A review requested by Teo Bugbee, with thanks for contributing to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

As both a production company and a shorthand for describing a certain flavor of self-consciously middlebrow literate cinema, Merchant Ivory takes its name and identity from professional and life partners James Ivory, who directed, and Ismail Merchant, who produced. But there is a third figure who had just as important a voice in the team's best-known and best collaborations: screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. I mention her now on the occasion of turning to one of her most singular achievements under the Merchant Ivory banner, their 1981 adaptation of the Jean Rhys novel Quartet, which has absolutely none of the cachet and prominence of the team's later blockbusting E.M. Forster adaptations. And to be fair, it's not nearly as satisfying as those movies, either as a work of art or a piece of costume and set porn, so I'm not going to go for bat that it's a movie you desperately need to see.

It is, however, one of the Merchant Ivory films in my acquaintance that is most heavily dependent upon its screenplay more than the rest of its production, even more than its rock-solid cast. Ivory's direction, which is never particularly noisy or aggressively present, recedes almost into invisibility: he and cinematographer Pierre Lhomme favor still shots at a respectable distance from the actors, using close-ups almost exclusively in conversation scenes, and the pace of the editing (the film was cut by Humphrey Dixon) is resolutely calm and deliberate. The production design by Jean-Jacques Caziot, and costumes by Judy Moorcroft, meanwhile, are as succulent as in any Merchant Ivory production (and in this case, the hairstyles, overseen by Jean-Pierre Berroyer, are particularly present as well), but the film's setting is relatively conventional enough that it doesn't "pop" like a 19th Century costume drama. So the story and the dialogue are weighted unusually heavily here.

The marvelous irony is that Jhabvala didn't even want to adapt Quartet, which she viewed as being unnecessarily bleak and crippled by a complete lack of sympathetic characters. And that's what I find so impressive about what she did here: not that her script is required to do so much of the film's work, but it that it does that work on top of being something of a chore for the writer to grind through. You cannot tell; Quartet is a feverishly tight piece of writing, with a quick-moving scene structure and precisely worked-out character beats that let it make sharp, swift observations about the behavior of blunt, self-centered people in an environment that happily encouraged selfishness, and does it in a relatively compact 101-minute frame. How much of this is an inheritance from the novel, I cannot begin to say. But Jhabvala's concision and focus in putting the script together is admirable (and possibly aided by her detachment from the source material - she could afford to be merciless), and while there are ways in which Quartet can tend to be a bit less interesting than the big-time Merchant Ivory productions, the writing's not one of them.

As the title suggests, this is a tale of four humans getting muddled up sexually and romantically. In the frivolous Bohemian world of 1920s Paris, Marya Zelli (Isabelle Adjani) charms an older British couple, H.J. Heidler (Alan Bates) and his wife Lois (Maggie Smith). When her husband Stephan (Anthony Higgins), a Polish art dealer with ties to the black market, is imprisoned for selling stolen artwork, Marya finds herself in an economic crisis, unable to make any kind of living due to her immigrant status. The Heidlers take her in - for kindly reasons, they imply, but the reality turns out to be much darker than that. In keeping with the sexual freedom of that time and place, they're actually bringing Marya into their home to be H.J.'s newest sexual plaything, with Lois's benefit being some obscurely-defined hope that if her husband can get his ya-yas out, it will save their marriage. Certainly, neither of them give a damn about Marya as a human being, and her own thready marriage to a selfish asshole and criminal, whom she dutifully visits weekly despite the Heidlers' objection and Stephan's loutishness, begins to fray in its own right.

Quartet's biggest strenght and its biggest weakness are the same thing: the acting. And we can draw the dividing line strictly by gender. Bates (whom I have greatly admired in other films) and Higgins (whom I have not) are appallingly bland and at best functional in their roles; Higgins also has to cope with a Polish accent that he's not great at, and a character literally hemmed in by the prison set and the snug shots with which he and it are filmed, but he's certainly the fourth-most important member of the quartet, and his insubstantial performance doesn't do much harm. Higgins, though, has quite a meaty part indeed, full of unstated tensions and dark undercurrents, and it hurts the film a great deal that he's not terribly memorable or imposing.

The flipside is that the leading women are both utterly terrific. Smith is a real surprise, words I'd never assume I'd have cause to type out: it's the least-characteristic role I've ever seen her play, wounded but cruel, strained with nerves, pinched in by the period clothes and hairdos that she wields like a sword and shield. Every line reading is underplayed and crackling with self-hatred, self-satisfaction, self-righteous rage; it's like watching the world's quietest thunderstorm flashing out of Smith's big, intense eyes. I realised in watching Quartet how guilty I've been of taking Smith for granted: she's so good so much of the time, but frequently relaxes into a certain kind of role (tart-tongued, authoritative, preternaturally old) that makes it easy to think she's just "pulling a Maggie". And to see her stepping outside of that so forcefully and effectively is stunning. It's a great performance, tightly-wound, wholly natural, desperately serious.

In the film's sort-of more-or-less lead, Adjani isn't quite as striking as Smith - it's the same sort of "porcelain doll on the outside with a deeply conflicted interior" role that she she got stuck with in a lot of her early English-language roles - but it's hard to imagine a better choice, in 1981, for the role of a young woman who doesn't belong in the environment she finds herself occupying, and who doesn't mean to exude the intoxicating sexuality she possesses. It's certainly a good enough performance to confidently sell the crux of the human drama even in the face of the men being a bit tepid.

With the bitter scenario and potent female leads taking up the most of the oxygen in the film, there's less space left over than I'd have expected for Merchant Ivory's stock in trade: skillfully bringing past eras to life. '20s Paris is a particularly stylish, brazen era that a company of costume drama specialists were undoubtedly eager to attack (it's the only film they made in that era and place), and it looks perfect, with Ivory favoring shots that present the action in stiff tableaux that focus rather on the stagy brittleness of the culture than the luxurious fashion and licentious joy. Given that script, it couldn't be any other way - Quartet is every bit the harsh tale look that Jhabvala didn't want to be involved with, cynically considering the ideal of an accepting, indulgent society as just another thing that can be exploited by the cruel to take advantage of the innocent. It's nasty-hearted in a way we don't tend to think of Merchant Ivory films as being, but that's one of its strengths; there's something different going on here than the usual stuff of bringing an epoch to life with a humanist tale to tell, and while I won't claim that it's one of my favorite efforts from that team, it leaves more to chew on than many of them.