We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

The Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala Anglo films, _Il y a longtemps que je t'aime_,_Daisy Miller_ & on not finishing & rereading books · 1 December 08

Dear Friends,

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve watched and rewatched DVDs of a few of the Anglophilic Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala films: Howards End, A Room with a View, The Remains of the Day. Yesterday Yvette and I saw in our local art-cinema Philippe Claudel’s Il y a longtemps que j’aime. And I screened Peter Bogdanovich’s Daisy Miller twice with my students and watched it a third time by myself just before. I just loved all but A Room with a View, & was moved to helpless strong crying by The Remains of the Day.

Especially for the sake of recommending people go see Il y a longtemps que je t’aime while it’s still in the theaters (in effect voting for more such films), I want to say why I have been so mesmerized.

I’ve also reread and reread some books while not finishing others, which I’ll connect to the movies.

Kristin Scott Thomas as Juliette Fontaine, just got out of prison (Il y a longtemps que je t’aime)


Howards End, the one I began with, is a film well worth study for someone interested in womens’ art and literature. I had read and been told how Emma Thompson was influenced by it (and the depiction of Helen Schlegel) in her screenplay adaptation of Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. Certainly she played the starring female role against an antitype in both films, and she was type cast. Her presence in both films influences the whole feel of them and the character projection.

However, I think this is to ignore women’s art and books: this
contrast of types with one being the “sensible” sister who conforms to society and experiences much distress precisely because of this begins earlier than Austen’s S&S; I’ve found it in Isabelle de Montolieu and Sophie Cottin (the books on my site); Maria Edgeworth’s Julia and Caroline (an epistolary novel), and we can take it back to the archetypes in the fairy tale, “Snow White and Rose Red.”

I don’t remember Forster’s Howard’s End that well so this puts me at a disadvantage in trying to understand the film; comparative study between a source text and film is just so revealing, but I remember enough to know that Bast was a piece of anti-semitism and he is here presented as the Somerset Maughn version of the male loser, sensitive and rigid (as in OF Human Bondage), a not unexpected use of a contemporary type (Maughn and Forster were contemporaries). Jhabvala has made him into a sort of Edward Ferrars’s character who married a promiscuous and not very bright Lucy Steele.

The usual totally withdrawing women characters are not here unless we count Ruth Wilcox (overplayed by Vanessa Redgrave, over the top really), but she has excelled with her ruthless male in Henry Wilcox (Anthony Hopkins) who finally Helen turns from. The careless cruel man who runs the place, uses women and dumps them, shrugs his shoulders at the unlucky. It’s a feminist film—while Howards End was not a feminist book.

We have the rigid classbound Wilcoxes—and I saw a younger Jemma Redgrave playing one of these, as woman who wants to exclude as many people as she can from her circles in order to keep to herself all the wealth and prestige she can, cold, with no identification or sympathy for other women at all, a kind of Fanny Dashwood; the second woman, a sister-in-law, married to the ruthless obnoxious philistine brother, is a cavilling fretful indolently selfish woman, a kind of Lady Middleton manque.

As Margaret Schlegel, Helena Bonham Carter was the Marianne of the piece, only in the modern world she gets pregnant and instead of going for a Willoughby, she reaches out to Edward Ferrars types. She often gets these “wild” women (as in The Heart of Me, the adaptation of Lehman’s masterpiece, The Echoing Grove).

This film had the types of women’s fiction and other women’s films seriously presented with compassion and intelligence.

A quintessential Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala Anglo mise-en-scene


A Room with a View: The touching self-deprecation and inherent comic compassion of Mr Emerson, the English tourist, Denholm Elliot’s character and subtle ironic comedy of sad lives (felt in Miss Catherine Alan, Fabia Drake’s sweet hopeless character) was radically undermined and utterly betrayed by its ending: Lucy Honeychurch, Helena Bonham Carter’s character finds joy and meaning by having great sex (we are asked to believe) with George Emerson (Julian Sands), our dense healthy stud of a male character (who boasts of his virility).

This is Lawrentian nonsense. The way to escape life’s terrors and pitilessness is great male fucking as seen in the closing romantic ailhouette still which advertises the film. I wondered if anyone discussed this movie seriously anywhere?

