James Ivory: Elegant Pairings

Titles in the "James Ivory: Elegant Pairings" programme for the TIFF Bell Lightbox summer 2012 season, running June 19 to August 19.

For many, the iconic brand of Merchant Ivory is synonymous with the highly popular wave of sumptuously produced English period films that emerged in the 1980s and 1990s. But to simply equate the company's work with these other rather turgid eulogies to the fall of the British ruling class crucially overlooks the fascinating creative and commercial trajectory that the director-producer-screenwriter team of James Ivory, Ismail Merchant and Ruth Prawer Jhablava have taken over their almost half-century of collaboration — an ongoing story, even after the death of Mr. Merchant in 2005. Far from the insularity and commercialized nostalgia of the typical period film, Merchant Ivory have been ambitious in their source material (with several adaptations of well-respected but "difficult" literary works by Henry James and E.M. Forster) and global in their scope, from bustling 1960s India to antebellum Massachusetts, Edwardian England to 1930s Shanghai and even present-day Manhattan.

Most important, however, is the outsider's perspective that so consistently informs the films. From Jennifer Kendal's English novelist confronting the riotous spectacle of Bollywood in Bombay Talkie to Helena Bonham Carter's innocent abroad in A Room With a View, from Vanessa Redgrave's insurgent suffragette in The Bostonians to James Wilby's tortured homosexual banker in Maurice, the protagonists in Merchant Ivory films are frequently placed in the position of being a (perhaps unwelcome) guest, tepidly embraced and subtly excluded from the prevailing culture and social norms in which they find themselves. This sympathy for and keen insight into the plight of the outsider surely has much to do with the unlikely provenances of the Ivory-Merchant-Jhablava team — there's no end of irony in the fact that these great chroniclers of upper-class WASP culture hailed from middle-class California, the Bombay merchant class and the Jewish intelligentsia of prewar Germany, respectively — and their fierce independence from the major studios, which has allowed them to produce gorgeously appointed films on cubic zirconium budgets.

The state of transit and in-betweenness that lies at the heart of this unlikely yet unusually fruitful creative partnership has also informed their choices of subject. Merchant Ivory has exhibited a remarkably consistent interest in moments of imminent cultural upheaval — the birth of the women's liberation movement (The Bostonians), the ignominious decline of the British aristocracy (The Remains of the Day), the dawn of the modern culture of celebrity (Bombay Talkie), the transformation of traditional attitudes towards love and sex (The Europeans, A Room With a View) — and in the complex transactions (intellectual, emotional, political, sexual) between people of different cultures, classes, generations and sexes that bring those changes about.

Accordingly, this programme, carefully curated in collaboration with Mr. Ivory (all through the postal service, no less!), seeks to illuminate Merchant Ivory's connections with other films and filmmakers, both contemporary and historical, obvious and much less so. The luminous humanism of Satyajit Ray, which would exert an immeasurable influence over the team's entire oeuvre, was already clearly in evidence in their early Indian films, as attested to by the duo of Ray's Charulata and Ivory's Shakespeare Wallah. Luis Buñuel's absurdist, ruthless satire of bourgeois mores in The Exterminating Angel, which directly inspired Ivory's intriguingly atypical Savages, was a less obvious but no less potent influence on Merchant Ivory, notably in their keen attentiveness to the cruelties, hypocrisy and, occasionally, outright idiocy of the upper classes. The pairing of The Europeans and Martin Scorsese's The Age of Innocence underlines the friendship between Henry James and Edith Wharton, and the playful "borrowings" between the two; similarly, both Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca and Merchant Ivory's The Remains of the Day find potent symbols for the rot and corruption of the British class system in their respective foreboding manor houses, receptacles for sins both personal and societal.

Merchant Ivory has always been distinguished by their unofficial stock company of superlative actors, from Shashi Kapoor and Madhur Jaffrey to Anthony Hopkins, Emma Thompson and Helena Bonham Carter. Ivory acknowledges his debt to his actors with his pairing of A Room With a View and Stephen Frears' My Beautiful Laundrette, whose near-simultaneous release in 1985 made Daniel Day-Lewis (later to play the lead in Scorsese's The Age of Innocence) into an instant star. Ivory's abiding interest in the pain and passion of same-sex love connects his films of James' The Bostonians and Forster's Maurice, while most charmingly, Wes Anderson's The Darjeeling Limited finally shares a double bill with its little-known inspiration, Merchant Ivory's Bombay Talkie (from which Anderson gleefully copped the infectious song "Typewriter Tip, Tip, Tip").

— Noah Cowan

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