Film

Quartet Chronicles a Twisted Ménage à Trois in the Roaring ’20s of Paris

In Quartet (1981), now screening at Quad Cinema, filmmaker James Ivory explores sexual Stockholm syndrome and the persistence of patriarchy in seedy 1920s Paris.

Isabelle Adjani as Marya in James Ivory’s Quartet (1981) (All images courtesy of Cohen Media Group)

Paris during les Années Folles — the so-called “crazy years” of the 1920s — was a hotbed for artists and expats looking to indulge in the raucous glitz and glam of the Montmartre cabarets, or share in the cigarette-fueled conversations of the Left Bank’s gilded literary salons. Bohemian types fled the moral prohibitions of their native lands and found liberation in sex, booze, and jazz — or so the story goes. James Ivory’s Quartet (1981), which plays through May 9th at the Quad Cinema in its new 4k restoration (and opens later this month in L.A.), is a visually dazzling recreation of 1920s Paris that subverts romanticized notions of the era, exposing the City of Light’s seedy underbelly and the forms of bondage women endure in a hedonistic but still rigidly patriarchal society.

Poster for James Ivory’s Quartet (1981)

Contemporary audiences will remember James Ivory as the screenwriter behind Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name, 2017’s acclaimed summer of love movie that introduced us to Timothée Chalamet and forever redefined peaches. But for the better half of his decades-spanning career, Ivory was best known for his collaborations with lifelong partner Ismail Merchant. The majority of the films by Merchant Ivory Productions were directed by Ivory, produced by Merchant, and more often than not written by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala; this team eventually developed a reputation for its lavish period dramas distinguished by a rumbling psychological malaise beneath the glossy surface of decadent set designs and impressive historical costumes. Unsurprisingly, their extensive filmography contains some under-the-radar gems overshadowed by more popular titles such as The Remains of the Day (1993), A Room with A View (1985), and Howard’s End (1992). Quartet (1981) is one such criminally underseen Merchant-Ivory that breaks with the company’s penchant for the mannered Edwardian-era high society drama.

Isabelle Adjani as Marya and Alan Bates as H.J. Heidler in Quartet (1981)

Adapted from a novel by Jean Rhys, the story begins when beautiful foreigner Marya (Isabelle Adjani) finds herself suddenly destitute after her shady art dealer husband, Stephan (Anthony Higgins), is thrown in jail. Adjani, the only person to win the Best Actress award for two films in the same year at the Cannes Film Festival (for Quartet and Andrzej Żuławski’s Possession), is a wide-eyed powerhouse, struggling to exert her agency even as her options are radically trimmed down. Frazzled in her new position of vulnerability, Marya obeys Stephan’s request that she accept an offer for free lodging in the apartment of a wealthy British couple, the Heidlers. But this isn’t the first time H.J. (Alan Bates) and Lois (Maggie Smith) Heidler have invited a young woman to stay in their spare room.

Maggie Smith as Lois Heidler in Quartet (1981)

A burly, mustachioed art dealer unaccustomed to the word “no,” H.J. spots Marya from a distance while eating out with his entourage of expats — women wearing bejeweled skull caps and shiny silk dresses, men wearing ascots and crisp suits. Immediately, he resolves to possess the hapless Marya, though his wife is the one that officially extends the invitation for cohabitation. Gradually the Heidler’s marital arrangement is made clear: Lois accepts and even facilitates her husband’s sexual mores under the condition that he remain publicly discreet. It’s a concession she begrudgingly allows out of fear that he might otherwise leave her.

Maggie Smith is both frightening and pitiable as the bottled-up Lois. While the typical Merchant-Ivory film practices emotional restraint to the point of feeling of staid, Quartet uses this emotional stiltedness to surprisingly powerful effect in Smith’s character. Slavishly in love, but also an artist perhaps reliant on her husband’s patronage, Lois goes to great lengths to satisfy her husband’s desires. She turns a blind eye to H.J.’s philandering and feigns concern for her younger tenant to keep her from fleeing when the domestic strain becomes too much to bear. Lois is an experienced performer in this respect, making the brief moments in which her true emotions poke through all the more catastrophic.

Originally disinclined to partake in this bizarre sexual tryst, Marya is eventually seduced by H.J. and consents to an increasingly humiliating affair that triggers thoughts of suicide. Tensions mount as Marya falls into a lovesick depression over H.J.’s refusal to legitimize their romance, and Lois grows exasperated with her husband’s insatiable carnal interests. Both women crave proof of H.J.’s devotion while being forced to accept his conditions, Lois by her fear of public scandal, and Marya by her impoverished circumstances. Whether wife or mistress, rich or poor, these women experience a sexual Stockholm syndrome that chains them even tighter to their captor. Quartet’s female protagonists are trapped in an unhappy existence determined by the brute masculine urges and territorial whims of men whose desires remain cruelly unchecked. This form of subjugation is mockingly decorated in opulent clothing and housed in the art deco architectural splendor of life freed from the burden of financial concern.

Still from Quartet (1981)

Right when the ménage à trois is on the verge of eruption, Stephan enters the equation upon his release from jail, giving Marya the slim hope of escape and renewal. In its final moments, Quartet veers into tragedy without opting for death or destruction. In a world in which women remain materially and existentially tethered to their male partners, this unique Merchant-Ivory production is a forlorn reminder of the Kafkaesque entrapments that society fashions for women.

Quartet, a film by James Ivory, is screening at Quad Cinema (34 W. 13th Street, Greenwich Village, Manhattan) through May 16th. 

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