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MERCHANTS OF ELEGANCE

At the age of fourteen, my favourite movie of all time was Dick Tracy.  Yet, when an article in Tribute magazine profiled Merchant Ivory’s Howards End with the line, “If this is playing in your city, you’re lucky,” my curiousity was piqued and the small flame of desire to expand my cinematic horizons decided it had found its opportunity to flare.  It was June of 1992, and my sister finished a university exam and took me to the Varsity (which was only two cinemas at the time) and, without a doubt, my life was changed forever.

Among the many filmmaking teams that have captivated the cinema over the decades, from Powell and Pressburger to the Maysles Brother, there is a singularity to be found in the trio of Merchant Ivory.  Considered the quintessential purveyors of period cinema, mainly because there biggest hits after their popular breakout in the 80s were adaptations of E.M. Forster novels, their interests actually range far and wide and, while not always successful (I could live without ever sitting through the anodyne Jane Austen In Manhattan ever again) they have the quality that separates the auteur from the hack: they are always reaching for something grand, and it is for no one to criticize when they fail to achieve it, and for the team alone to celebrate when they succeed.  Thanks to their period films, they are also thought of as an essentially British film company, a humorous misconception considering that they are actually quite international: American director James Ivory, the now-late (and ebulliently charming) Indian-born producer Ismail Merchant and German Jewish writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. 

This summer sees a celebration of the team of Merchant Ivory at the TIFF Bell Lightbox with the Elegant Pairings series (an unfortunately simpering title, probably to announce it as parentally safe), in which Ivory has selected a handful of the company’s films to be accompanied by other selections that suit them. 

The series kicks off with Howards End, Merchant Ivory’s greatest achievement and the film that, since twenty years ago (to the month), I have seen the most times in my life.  This superb, Academy and Cannes Award-winning masterpiece, the best film ever made from a Forster novel and featuring Emma Thompson in one of the best performances ever put on film, combines the author’s observant wit and societal commentary with the smoothest ease of anything I have ever seen.  Ivory himself will be attending and speaking at the screening as part of the Books On Film series on June 18 at 7pm.

The elegant pairings begin on June 19 with The Remains Of The Day, the troupe’s other masterpiece, based on the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro and featuring Anthony Hopkins’ greatest ever acting work on film.  This will be followed by Alfred Hitchcock’s delicious adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca, featuring Judith Anderson as the obsessed housekeeper who goes through her former mistresses’ lacy lingerie drawer.

July 1 sees the delightful pairing of Bombay Talkie, a charming satire on the Bollywood film industry (including the appearance of the legendary Helen), followed by Wes Anderson’s wonderful The Darjeeling Limited.Shakespeare Wallah was Merchant Ivory’s first arthouse hit, a terrific examination of the rise of Indian popular culture in cinema coinciding with the decline of British theatre, with Madhur Jaffrey deservedly winning Best Actress at the Berlin Film Festival for her turn as a spoiled Bollywood princess.  This will be followed by Charulata by India’s greatest-ever filmmaker, Satyajit Ray.  They screen July 8.

One of the more interesting projects ever envisioned by Merchant Ivory was Savages (July 15), an experimental look at society from savage to civilized and back, all inspired by the appearance of a perfectly round croquet ball.  It’s more idea than indulgence, but it has its merits and a terrific cast.  It is paired with one of Luis Bunuel’s most awe-inspiring film, itself an experiment, The Exterminating Angel, about a dinner party that turns grotesque when the guests realize that they are trapped by a supernatural force from ever leaving the room (and, as it turns out, Midnight In Paris’s Owen Wilson gave Bunuel the idea in the first place).

Heat and Dust was the team’s first international hit, but what really put them on the map (and earned them their first Academy Awards, three of them) was their first E.M. Forster film, A Room With A View, a romantic and funny look at the social improprieties of romance that is memorable for Maggie Smith’s hilarious turn as a spinster aunt, and Helena Bonham Carter’s incredible eyebrows.  On August 5 the film, which won three Academy Awards, is paired up with Daniel Day-Lewis’s other marvelous performance of 1985, Stephen Frears’ My Beautiful Laundrette, which is still my favourite gay cinema romance of all time.

Merchant Ivory never had as much success with Henry James as they did with Forster; their version of The Europeans captures all the sharp observation of James’s book (which was among his best), but none of its sly humour, and the performances fail to melt the screen.  It’s an elegant film, however, and is paired with Martin Scorsese’s outstanding adaptation of Edith Wharton’s The Age Of Innocence on August 12.

Slightly better than The Europeans was the version of The Bostonians made in 1984; it misses the humorous criticism that James was making about blindsided feminism, but it features one of Vanessa Redgrave’s most awe-inspiring performances as the obnoxiously shy activist who is far too passionately impressed by a well-spoken but hollow nineteenth century version of motivational speaker.  It screens on August 19 with Merchant Ivory’s far more overtly gay-themed film, Maurice, from 1987, their second of three Forster films and their weakest.  Jhabvala herself did not work on the screenplay for that one, and one suspects that her lack of involvement is possibly why the joy and humour of Forster’s book is not present, replaced instead by a plodding pace and an emphasis on the, admittedly real, realities of same-sex affection in the Edwardian age.  It also features a debut film performance by Hugh Grant at his snackiest, and is definitely worth seeing at least once.

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