Paris, 1927, when the city was the centre of attraction for artists, writers and bohemians, all drawn to and contributing to an atmosphere of heady indulgence and barely contained decadence in the jazz night-clubs and seedy café’s of Montparnasse. Also drawn to the most exciting and vibrant of European cities are Polish immigrant, Stefan Zelli (Anthony Higgins) and his wife Marya (Isabelle Adjani), but when Stefan is arrested and imprisoned for dealing with stolen artifacts, Marya finds herself alone and at the mercy of a society with rules and behaviour very different from normal. She relies on the kindness of an English couple, the Heidler’s, who allow her to lodge at her apartment while Lois (Maggie Smith) uses her as a model for her painting, but there is more to the arrangement than meets the eye. HJ (Alan Bates) is in love with this little-girl-lost, a situation that his wife Lois is already well familiar with, tolerating his infidelity as long as appearances are preserved.
It’s not so much a love triangle as a love quartet – Marya continues to visit Stefan in prison and knows that the situation must come to a head when he is released. The Heidler’s relationship thrives on the emotional turmoil of the situation, adding a spark of adventure to the otherwise tedious hedonism of endless clubbing. The whole situation however is built on a web of lies, excuses and self-deceit – a neurosis of keeping up the appearance of respectability and giving in to the secret passions that rage inside. Perfect Merchant Ivory material in other words and material that they are more than capable of putting across effectively on the screen, particularly with a stellar cast like this.
The story is based on an autobiographical novel by Jean Rhys of her experiences in Paris as the mistress of the writer Ford Madox Ford. Cinematographer Pierre L’homme marvellously captures the vibrant atmosphere of 1920’s Paris with superb colour schemes and lighting, capturing the seedy hotels of Montparnasse and the smoky jazz café’s of the Latin Quarter. Adjani has rarely performed better (winning Best Actress in Cannes for her role here) and Bates and Smith are solid in portraying difficult, unsympathetic and complex characters. James Ivory even received a Golden Palm nomination at Cannes for his direction here.
There is a faint hint of grain and a touch of softness to the image, but nothing more that prevents this picture from looking simply stunning. Beautifully photographed, the colour schemes are bold, bright and vivid with deep, solid blacks and a perfect balance of brightness and contrast. There is barely a mark or scratch to be seen on the print, and barring a few minor areas of colour fluctuation and a little bit of cross-colouration, the image is steady and clear. Beautiful.
The original soundtrack is preserved, a Dolby Digital 2.0 mono track. There are no great demands placed on the soundtrack, but the dialogue rings loud and clear, is a little on the harsh side and musical numbers are strong and effectively conveyed. There is a faint touch of background hiss audible in quieter passages, but it is at a very low level.
About a quarter of the film is made up of French dialogue, some of it in key scenes and there were no subtitles provided for this in the original theatrical release of the film. Subtitles are optionally provided here and are always clear and readable, although they don’t cover every exchange of French dialogue.
The Trailer (2:04) is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic. Like other titles in the Merchant Ivory Collection, there are a number of text based extras. About the Film and About Merchant Ivory provide some good background on the origins of the screenplay and the film’s place in the works of Merchant Ivory. Cast & Crew and Biographies text pieces are also included. The Insight into Quartet (6:01) feature is the exact same short excerpt from the documentary The Wandering Company that is included as Insight into Jane Austen on the Jane Austen in Manhattan DVD. An interview with Merchant Ivory Productions features a recent interview with James Ivory, Ismail Merchant and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, where they talk in-depth and exclusively about the making of Quartet. Jhabvala thought that it was too unpleasant a story to adapt to the screen and the nature of the subject also made it a difficult film to cast, particularly getting an actress to play the role that Maggie Smith eventually took, as it wasn’t a sympathetic role for any female actor. Richard Robbins also contributes his thoughts on the songs performed in the film. Other Merchant Ivory Trailers looks at other titles in the collection - The Bostonians, The Europeans and A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries.
This is an excellent DVD presentation of a film that typifies the themes and period-drama that Merchant Ivory excel at and subsequently expanded upon in their Henry James and EM Forster work, although the inherent stiffness and coldness that this often entails is still evident here. You know what to expect – lavish attention to period detail and character and perfect performances from an exceptional cast of actors – and Quartet is certainly one of the better films of its kind.