The House of Mirth is a drama set in New York City between 1905 and 1907. The film tells the tragic story of Lily Bart (played by Gillian Anderson), a socialite from a patrician New York City family navigating the complexities of upper-class life. Lily has no family besides a disapproving aunt whom she lives with, and given Lily is of marriageable age and a member of the upper class, her expected next step in life is marriage to a member of her class. Lily is a sought-after woman. She is from the “right kind of family” and is known for her beauty, whit, and courage to express her opinions. Lily is infatuated with a young man named Lawrence Selden (Eric Stoltz). Lily and Lawrence have an ongoing flirtation but early in the film we learn Lawrence, an attorney and merely a member of the upper middle class, is not a suitable husband for Lily. At various parties and social events, Lily rejects wealthy suitors—one for being dull, another for being crass Wall Street “new money” (Simon Rosedale played by Anthony LaPaglia). We also learn that Lily is in a precarious financial position. Living on a modest income from her parent’s inheritance and a small allowance from her aunt, Lily spends lavishly and, worse, recently incurred huge gambling debts playing card games. Beyond social convention, it is clear to Lily that marrying a man with money is now a financial necessity. At the same time Lily becomes embroiled in a number of conflicts with fellow socialites, namely Bertha Dorset (Laura Linney), a disloyal wife of an uninteresting patrician, a woman who also vies for Lawrence’s affections. Although Bertha spreads gossip about Lily and seeks to ostracize her from New York City high society, Lily remains passive and adheres to her own sense of ethics (best demonstrated when Lily comes into possession of scandalous letters from Bertha to Lawrence but opts to keep them a secret).
Desperate to improve her financial situation, Lily entrusts the corpus of her inheritance to Gus Trenor (Dan Ackroyd) who offers to invest it for her and improve its income yield. Gus, married to a friend of Lily’s, is clearly infatuated with Lily and proves to have ulterior motives. During a night out at the Metropolitan Opera, Gus confronts Lily and insists on her “repaying” him, telling her he wants to have an affair with her and that, in exchange, he would support her financially (i.e. what we would refer to today as a “sugar baby” arrangement). Lily refuses and is outraged at the suggestion. Gus then informs her that the income she had been receiving was actually not from investments but payments from Gus himself—and now he wants the money repaid. Worse still, Lily’s decision to go out in public with Gus leads to more gossip and scandal for Lily. Lily’s aunt, a conservative who disapproves of Lily’s lifestyle, confronts Lily about her damaged social standing and gambling debts. Little does Lily know but this confrontation would lead to her aunt largely disinheriting Lily from the family fortune.
We see Lily’s tragic fall in the final act of the film. Gossip about Lily leads to her being excluded from social events. Her list of potential rich husbands dissipates, and even Lawrence seems to lose hope for Lily. Lily’s aunt dies and she loses her allowance and place to live, on top of learning she will only receive a small sum. Now desperate, Lily attempts to rekindle Simon Rosedale’s interest in marriage only to be rejected—though Rosedale offers her financial support if she would agree to be his lover, an offer Lily cannot bring herself to. Soon Lily is forced to work, first as a social secretary for a rich friend and then as milliner but proves to be incompetent in both positions and is soon out of work. Attempting to medicate her depression during her fall from grace, Lily becomes addicted to laudanum, an addiction which grows worse over time. Unable to support herself and recognizing her debts will wipe out whatever money she receives from her aunt’s inheritance, Lily concludes she is out of options. She visits Lawrence to return the scandalous letters from Bertha Dorset and to say goodbye. In the denouement, Lily returns to her working class flat and sees she has finally received her inheritance. She promptly writes checks to repay both Trenor and her gambling debts, putting them in envelopes at her bedside. She then overdoses on laudanum and dies. Lawrence, suspecting Lily may be suicidal, arrives too late and can only mourn her passing.
The House of Mirth is a haunting film. Based on an Edith Wharton novel, there were two prior movie adaptations made in 1918 and 1981. The 2000 film, written and directed by Terence Davies, has more of a feel of a theater production than a movie. It struck me that Davies was attempting to tell Wharton’s story as a kind of fable, wherein characters represent archetypes more than actual people who once lived, and the plot of the film plays out like a morality play more than a historical drama.
Given the film’s theatrical and allegorical elements, the characters are not meant to be portrayed as people who actually lived. Sentences are spoken perfectly. Everyone is well-dressed and neatly groomed.
The only character we truly get to know is Lily Bart. Beyond the film’s presentation of Lily, I’m certain women like her existed at the time: locked in familial and class commitments, dependent upon men for financial support, only educated to a certain extent but highly cultured (fluent in French, well versed in art, literature and music), and lacking practical skills (given their reliance on servants and gendered exclusion from “white collar” jobs). On the other hand, Lily is highly moral but not particularly religious, which I think would have been rare among her 1900 contemporaries–perhaps this is a commentary on the upper class decadence that was ignoring Protestant values. However, Gillian Anderson’s performance brings life to the character by convincing us of Lily’s human qualities: her shortcomings of overconfidence and naïveté are outweighed by her decency, self-respect, and kindness. In this sense Lily seems like a very believable character.
The only other character with substantial screen time is Lawrence Selden. Eric Stoltz plays the role in a way that makes Lawrence a kind of cipher: it is hard to tell if Lawrence is actually in love with Lily, or if he’s some kind of Lothario who makes his way through socialite women (and Lily is just another target), or if he has a genuine fondness for Lily but doesn’t want to bed her. At one point a character remarks that Lawrence lives in a building whose name means “confirmed bachelor,” making me wonder if Davies was having Stoltz play Lawrence as a closeted gay man.
Though not really emphasizing historical aspects, The House of Mirth does give the viewer a sense of what life was like in the early 1900s in a narrow sense. This is a story centered upon the rules and mores of upper-class New York City socialites, specifically single women from well-off families—similar to the continued mass media attention given the rich and famous. The viewer will get a strong sense that women of privilege had less options than working class women, and while this is debatable, I do think that beyond material considerations the ability to earn money from a job allowed for more opportunities to exercise agency in daily life, to live out of the spotlight of state and societal coercion. More broadly, Lily’s fall is perhaps a commentary about the excesses of Gilded Age and, in this sense, provides the societal critique from those upper-class descendants of English and Dutch Protestants. The decadence of the idle rich, especially the nouveau riche, revealed a kind of American moral decay.
The film is languidly paced. Davies was not working with a huge budget, so most of the film takes place in drawing and dining rooms, or on verandas and paths around country estates. Most scenes are done with minimal editing, played out in a single camera shot framing both characters with a few back-and-forth cuts between the characters. There are transitions between acts using shots of landscapes set to classical music from composers like Mozart, Haydn and Rossini (live performances of which being all the rage for upper class New Yorkers at the time).
In conclusion, from a pedagogic perspective The House of Mirth is a worthwhile film in that it explores the limitations on women in American society at the beginning of the twentieth century when even women of great privilege faced finite life choices. What is haunting about this film is the idea a person could be so locked into societal conventions that suicide would be her only solution. It seems like an absurd tragedy in an age of gender equality, evolved sexual mores, social safety nets, and bankruptcy laws—absurd but sadly believable. While today #metoo would call out the behavior of boorish powerful men looking for a sexual quid pro quo, I would speculate that for the more reasonably minded working class such a voluntary arrangement would not be so outrageous. Equally absurd is that there is still a stigma on sex work in the twenty-first century. While Lily’s story in The House of Mirth shows how far we have come, it also reminds us of the distance we need to go.