Since I have at the same time been rereading Trollope’s The Prime Minister and watching Simon Raven’s film adaptation, and have just finished another of Paul Scott’s Jewel in the Crown novels and remember Ken Taylor’s film adaptation very well, I couldn’t help but compare Raven and Taylor’s treatment of the same idea of a young woman just enthralled by an amoral stud. Raven’s film (with textual authority from Trollope) refuses this out for Emily (Stuart Wilson, the actor playing the role of Ferdinand Lopez, can be seen as the ultimate snaky stud in the Pallisers); not so Jewel in the Crown where Taylor’s filmic ethical heroine Sarah Layton (with textual authority from Scott’s book) is just awakened by Wilson and forever after in a new state (of “grace” it’s called at first). Nor another film adaptation, Julian Bond’s Love for Lydia from H.E. Bate’s novel of the same name; I linked LforL through the presence of a similar character actor (David Ryall who is Sexty Parker in the Raven film, is the irritated philistine businessman, Henderson). Bates’s book is weak Lawrentian stuff (its finest passages is the opening ice-skating sequence, brilliantly recreated in the film), but not the film: in the film Lydia (played by Mel Martin) turns away from the uneducated “wild man” and we are really to feel finds happiness with the writing-reading man type hero.

Since Jhabava wrote the script for Howards End and both it and A Room with a View are by E. M. Forster, I attribute what happened to A Room with a View to the influence of other people either making the film or in it. My comments on The Remains of the Day may suggest why I can’t be amused by Lawrentian male stupidity and this genealogy.


Miss Kenton (Emma Thompson) pressing Mr Stevens (Anthony Hopkins) to show her the book he has been reading (Remains of the Day)

To understand The Remains of the Day properly one should really know Ishiguro’s novel well—as well as return to Henry James, for I suspect Jhabvala imported a central Henry James theme into Ishiguro’s story, or at least emphasized it much more strongly than he had. The backstory or subject theme is to show us wasted lives, decisions to chose a career or marriage in life which cannot be gone back on, and a sense of intense loss and grief when you realize your stupidity, cowardice, or how much unworthy motives like spite entered into an act. I was so deeply moved by the film’s end I burst into tears by the end and couldn’t stop crying. I began it at 11:20 pm on Nov 28th which meant I finished it at 1:40 am on Nov 29th, my birthday. And yes I saw myself unable to change what I’ve become, and so achingly disappointed by yearning desires thwarted earlier that day, wounds opened up again, and no way to escape my situation, which I after all chose.

As retold in the Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala filmic- vein, The Remains of the Day reminded me of Austen’s techniques as the basic story was about people who are fringe (very much) to the wealthy and powerful. The butler, the housekeeper, Mr Stevens (Anthony Hopkins) and Miss Kenton (Emma Thompson). Anthony Hopkins’s performance probably was the rivetting element which held it altogether. Extraordinary because he had to convey so much through a stance of utter repression. Then the film conveyed the story within a story about the Nazi delusions of Lord Darlington, and here too we saw lives quickly ruined and cut off, carelessly by others, or by a society (young Cardinal, the nephew, played by a very young Hugh Grant, is, we are told towards the end in a throw-away phrase, killed in the war).

This time I thought of Brideshead Revisited, only this was a more delicate and subtle presentation. This is one where it’s a terrible shame that there is no screenplay available. I’d like to watch it again. It seems to me the finest of the Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala films I’ve seen thus far—and I’ve seen a number, including Heat and Dust (another fine Anglophilic costume drama), and Jane Austen in Manhattan (an genuinely original attempt to recreate Austen in modern and operatic terms, which however has a wildly masochistic heroine).


I’ve two more womens’ films (using the term as a respectable generic category into which all these films fall) to describe & a few more to allude to (though heaven forbid I should openly label them that, for then derision would be unending or no one would get beyond my header). First, the French film Yvette and I saw together at Cinema art. I find the English translation which is correct nonetheless to be misleading. The French has a different connotation than I’ve loved you so long; it’s more I’ve been loving you for such a long time …”

Il y a longtemps que je t’aime is about the relationship of two sisters, and the love spoken of is that of Lea (Elsa Zylverstein) for Juliette (Kristin Scott Thomas). The story opens with Lea coming to meet Juliette and taken Juliette to Lea’s home. It emerges that Juliette has been in prison for 15 years; her crime was the murder of her 6 year old son. The movie is long—well over 2 hours and an allusion to Rohmer in it alerted me to Philippe Claudel’s goal (he’s writer and director) to outdo Rohmer on his realistic ground.

This is another movie which proves that movies need not be superficial; that psychological and social portraiture can go as deep as any novel. We watch Juliette slowly and painfully re-integrated into Lea and her middle class French world. Painfully for most of the characters immediately upon hearing this crime dislike and distrust Juliette and fear her—only Lea who has not seen Juliette since Lea was a child shows trust and tries to show love. Lea is a somewhat frustrated scholarly teacher type, and I suppose the movie vindicates giving one’s life over to a grudging difficult husband and two children and students (Lea is not getting to the book she wants to write!), indeed giving of oneself to others, for it’s in Lea’s giving of herself to Juliette that Juliette is enabled to find a place, friends, employment (there’s a social worker who keeps at that—too bad she can’t visit us all).

