like their previous movies, it emerges as an interesting disappointment, reflecting a cultivated and audacious taste in material inhibited by a stuffy approach to filmmaking. The advantage of their intelligent, literate, methodical style is that it may accommodate novel themes and impressive performances.
"Quartet" is muffled but can be recommended for several effective performances, beginning with Alan Bates and Maggie Smith as the maddening "heavies" of the story -- the outrageously hypocritical and compatible Heidlers, H.J. and Lois, a wealthy English couple who have established themselves as patrons of the arts and collectors of attractive strays in the bohemian quarter of Paris in the late '20s. The heroine, Isabelle Adjani as a young woman named Marya, or Mado Zelli, becomes a fresh victim of their curiously degrading generosity when her husband, a shady art dealer named Stephan (very well played by Anthony Higgins), is arrested and she allows herself to seek refuge with the Heidlers.
Before long Mado succumbs to H.J.'s advances and ends up installed as his latest mistress, dependent both sexually and financially. This role entails another form of humiliation -- soaking up the abuse of Lois. Unable to defy her husband, she prefers to bide her time, taking out her resentment in barbed comments about Mado until H.J. tires of her, just as he tired of her predecessors.
There's a distinctive sting in Lois' spite: "Let's go to Luna park after dinner," she may suggest with mocking enthusiasm. "We'll put Mado on the joy wheel and watch her being banged about a bit. Well, she ought to amuse us sometimes; she ought to sing for her supper. That's what she's here for, isn't it?"
Smith utters these malicious remarks with a keen appreciation of both the sneaky aggression and intense misery that prompt them. She and Bates are remarkable embodiments of the hideously funny marital and social monsters sketched by Rhys. Bates even gives H.J. a stuffed-shirt solidity, a sort of domineering thickness of mind and body (and mustache) that seems to enlarge the character as a comic grotesque. He looks like such a phlegmatic, humorless brute that you find yourself repeatedly taken unawares by his humorous deadpan delivery of H.J.'s oblivious or fatuous lines. "I say, it's frightfully hot in here," H.J. complains, hastening to take his leave of Mado after a tumble in the sack, and Bates makes this fleeting comment echo with creepy comic impact.
In addition to utilizing large helpings of Rhys' pithy dialogue, Mrs. Jhabvala seems to have improvised some amusing stuff in a faithful style. For example, H.J. has a delightfully pompous speech in the closing stages of the movie. Having tired of Mado in due course, H.J. tells his grateful wife, "It's my fault for getting involved with these neurasthenics. It's not I who seek them out. They find me. It's as if they sense a weakness in me." The beauty of this absurdly complacent self-evaluation is that it echoes an equally doting comment Lois made earlier about her Lord and Master: "He doesn't know his own nature. It's a sort of innocence, I suppose."
Like the book, the movie version of "Quartet" is at its sharpest when it evokes a decadent social setting and ludicrous domestic triangle. Like the book, it also falters when it seems to degenerate into lovelorn, fatalistic melodrama, exploiting Mado's masochistic streak for more emotional desolation than her character or situation can support.
One needs to accept her passion for the swinish H.J. as an abiding torment on general principles, unforgettably stated by Rhys in a passage that has been adapted awkwardly to dialogue in the movie: "Love was a terrible thing. You poisoned it and stabbed at it and knocked it down into the mud -- well down -- and it got up and staggered on, bleeding and muddy and awful. Like -- like Rasputin." That's putting the idea vividly, all right, but "Quartet" is too refined and spare in its effects to persuade you that you've really watched a knock-down, drag-out bout of sexual conquest, surrender and victimization.