Blu-ray Review: Quartet (1981)

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When we hear the phrase "Merchant Ivory Productions," most of us picture handsomely photographed period costume dramas featuring ensemble casts of award-winning British actors. One thing we don't think of, however, is sex. But as director James Ivory explains in a fascinating interview included on the Blu-ray release of the newly restored 1981 feature film Quartet, adultery is a recurring obsession of Merchant Ivory's catalog, showing up as a major theme in at least seven different movies . . . and Quartet is no exception.

Embracing not only adultery but polyamory in the film's overt depiction of the seesaw like power dynamics that play out in a ménage à trois at the heart of its storyline, Quartet, based upon Jean Rhys' autobiographical novel, is set during the Golden Age of Paris in 1927.

With her Polish art dealer husband Stephan (Anthony Higgins) arrested for something that might relate as much to stolen artwork as to his tendency to talk about the Bolshevik Revolution — which made Parisian authorities nervous — the native "West Indian" Marya (played by Isabelle Adjani) is left penniless for a year, and with very few resources she can use to fend for herself.

"A decorative little person" used to being the subject of speculation wherever she goes, Marya makes the acquaintance of the wealthy, well-liked H.J. Heidler (Alan Bates) and his painter wife Lois (Maggie Smith) who offer Marya a place to stay in their home. A particular habit of theirs, unbeknownst to Marya when she accepts, it seems as though H.J. has an extensive history of seducing the young women or "crushed petals" whom he lets stay in his spare room.

Letting him indulge himself and sow his wild sexual oats, out of fear that otherwise the bored man might leave her, Lois puts on a good front to the world at the cafes and bars that she and her husband frequent with the young woman. In private, however, the passive aggressive artist sublimates her rage by playing mind games with Marya. And though the trio evolves into a quartet after Stephan's release, which —  coupled with feelings of love —  makes the dynamic even more complex, James Ivoy's film suffers by making the "open" relationship so closed off that the audience is never able to penetrate it.

Distant and icy, the film might take place during a hedonistic time where people sought to find themselves by ironically losing themselves in drugs, drink, or sex, but the unmistakably beautiful Quartet —shot by gifted cinematographer Pierre Lhomme — feels like a virtual museum piece, roped off and hung up in a temperature controlled room on a wall behind a thick pane of glass.

Bravely accepting what Ivory acknowledges is the undesirable role (of the wife who looks the other way but speaks her mind) that many actresses turned down, Maggie Smith is one of the film's saving graces, alongside Isabelle Adjani, who won the award for Best Actress for this film as well as Possession at the 1981 Cannes Film Festival where it premiered.

Championed by its strong performances that keep you watching when you might otherwise want to tune it out, Quartet is worth a look for Merchant Ivory completists but there's a good reason why Ruth Prawer Jhabvala knew instinctively that she didn't want to adapt the Rhys novel she had been reading when Ivory suggested the film.

Trying to make the characters much more dramatic than they were —  just drinking and sitting around — on the page, Prawer Jhabvala did her best to elevate what she felt was rather "downbeat" material. But even with the film's intriguing motif of mirrors, which beg the characters to take a real, hard look at themselves, in the words of 1920s Paris contemporary Gertrude Stein, "there is no there there."

A below average Merchant Ivory movie, although it resembles any one of their other productions on the surface, regrettably, just like Lois fears that her husband might get bored and leave, you're probably better off if you leave the dull Quartet behind. Then, after grabbing one of their other films that you prefer instead (like The Remains of the Day), you can pay homage to the production team's favorite theme, and — leaving Quartet aside to play something else  — go ahead and cheat.

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