Elsa Zylverstein as Lea getting irritated with her students’ obtuseness over a text analogous to her sister’s situation

I can’t tell the ending since the movie does depend on your slowly finding out how Juliette came to kill her son and what her divorce was over. Suffice to say she’s not a Medea (perhaps there is a little too much exoneration at the close of the film), but an intelligent watcher picks up that there is much to be explained and that this is the stuff of the plot-design.

I have not enjoyed a performance like Kristin Scott Thomas’s since Charlotte Rampling was young and doing French films. This outdoes Sous la Sable. Don’t miss it. Subtlety and nuance enables the director to suggest parallel stories with one of the male social workers intended to help Juliette (he commits suicide and is replaced by a sharky cold man who can do no one any good and certainly coulldn’t have helped Juliette but will survive obviously) and one of Lea’s male colleagues.

Does it ever pass the Bechdel test :): the sisters discuss children, their childhood, visit their cold mother (now with senile dementia), getting jobs, their careers, books, cooking, playing piano with Lea’s adopted daughter—everything.

I brought up derision because yesterday I was also studying Lake House, the free adaptation of Austen’s Persuasion. A superb film, a womens’ film if you will even if the director and writer and producer were men. Well, I went over the critics and what did I find, mostly male and all deriding. Even a “masochistic chick-flick” fanatic will not stomach this one.

It is a real adaptation of Persuasion, not as obvious as most of
the others. It takes off from an insight at the core of the 2007
ITV Persuasion
by Snodin, Shergold & Burke: that Wentworth is a revenant ghost. They treat Austen’s wish-fulfillment dream matter under the sign of probability: Wentworth didn’t get back to Anne or not in time; there is no second chance. And thus the film connects to The Remains of the Day on one side (probability_ and Truly, Madly Deeply (a wild ghost story) on the other, where we find actors and actresses (Alan Rickman and Juliet Stevenson) often hired for Austen films.


Last but far from least, and alas, a total flop when it hit the theaters, Peter Bogdanovich’s remarkable Daisy Miller. I have too much to say about this as I taught it and worked up lecture and class discussion notes. In its short compass it anticipates all that later costume dramas would offer in a story that reveals the process by which the rottenness of all the minds around Daisy assuming she is sexually “loose” instead of the natural generous spirit she is, ostracize and destroy her. A visit to a haunted Castle of Chillon where we glimpse the terrors of human pitilessness in torture and throwing away of people into fearful dungeons. The miasma of the Colosseum. Buy the DVD after reading James’s story and Azar Nafisi’s chapter on integrity, nobility and cruelty in James’s stories (she includes the themes of refuge, chosen failure and turning to the wall in The American and Washington Square too).

I began this blog originally by trying to talk of how it’s not necessary for me to read a book to the end. I got through more than half of Orhan Pamuk’s Snow and have put it back on the shelf. By this time (more than halfway through) any masterpiece will have yielded up its central vision and subject: here the obsessive and dangerous religious fanaticisms and horrifying abuse and bullying/silencing of women in Turkey and the surrounding Muslim countries. He sees what people are and can describe their madness with remarkably rich insight. But it couldn’t hold me. It’s too outward, the characters too much thinnish figures in a wide landscape. He lacks the subjective well provided by Paul Scott in each of his (mostly but not all) women narrators in The Jewel in the Crown. I wanted to say how I can reread too, reread and reread again if a book’s rich inner life is rivettingly rooted in a subjective consciousness fully explored whether through irony or intense emotionalisms. And that’s what I’ve been doing tonight: rereading Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day after rereading Austen’s Persuasion.


Posted by: Ellen

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  1. P.S. I should mention that the DVD edition of Howard’s End I got is superb. Its subtitle is Criterion collections and it also has a label “The Merchant Ivory collection.” It includes a separate disk which includes long features which really tell you something about the long career of Jhabvala, Ivory and Merchant. All three contribute. You see Jhabvala talking—most reluctantly it feels like. There’s the usual puffery, hype and feel good assertions, but alongside this a lot of hard and insightful information. One on the career of these two movie makers up to the time of A Room with a View went over each of their early movies, some I’d never heard of, with good clips, comments on ultimate goals, problems with stars and money. And I’ve only watched 2 of the 4 featurettes thus far.

    So if you can get hold of this edition, it’s worth it.

    Elinor    Dec 2, 12:43pm    #
  2. From Fran:

    “Have you been comparing the Hollywood remake with the Korean original, ‘Il Mare’, Ellen?

    The latter is actually available for viewing online in Korean with English subtitles:


    Elinor    Dec 2, 12:44pm    #
  3. From Francoise on The Remains of the Day:

    “Read the book. It is even better and at least there is no intermediary between you and the text as written by the author. Original without a “translation”.


