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50 Years of Merchant Ivory - Spotlight
Remind Me

Quartet (1981)

Paris in the Twenties. It's one of those magical eras that's been romanticized many times on screen, most recently in Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris (2011). In 1981, the producer-director team of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory delved into that golden age with their film Quartet, based on a French novel that was actually written in the 1920s.

This tale is far more somber and moody than Woody Allen's romp, however: a passive young woman (Isabelle Adjani) is left penniless and desperate in Paris when her husband is jailed for art theft, and an English couple (Alan Bates and Maggie Smith) take her in -- but the hedonistic husband soon turns her into his mistress, which the wife unhappily tolerates.

The Jean Rhys novel on which this is based is autobiographical, published in 1928 but based on Rhys' experiences in Paris in 1922, when she was in her mid-twenties. Ivory discovered the novel when, at screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's urging, he began reading many of Rhys' works. Quartet struck him particularly because of Ivory's own travels in Paris as long ago as 1950, a time when he spoke with people who had actually been there in the 1920s and could tell him what it had been like. Ivory also said in an interview that he was heavily inspired by John Glassco's Memoirs of Montparnasse, a vibrant account of 1920s Parisian life.

Ivory was very happy with his cast, later saying of Adjani, "She kept nothing back, veering from a tremulous joy to outbursts of hysterical scorn in the course of her characterization. Of my many heroines stuck on a dubious man, I would consider Marya, as played by Adjani, the most nakedly passionate."

Maggie Smith, as the desperate English wife, leaves perhaps the strongest impression. Hers was also the toughest role to cast. "Nobody wanted to play that part," recalled Ivory. "It went around to many actresses, both English and American, and they all turned it down. They said things like, 'It's so sick,' 'It's creepy,' and this kind of thing... a judgmental, moralistic thing. I remember that Julie Christie didn't want to do it; she made it sound unhealthy somehow. No doubt she was right. But it was still a very good part, which Maggie saw at once." Smith had long adored the novels of Jean Rhys and was thrilled to be a part of Quartet.

As in most Merchant-Ivory productions, Quartet's sets, costumes, makeup, period details and overall production values are excellent and authentic. The film was shot in Paris on a budget of $1.8 million, funded independently by a mixture of sources: Gaumont, 20th Century Fox in London, a French government agency, and even Roger Corman's production company, New World Pictures.

Ivory loved working in Paris. "It's a real pleasure to work with a French crew," he said. "Perhaps the greatest. In a very democratic way, they become one's artistic collaborators, every last man and woman, no matter how small their role.... Making Quartet turned out to be one of our most enjoyable shooting experiences. I had visited Paris and the rest of France all my adult life, but now I was to live there and be in close contact with French people of all different kinds. ... The atmosphere on set was quite special, quite serious. After we'd finished, Ismail and I wanted to get back there as soon as we could, but that didn't happen until Mr. and Mrs. Bridge (1990) in 1989 -- almost ten years later. And then we waited another four years before we could go back and do Jefferson in Paris (1995)."

Ivory continued, "I've always liked it. I think it was the first film in which I really hit my stride -- where there was a general harmony of theme, and of structure, as well as of photography and acting.... I think if one had to divide up my work into periods, Quartet might be the first in phase 2. Up to that film I took a more tentative and less disciplined approach, sometimes too hit-or-miss."

Critics were mixed. The New York Times' Vincent Canby wrote, "Miss Adjani tries hard, but she is no waif by any stretch of the imagination. She is too formidably strong and beautiful. She looks as if she could flatten both Heidlers with the back of one hand if she wanted to.... Quartet is handsome but, ultimately, weightless."

Ivory gave his own opinion of the Adjani criticism in an interview, saying, "You know, the sort of person who really looks like a helpless waif is sometimes not very interesting. And perhaps not very beautiful either. You need a bit of fire."

Adjani provided enough fire to win the Best Actress award at Cannes, but Quartet did not find much of an audience in America, possibly because of the rather grim subject matter and the themes of loneliness and entrapment. It could have been grimmer, however. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala wrote three different endings for the screenplay, and the two discarded versions had Adjani's husband getting out of jail and running off with another woman, and Adjani committing suicide. The filmed version is somewhat less bleak and not as melodramatic.

Producer: Jean-Pierre Mahot de la Querantonnais, Ismail Merchant
Director: James Ivory
Screenplay: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (screenplay); James Ivory (screenplay, uncredited); Michel Maingois (French dialogue); Jean Rhys (novel)
Cinematography: Pierre Lhomme
Music: Richard Robbins
Film Editing: Humphrey Dixon
Cast: Alan Bates (H.J. Heidler), Maggie Smith (Lois Heidler), Isabelle Adjani (Marya 'Mado' Zelli), Anthony Higgins (Stephan Zelli), Pierre Clémenti (Théo the Pornographer), Suzanne Flon (Mme. Hautchamp), Daniel Mesquich (Pierre Schlamovitz), Sheila Gish (Anna), Armelia McQueen (Night Club Singer), Wiley Wood (Cairn).

by Jeremy Arnold

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