By Marie-Renee Goulet
The movie opens with an impromptu encounter between beautiful socialite Lily Bart (Gillian Anderson) and attorney Lawrence Selden (Eric Stoltz). Their attraction for one another is palpable, but Selden’s social status is at odds with Lily’s ambition: to marry money, a great deal of money. He does very well for himself, but he also understands that he cannot possibly offer her the life she was born and trained to have. Although shot entirely in Scotland, one never questions being in 1905 New York. The film is stunning, with many scenes looking like paintings coming to life.
Based on 1905’s best-selling novel by Edith Wharton, the title was inspired by a passage from Ecclesiastes 7:4, “The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.” Wharton, herself a member of New York high society, wrote the novel as a critic from the inside the circle. A world where no one ever has to work, living only to flaunt their fortunes and gossip about one another. A world where perception is as important as reality.
Having been brought up rich as a girl but impoverished and orphaned, Lily was taken in by her aunt, Mrs. Peniston, where she lives with a cousin, Grace Stepney. Lily’s only goal in life is to marry a man who will let her enjoy life and never have to worry about money. Lily has been honing her skills at becoming whatever an available wealthy man wishes her to be for the past 11 years but never making the final commitment. She expertly charms Mr. Bryce early on but fails to make it to the proposal. A telling moment is just as she is about to make it to a critical engagement, which could lead to his proposal, she recoils from the window and lets the carriage leave without her—realizing that going now and closing the deal with Mr. Bryce would mean living a dull, loveless existence. Her life is a series of parties, weddings, and operas. She knows that at 29, she has been around so long that many are now saying unkind things about her, and the slightest missteps can be fatal.
The small income from her legacy is not enough to maintain the lifestyle required to play in this world, and Lily has relied on her friends’ generosity. This high society circle led by power couples Bertha and her long-suffering husband, George Dorset and Gus and Judy Trenor. Thinking of them as her friends, she fails to recognize that an offer from Mr. Trenor to manage investments for her when he was giving her his money will have devastating effects on the relationships and, eventually, her reputation. Laura Linney is most effective in her insidious malice and slowly but surely uses Lily to save her marriage and status. Having spent most of what she thought were dividends, she found herself under an untenable obligation.
Mr. Rosedal, brilliantly played by Anthony Lapaglia, is introduced early as a loathsome character but is so wealthy that his lack of refinement matters not. He proposes to Lily, but she turns him down. In the end, he is the only one in the set who will be completely honest with her and genuinely seems to care. We come to find that Selden’s ubiquitous presence despite his lack of status is a past affair with Bertha Dorset. After being abandoned or betrayed by friends and family, Lily has an opportunity for revenge and restoration within the group, but she does not take it as it would hurt her true love. Her aunt, who use to supplement her income, dies and disinherits her. She leaves her just enough to cover debts.
It would be easy to judge Lily, as she is eager to marry a rich man and continues to make errors in judgment, which leads to her falling from New York high society to the working classes. One needs to remember that women in 1905 had very little formal education and prospect. It would be another 15 years before we even had the right to vote. Over 100 years later, we are still talking about equal pay. There were very few professions available. A woman could live in relative poverty doing menial jobs or marry. Her motivation for accepting Gus Trenor’s help with her investments was to become more financially independent. She had been unable to marry only for money but was not prepared to live without it. She was too foolish to imagine that to him, it was purely transactional and that he may wish to be repaid in kind. There is a heartbreaking scene between Selden and Lily, where she exclaims: “I have tried hard — but life is difficult, and I am a very useless person.” She fully understands at this point that her future is the one she dreaded the most: poverty. Gillian Anderson is pitch-perfect as Lily Bart and shows a range we were not aware of as she was mostly known for her role as Dana Scully on The X-Files in 2000.
As she waits for her inheritance, she works as an assistant to Mrs. Hatch, who uses her to gain access to the Society that just excluded her. Mrs. Hatch lets her go as soon as the right connections are made. By then, though, Lily had begun taking her boss’s Chloral Hydrate to help her sleep. Having been trained for nothing but marriage, she finds herself out of a job and moving down to earning pennies as a milliner, a position from which she quickly gets laid off for her lack of skills. Pride is her undoing as she refuses help from those who would. She holds on just long enough to save her name and paying off her debt.
Laurence Selden does find out that she protected him from scandal. He goes to her, but it is, unfortunately, too late. The bookends’ opening and closing shots’ contrast is stark and heartbreaking.
Marie’s appreciation for movies & TV began early in life as it offered escapes, laughter, and often an education. It sparked a love of photography, travel, and a general curiosity for the world and everything in it. Originally from Quebec City, she graduated Summa Cum Laude from Trebas Institute in 1998 where John H. Foote was her Film History professor. The winds pushed her into a different professional field and on a few adventures around the world. The passion for film and storytelling in all forms continues. Marie lives in the Canadian Rockies.