    To which I replied: I have and reread it last night. I’m going to be extremely radical and say I think the movie is better—yes better even than this book. it’s richer, fuller, contains more in it and includes the ironies.

    Elinor    Dec 2, 1:22pm    #
  4. From Catherine Delors:

    “Dear Ellen,

    Funny you mention Il y a longtemps que je t’aime I wanted to write a blog post about it after reading the NYT review of it.


    I saw it on a plane (a sad commentary on my life that I see most movies on airplanes, but that’s another story) and I was crying in my seat in front of my fellow passengers, always sort of embarrassing.

    I would like to discuss the title. It is the chorus of a traditional French song “A la claire fontaine” and the fully sentence is “Il y a longtemps que je t’aime, jamais je ne t’oublierai.” “I have long loved you, never will I forget you.” The song itself is about the irretrievable harm we do to our own lives, the opportunities for love and happiness we pass up, never to recover them.

    Very much the theme of The Remains of the Day. Thank you so much for bringing that one up in this context, it is most appropriate.

    Elinor    Dec 2, 4:56pm    #
  5. Thank you Catherine for the New York Times Review URL. Yes it is a film which is another obsessed with children, and we could say the explanation (reminding me now of Ann Radcliffe) does take from the movie something of its power. But then the point of movie is to show us how this woman has been treated, and how this treatment has shaped her: as she is regarded something utterly alien, so she becomes herself alienated. She has survived and endured by turning as cold to others as they are to her. The situation is invented so we can watch her being treated like something subhuman, distrusted automatically. But as the review says, the film is not false. I also would not have known the song and context. My criticism was of the English translation which to my ears loses the poignancy of the French tense construction and words.

    Elinor    Dec 2, 11:48pm    #
  6. From one of my LiveJournal friends:

    “shannondela wrote:

    LiveJournal spooks threw a birthday date into the air. It fell to earth on friends’ pages. Darting here and there, with spasmodic Internet workings, I allowed November 29 to skid by. I hope you put a glow into Virginia skies with celebrations, and that you feel maturity is more secure. If it is, you won’t take up bungee jumping.

    You almost share a birthday with Winston Churchill; he was a November 30 arrival. Not that the significance of that is overwhelming.”

    To which I replied:

    Dear Shannondela:

    I wrote about my birthday (in effect) when I wrote about The Remains of the Day in my blog. But I’ve recovered. And I’m cheerful now. Thank you for the good wishes and for remembering me.

    Also born on “my” birthday, but in 1485, was Veronica Gambara. If you go to my website, you’ll find I’ve written a biography of her and translated all her extant poems.

    Elinor    Dec 3, 7:32am    #
  7. Francoise replied:

    “Then, the movie is not faithful to the book and is a different work. When I speak of books, I do not speak of the way other people are translating them for me through other means. Otherwise that would be the same as Clausewitz’s comment upon war and diplomacy: war is another way to go on with diplomacy. Films are another way to go on with books.


    To which I rejoined:

    Dear Francoise,

    As I’ve argued (probably very tiresomely by this point), faithfulness is not a viable criteria for evaluating a movie in its own right; it’s even inadequate for evaluating it as a translation of a book once you stop being impressionistic and really pay attention to and describe what’s in front of you. I’d say Bogdanovich’s Daisy Miller is one of the most rigorously faithful movies to a text (Henry James’s) I’ve ever seen, and yet a real concrete analysis shows how limited is this literal transposition, and that it’s not so much that the same things are shown different, but that different things are shown out of the text. An important book by Brian MacFarlane (Novel into Film) and article (“Bogdanovich’s Daisy Miller and the Limits of Fidelity,” Literature/Film Quarterly, 1991,Vol. 19, Iss. 4; pg. 222, 7 pgs) demonstrate this. Even if you’ve not read the book or seen the movie, McFarlane’s methodology makes the point conclusively.

    I would argue that Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala’s film is of the apparently faithful type: keeps all major characters, all hinge-points, main themes, memorable dialogues &c&c, and it has an adequate representation of the ironic style through ironic scenes; at the same time I’d argue (again heterodox here) that it’s really superior. It’s a false or misleading and unprovable idea (which is why it takes people’s fancy), one which amusing denigrates movies that only second rate books can make good movies. No first rate books can and the movies can be superior. I say this is so in the case of Ishiguro and Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala-Hopkins-Thompson (I include the principle actors as they are important in the effect of the film, they are part of its content) Remains of the Day. Alas to prove this I’d have to take a few weeks to analyse and study the film the way I’m doing the Pallisers, really study Ishiguro and then also bring in how the team brought in Henry James’s themes to deeply enrichen Ishiguro’s vision.

    And I'll be glad to say that films are another way to go on with books. I think of myself as "reading" films nowadays.

    Elinor    Dec 3, 7:56am    #

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