A Not-So-Novel Approach

When a well-made film whistles past me without touching, when I've sat down and presented the astonished bull's-eye of my brain to the filmmaker only to hear the arrow go harmlessly by my left ear, I have to assume that it was aimed elsewhere -- that I may not, in fact, be the target audience. Who, to take a case in point, is Neil LaBute's Possession aimed at? Answer: my mother-in-law. She loved it. An avid and discerning cinemagoer, she found it entirely satisfying. It filled her, it covered her like a perfume. For me it didn't do much, but, as I say, that might be the point. LaBute, a caustic human-hater in the films he has written so far (In the Company Of Men and Your Friends and Neighbors), a poker of audiences in their soft underparts, is clearly romancing a different crowd with this one.

Adapted from the novel by A.S Byatt, Possession breathily combines two love stories: the story of Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte, a pair of passionate Victorian poets, and the story of Roland Michell and Maud Bailey, two 20th-century researchers dedicated to unearthing the earlier couple's illicit affair. Possession won the Booker Prize, and LaBute seems to have been drawn to it for two reasons: first, for the opportunity it provides to examine the shocking state of modern love (his specialty), and second, for the opportunity it provides to make a bookish chick-flick with intermittently fabulous costumes (not his specialty at all).

The plot: Michell (played by Aaron Eckhart), a rumpled American pursuing an academic career in smutty little England, finds a cache of torrid, hitherto undiscovered letters addressed by Ash to an unknown woman. This is dynamite, as biographers have always supposed the virtuous Ash to have been devoted to his wife, and have attributed the riper passages in his verse to a sort of transcendent uxoriousness. With these letters, Michell can blow the field of Ash studies sky-high and make his name in the process. Suspecting that the other woman may have been the Emily Dickinsonian poetess LaMotte, Michell calls in Bailey, Britain's premier LaMotte expert, and lo! Out of the fecund hush of academe, with archivists gasping awake behind her, stalks the nymph Bailey (Gwyneth Paltrow). She is all kinked out in intellectual fetish wear: black turtleneck, black watchstrap, blond hair twisted into a chignon so tight it pulses like a mandala of sexual severity. Strictly corseted into her English accent, she is haughty, uptight, hot as a pistol! (The academics in the film tend to be surreally well-groomed, one white-haired professor going so far as to advertise his freedom from dandruff by wearing a formfitting black leather coat.) The raffish Michell looks up, shielding his eyes from this brightness, and the dance begins. Semi-simultaneously, the actual affair between Ash (Jeremy Northam) and LaMotte (Jennifer Ehle) unfolds before us, and resonances and contrasts abound.

On the century-old trail of Ash and LaMotte, Michell and Bailey travel north, passing through various iconic English moments -- a pop-eyed squire wagging his shotgun ("Get orf my land!"), sheep scattering in a gust of panic as the soundtrack violins thrill and so on. LaBute is working with near-clichés here, and he apparently enjoys it. Certainly he gets nothing but near-clichés from his top-of-the-line English actors. Much as I enjoyed the BBC's Pride and Prejudice, prolonged exposure to the vision of Ehle in period costume seems to have dulled me to its charm. The smile pregnant with feminine wisdom, the bouncing ringlets, the great compassionate orb of her face bent low over the writing desk -- I've seen it all before. Not her fault, of course, that she keeps being cast in period dramas, but in the name of variety, LaBute should have elicited a different kind of performance from her -- or just a different hairstyle. Northam, too, performs with his usual and by now unremarkable satiny excellence, though he does have one great comic moment. Ash and LaMotte, having fled north impersonating a married couple, are finally, explosively, alone. In a boardinghouse bedroom, apelike with desire, lips distended and arms outstretched, he makes the longed-for move. "Not yet ... ," she breathes, sidestepping his advance like Kathleen Turner in Steve Martin's The Man With Two Brains. "Not yet ... ." At an extremity and with an audible flexing of the gizzard, Ash masters himself. "Well -- " he squeaks. "Shall we go for a walk?"

The point of this film, of course, is contrast: between the randy, gorgeously repressed Victorians holding shut -- but only just! -- the furnace-door of their love and the callow moderns lolling about in sterile freedom -- the lack of rules, the lack of effort, the lack, the lack, the lack. In the same boardinghouse bedroom, 100 years later, Bailey and Michell get about a third of the way into a sexual encounter before they are disabled by cold floods of self-awareness -- they sit up, scratching their heads and not looking at each other.

As part of the advent of modernity, a sort of French mood overtakes the film at this point. There's a shot on the beach, carefully composed: gray sky, moody surf, Bailey's head elementally huge in the foreground while a miniaturized Michell sulks like a Godardian bum behind her, suede-jacketed and complicated and kicking at the sand. Then there is a certain amount of awkwardness in small cars, flawed conversations filmed through windshields and over steering wheels, all of which produces an intimate, Parisian effect. The moderns have some good, defensively witty lines -- "You know what Freud said: On the other side of attraction lies repulsion. Or was that Calvin Klein?" -- but they also have no lines at all. Words fail them. LaBute is quite merciless with his actors on this point, allowing Paltrow and Eckhart to wallow in abysmal pauses before uttering such profundities as, "I just want to see if there's an 'us' in you and me." Such a line is pure fluff. It's not even fluff, it's lint: spare matter, used-up dross. And yet in a way it's just right -- the rubbishy language of modern courtship.

There's some good stuff in Possession. Paltrow's take on Englishness is a performance in itself, from her strange, speaking-through-boiled-vegetables accent to the classic glued-mouth English smile she has perfected, the lips ruefully compressed over the low-quality orthodontics. And the occasional image holds fast, as when Ash and LaMotte lock eyes across a roomful of distinguished old men; she is literally hedged in by huge vintage beards, and her gaze burns at him across fantastic streams of white hair. Then again, on the subject of hair, there is a ghastly scene in which the impetuous Michell is finally granted the sight of Bailey with her Rapunzel-like hair down, her face blondly framed. The passion! "It's beautiful ... ," he breathes, as bodies thud to the floor at the back of the theater. Perhaps this scene will move you, in which case be consoled -- you're in the right place.

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