Gatherings at Country Houses, Day 2

So Day Two was Smiles of a Summer Night and The Draughtsman’s Contract.

Smiles of a Summer Night (Ingmar Bergman, 1955): Ika’s review

Oh, this was an absolute delight and one for the permanent collection (Jenny: You could watch this every time you were sad, like Finding Nemo, and it’s for adults!) It’s becoming clear that the the central premise of this genre is that when people gather at a country house, they will have sex with people they shouldn’t have, and a gun will be fired – but this movie was sheer comedy, not in the laugh-out-loud sense (though I did!), but in the sense of the basic premise of comedy-as-opposed-to-tragedy, that problems have solutions and that the world can be a hospitable, livable place if only people work out ways to love each other without doing harm. So the first half of the movie laid out a set of complicated, overlapping relationships where no-one is getting what they want: Fredrik Egerman, the ageing (and somewhat Snapeish) lawyer with his still-virginal child bride, Anne; Henrik, Fredrik’s tormented adolescent son, trying to be virtuous but getting embroiled in a self-hating affair with the cheerfully pansexual and promiscuous maid, Petra; Desiree, the great artist and Fredrik’s ex-mistress, still in love with Fredrik but currently in a relationship with Count Malcolm, a fiery, philandering, macho soldier with a tendency to get into duels; and Charlotte, Malcolm’s wife, who is all passion and tempest and rage and hate and fierce love for her husband. Then in the second half of the movie, all the characters are invited to Desiree’s fabulous ageing mother’s country house, where, through the machinations of Charlotte and Desiree, they all pair up in the right pairs: four couples with very different kinds of love, but all just right. And the house – oh, the house! With the chandeliers dripping with wax, and the butlers who carry the ageing mistress in their arms to the pavilion, and of course the bed which at the touch of a secret button slides through a panel in the wall from the next bedroom, delivering your father’s child-bride to you in a waft of muslin canopy and with the triumphant fanfare of a mechanical Cupid. It was like a benign, happy, playful, joyful, vanilla version of the Edwardian Porn Mansion (the house in all those Wordsworth Classic Erotica books I read as an undergraduate, the site and structure for all those abject, incestuous and sado-masochistic encounters). I totally loved it – and of course it also made it clear to me (even before Anne and Petra had their encounter on the bed) how queer a genre this is: the gathering at the country house is all about the circulation of desire through illicit channels – channels other than those laid down by the normative organization of desire in the bourgeois family home according to class, kinship, gender. Really, really gorgeous film.

Smiles of a Summer Night: Jenny’s review

I vaguely remembered Smiles of a Summer Night as being one of the easier-to-take aspects of Ingmar Bergman retrospectives, and I love Sondheim’s Little Night Music, but none of that prepared me for the sheer joy of seing Smiles of a Summer Night this time. It’s a stylized view of the world. We’re shown the first few minutes of Desiree’s play to underline the theatrical nature of life, not to draw a sharp distinction between life and art, and Bergman’s people, though not as relentlessly witty as Wilde’s, say things with more style and focus than the rest of us. But they’re people – confused, untidy, sometimes caricaturing themselves, sometimes transcending themselves, and in general impossible to sum up in a sentence. Afterwards, I wondered why I hadn’t felt excluded by the film’s overt message – that the best kind of love is all-or-nothing young love, and that youth and crabbed age can’t live together – but as far as I was concerned, that was just Bergman’s way of structuring his summer night: the film as a whole was bigger than anything said by anyone within it and in the end all the statements about love contradicted each other enthusiastically and productively. I’m already looking forward to seeing it again.

It’s my favourite so far in country-house terms, as well. I’m a town person myself: I wouldn’t want to live in the country, let alone in a house with as many rooms and people as a small village, but I love the idea of spending the weekend there – especially in Madame Arnfeldt’s mansion, with its enormous tapestries, candle-filled chandeliers and fully-furnished summerhouse. (Which reminds me that I have to take back my claim that filming in black and white necessarily brought out the architectural lines in And Then There Were None. Bergman, also filming in black and white, concentrates throughout on what Umberto Eco calls the ‘relished inessentials’ of his country house.)

The Draughtsman’s Contract (Peter Greenaway, 1982): Ika’s review

So about ten minutes in I said to Jenny, ‘if this keeps on being rapey and vomity, we can stop watching it, right?’ The vomiting stopped, which was nice, and the rapes gradually decreased in frequency and explicitness, and I made it through to the end, but to what avail?

The Draughtsman’s Contract: Jenny’s review

The Draughtsman’s Contract was a disappointment on all counts. The camera held back from the house and even its gardens, resulting in a series of tastefully framed panoramas like National Trust postcards. The characters’ motivations were incomprehensible: I’m not sure whether Peter Greenaway wanted me to believe that Mrs Herbert submitted to being raped twelve times by the draughtsman because she thought his drawings would win back her husband’s love, or because she wanted to frame the draughtsman for her husband’s murder, but either way, it seemed to me that those aims could have been achieved more simply and directly. And if Greenaway was trying to subvert the National Trust prettiness and set up a different way of seeing people, he didn’t leave enough clues for me to follow. In a gallery of affectless or self-parodying performances (many of them disconcertingly like the third season of Blackadder), the only thing that kept me awake was bracing myself against the next episode of Janet Suzman’s painfully and effectively-rendered humiliation: once the focus shifted away from her, I had no reason not to nap.

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3 Responses to Gatherings at Country Houses, Day 2

  1. Harriet says:

    I thought Mrs Herbert and her daughter were frantically trying to get at least one of themselves pregnant to stop the house falling into the hands of the German son-in-law?

    • nowandrome says:

      Yep. We think there are simpler ways of doing that, too (what about the five apparently perfectly potent male characters living in the house – not even counting the gardener and the naked statue?)

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