The House of Mirth

New York 1905. Lily Bart is unfathomably beautiful. Elegant and graceful she’s welcomed at all the fashionable parties. but while she’s from a good family, her father was ‘ruined’ and now an orphan she must live with her aunt who gives her just enough pocket money to keep up appearances but doesn’t quite cover the expenses of her social calendar. At 29 Lily knows the only answer is to marry well.

The society in which Lily moves is an aristocracy that owes as much to European culture as to wealth, a society that mirrors the world of Edith Wharton’s. And it’s through Lily’s eyes and experience that Wharton sets out to satirise the world in which she felt so trapped. The tight knit group of friends that form Lily’s set, are governed by rules. The year is divided between town and country with weekend house parties de rigueur. Husbands provide the money and their wives adorn and delight, with an edge of malicious indifference.

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A Film for March: Portrait of a Lady on Fire

At the end of the 18th century a countess (Valeria Golino) asks a young artist to paint a portrait of her daughter Héloïse, (Adèle Haenel), which is to be shown to a wealthy, prospective husband living in Milan.

When Marianne (Noémie Merlant) arrives at the remote island near Brittany she’s told that she needs to paint in secret, pretending that she’s come as a companion to Héloïse; to watch and study her closely as they spend their days together, and then paint at night. Written and directed by Céline Sciamma, this is a simple story about women’s friendship and the unfolding romance between the two main characters, told with pared back elegance.

When I think about this film the first thing I think of is the sound of it. There’s no background music, all the sounds are made by the characters. The sea and the waves breaking, the scratching of charcoal, a canvas being prepared, wooden shoes on floor boards and the hollow clunk of a door being shut. Héloïse has been in a convent and has never heard an orchestra play. The only music we hear, she hears too; tentatively produced by Marianne on a harpsichord and then joyfully by a chorus of women singing and clapping traditional Breton folk songs; until at the end, back in Paris, we hear and see a full orchestra together.

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The Portrait of a Lady

Lydia Touchett is a wealthy American who divides her year between homes in Italy and England and every now and then visits her old family home in Albany; which is where she finds her orphaned niece, sitting reading a book amongst a jumble of old furniture, and asks her if she would like to accompany her to Europe.

So, in 1870, Isabel Archer arrives at Gardencourt, the Tudor house set some 40 miles outside of London, with lawns sloping down to the River Thames at ‘the perfect middle of a splendid summer afternoon’. There she meets her uncle, cousin Ralph and his friend Lord Warburton.

Isabel is sensible and kind, full of enthusiasm and fun – all in all she’s a hit. Young men fall in love with her and their sisters adore her, her erstwhile suitor Caspar Greenwood follows her over from America in hope, but Isabel values her independence and has no time for marriage, at least not until she’s travelled and seen some of the world. Gentle Ralph is one of those who love her and before his father dies persuades him to leave a part of his fortune to Isabel. He wants to see what such a spirited character will do given financial security and that action provides the catalyst. Now a wealthy young women Isabel is able to make her own choices.

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Death on the Riviera

A counterfeit currency gang are at large on the French Riviera and the French police believe it to be an English set up. A phone call to Scotland Yard sees Detective-Inspector Meredith and Acting-Sergeant Strang pack their bags, open the windows, put the roof down and drive to the South of France hot on the tail of ‘Chalky’ Cobbett.

Bill Dillon, a young Englishman, is also heading to the Riviera and to the Villa Palomo. The villa is owned by Nesta Hedderwick a wealthy widow on a tomato juice diet, who lives with her companion Miss Bertha Pelligrew and a collection of young people – her niece Dilys, the questionable play boy Tony Shenton and his girlfriend Kitty Linden and an artist Paul Latour. When Bill arrives it becomes clear that more than one of them has something to hide and the tension begins to rise.

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