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cast: Alan Bates, Maggie Smith, Isabelle Adjani, Anthony Higgins, and Sheila Gish

director: James Ivory

96 minutes (18) 1982 widescreen ratio 16:9
Merchant Ivory DVD Region 0 retail

RATING: 6/10
reviewed by Gary Couzens
In Paris 1927, former chorus girl Marya (Isabelle Adjani), is living a Bohemian existence with her Polish husband Stefan Zelli (Anthony Higgins). Then, Stefan is imprisoned and threatened with deportation. Penniless, Marya is taken in by the Heidlers, art dealer H.J. (Alan Bates) and his wife Lois (Maggie Smith). But H.J. has eyes on Marya to make her his mistress, actively encouraged in this by Lois...
   Jean Rhys' novel Quartet was originally published as Postures in 1928, Quartet being the American, and ultimately preferred, title. It was the first of four novels that Rhys wrote in the 1920s and 1930s before she dropped into obscurity and the novels went out of print, championed by a few people who came across them in secondhand reprints. In the wake of a BBC radio adaptation of the fourth (Good Morning, Midnight, 1939) Rhys was tracked down. She wrote one more novel, Wide Sargasso Sea in 1966 (itself filmed, none too well, in 1993).
   Quartet has many elements of autobiography: Marya has Rhys' Creole (white West Indian) ancestry, and the author did live in Paris at the time of the novel. H.J. Heidler is based on Rhys' patron Ford Madox Ford, whose mistress Rhys did become with the full knowledge and consent of Ford's wife. Reading Quartet now, you're struck by how modern it seems: stylistically it's far less dated than more feted work of the time. It was little appreciated then because Rhys was ahead of her time in her objective look at her central characters. The two sexes relate at their peril in her work: men miscomprehend women and women distrust men, with tragic results.
   Unfortunately much of this goes missing in this Merchant Ivory film from 1982, made just before their great commercial success with A Room With A View. Every cent of a fairly small budget ($1.8 million) is on the screen, with sumptuous camerawork, production design and costumes. And you can't complain about the cast either: Adjani won Best Actress at that year's Cannes festival for this performance. But somehow the novel's essence has leaked away. Merchant and Ivory (and their long-time screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala) are fastidious talents, and this story needs a sense of a true darkness and emotional brutality under the decorous surface. It's telling that Jhabvala, in an interview included on this DVD, found this story particularly unpleasant.
   The DVD has an anamorphic transfer and a soundtrack in Dolby digital 2.0 mono. The dialogue is in a mixture of English and French, with an optional subtitle track translating most but not all of the latter. Disc extras: the trailer, text extras About The Film and About Merchant Ivory, plus Insight Into Quartet (an extract from the documentary about Merchant Ivory, The Wandering Company), a recent interview with Ivory, Merchant, Jhabvala and composer Richard Robbins, cast and crew listing, biographies of the four principal actors, trailers for other features in Arrow's Merchant Ivory collection: The Bostonians, The Europeans and A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries.

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