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Home Video Reviews

Though it took the 1984 huge art house favorite A Room with a View to bring the term "Merchant-Ivory" into the pop culture lexicon, James Ivory and Ismail Merchant were already well-versed in stylish, incisive period pieces thanks to films like Heat and Dust, The Bostonians, and the earlier Quartet, the most unsettling and sexually provocative film of their careers (well, perhaps next to Maurice). The gorgeous Isabelle Adjani stars as Marya, a submissive Parisian whose husband, Stephan (The Draughtsman's Contract's Anthony Higgins), is jailed for art fraud. During visits to prison, she is encouraged to survive at any cost and decides to take up with older society staples H.J. and Lois Heidler (Alan Bates and Maggie Smith), whose open marriage allows Marya to enter their circle as H.J.'s mistress. Her "benefactors" gradually assume an unnerving amount of control over Marya's life, while she spends the rest of her time sampling the delights of Paris society including underground erotic photography and all-night drinking parties at nightclubs.

While Adjani is sometimes cited as the weak link in this film, she's actually quite persuasive and a haunting presence as the passive Marya, a childlike blank slate who submits to the wills of anyone around here. Remarkably, she was named Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival in a joint nod to both this film and her simultaneous turn as the hysterical, monster-copulating housewife in Andrzej Zulawski's Possession; try pairing up both films for the most mind-bending look at marital hell imaginable. Smith and Bates are never less than exceptional, of course, and the period detail is executed with the filmmaker's usual eye for beguiling detail; you won't find another flapper-era film quite like it.

Based on a semi-autobiographical novel by Jean Rhys (Wide Sargasso Sea), the story still feels transgressive as it offers no easy moral solutions or a defining moment where our protagonist suddenly asserts her heroic independence; not unlike Roman Polanski's The Pianist, this is more a story of mundane day-to-day struggling by an everyman than an inspirational story of "beating the odds" with a feel-good climax. Though less influential than subsequent Merchant-Ivory films, Quartet can be seen as the predecessor for such similar dramas as Breaking the Waves and The Comfort of Strangers which explore the idea of infidelity from a complex, morally ambiguous point of view. On a more sensory level, regular Merchant-Ivory composer Richard Robbins really outdoes himself here, offering a lyrical score that ranks with Howards End as one of his best.

A fine if modest entry in the ongoing line of Merchant-Ivory titles in conjunction with Criterion, Quartet receives a fine anamorphic transfer that perfectly replicates the fine, powdery textures of the original cinematography; toss out those old Warner VHS tapes right away. The most substantial extra is an 11-minute featurette, Conversation with the Filmmakers, in which Ivory, Merchant, and regular (brilliant) screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabyala discuss the film's origins and production with a focus on maintaining the period look under surprisingly challenging circumstances. The disc also includes trailers for this film along with Heat and Dust, The Bostonians, The Europeans, and Shakespeare Wallah.

For more information about Quartet, visit Home Vision Entertainment. To order Quartet, go to TCM Shopping.

by Nathaniel Thompson