([John Cleese] And now for something completely different.[/John Cleese])
Saturday night on the Champs-Elysees, at Le Balzac, a swank three screen theater. The line for Orgueil et Préjugés stretched out the theater and down the street, but I must see this movie again, and somehow I squeak in. The only free seat left is right in the front row, between an elderly couple and a pair of young boys, geeks, bad haircuts and big glasses, probably not more than eleven years old.
The lights go down, the music starts up, and I’m swept away once again, twittering Mrs. Bennet and giggling Lydia and Kitty, the locals at the Meryton assembly twirling and bowing and curtseying.
“Do you dance, Mr. Darcy?” the sparkling Elizabeth Bennet asks him.
“Not if I can help it,” he snaps, and I laugh in satisfaction. Perfect.
I feel a tap on my shoulder. It’s the little boy next to me.
“Qu’est-ce qu’il a dit à-t-elle?”
“He said he doesn’t like to dance,” I answer. Little boy leans over and whispers in his friend’s ear.
I didn’t think Keira Knightley’s Elizabeth could get anymore luminous, but she does, she’s got pearls in her hair, and lord knows a woman can never be too fine when she’s all in white, at the Netherfield Ball, and oh no, Tom Hollander’s weasely Mr. Collins is asking her to dance. It’s odd, being the only one in the theater who gets the joke about his “lightness of foot.” It doesn’t really translate into French.
“Qui est Monsieur Collins?”
“Il est le cousin de la famille…er…fin…,” I stumble a bit, not really having the vocab to explain an entailed estate. But he seems to get it, leans over and whispers to his friend again.
The lights come up and there’s me, sitting in a warm glow of Austenitis (n. Nervous condition or emotional state induced by prolonged exposure to Jane Austen novels or cinematic adaptations thereof. Symptoms include unfocuzed gaze, deep sighing, increased clarity of diction, a tendency to speak in elaborate, archaic grammatical constructions, and the desire for muslin dresses. No known cure but with proper attention and care it can be managed, patients living an otherwise normal life).
“Excuse me. We are here for English class. I can ask you questions?”
I smile. “Yes, you can!”
“Is book old-fashioned?”
“Yes, it’s a very old book.”
“You read novel?” miming with his hands.
“Yes, many times.”
Pointing to the screen. “Is same?”
“Well, yes, it’s the same as the book.”
“Yes, I like it very much! Did you like it?”
“Oh yes! Very funny!” And I don’t think he was being polite, either; they both laughed at all the comic bits in the movie.
It was so cute, watching them discover Austen for the first time. And feeling like I’d discovered her for the first time, all over again. It is a truth universally acknowledged (come on, you know I gotta) that film adaptations of Jane Austen inevitably fail to satisfy the Janeites (n. pl. Person whose devotion to Austen and her writings border on religious fervor. See also fanatic.) How ever little known this view may be to a filmmaker upon his first embarking on an adaptation, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the Janeites that Austen is considered as the rightful property of her own admirers. Which is one of the reasons that I consider myself a “renegade Janeite”; I’ve never met an adaptation I didn’t like. Or at least find something to enjoy, even if it was only to revel in the it’s-so-awful-it’s-hilarious quality (I’m thinking of the only adaptation of Northanger Abbey, which missed the point by so many miles it’s in a different universe). I’m one of the few Janeites who loves Rozema’s ’98 adaptation of Mansfield Park (and no, not because of the wildly inappropriate lesbian subtext).
And I love this movie. I’m in complete accord with Mary-Ann Johansen’s review : this adaptation is alive. It dances and laughs, to the point that I don’t even mind that they cut out the best lines. It made me fall in love with Pride and Prejudice all over again. I’ve never been much of a purist. If I want a historical documentary, I’ll turn on the History Channel. Austen chronicles emotion and the human heart like no other, and if a film manages to capture that, I’ll give it a lot of leeway in terms of historical accuracy and faithfulness even to the plot. So, yeah, Lizzie wouldn’t be wandering around without gloves and a hat, and no, Donald Sutherland’s Mr. Bennet isn’t really the character from the book, though he is delightful, but that’s just nit-picking for me. It always puzzles me how defensive and outraged Janeites get over the film versions. Like Karen Joy Fowler said, everyone has their personal Austen, and everyone feels like JA is theirs, speaking intimately to them, so we’re very protective of her. Especially with P&P (oh no! I used an ampersand! Grab the smelling salts!): Darcy and Lizzie are like our “personal representatives in the field of shagging, or rather, courtship”, to quote Bridget Jones. We take it personally when people misunderstand her or somehow threaten our ideas of what Austen is. And Janeites show their devotion by memorizing biographical munitae and historical details and whole paragraphs of her writing; it’s the test of a True Janeite. I do the same; I get a kick out of reading film critics reviewing Austen adaptations, as if they actually know what they’re talking about (and they almost never do). It’s fun, obsessing over all that, snarking on the mistakes and nitpicking the details, but it’s not the point. Films are interpretations, necessarily, much like literary criticism; but Janeites take Austen so personally that we get offended when someone’s opinion contradicts our own. Which I think is a shame. I once read an essay by Eve Sedgewick, “Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl” (yes, you read that correctly), a provocative piece suggesting that Marianne’s over-the-top Romanticism in Sense and Sensibility was an expression of auto-eroticism, among other things. She made some interesting points, but I spent most of the time laughing over the ridiculous academicese (at one point she describes Elinor’s pupils as “twin sphincters of the soul”). My point is that no amount of wierd criticism or lousy adaptations is going to damage Austen. That’s all just opinion; she is Art. She doesn’t need defending. So relax already.
I’m glad I didn’t let my qualms about Keira Knightley scare me away from the film. At first I thought, “Ugh, Rising Starlet as my Lizzie? I.think.not.” But she really impressed me. She’s no Jennifer Ehle (who could be?), but her Lizzie is just as bright and lovely. So what if she doesn’t wear a fichu (or comb her hair, for that matter). Knightley gets Lizzie’s vivacity and spirit. As for Matthew MacFayden, I’m going to be totally stripped of my Janeite credentials when I say he is the Darciest of Darcys. Or as Mags put it, “What a very fine, strapping, juicy hunk of British woof on the hoof.” This is the Darcy I find when I read the novel. I like Colin Firth’s version, but I never really bought him being Majorily In Luv. When Lizzie tells him at the end that she does love him and will marry him, it falls so incredibly flat, because he’s just standing there. I guess he’s trying to show that Darcy’s emotions are too strong for words or something, but he looks for all the world as if someone merely remarked that they found Bath very congenial. MacFayden’s stammering declarations of passion are perfect. And look, if you can accept Firth’s Darcy jumping into ponds and running around Pemberley in his skivvies dripping wet, then having Darcy and Lizzie meet on a mist-covered field shouldn’t be too much of a stretch either. The secondary characters, like Mrs. Bennet, are a bit more lifelike and less cartoony than they are in the BBC version. Needless to say, I loved Charlotte’s speech to Lizzie, I don’t care if it’s kosher or not. Judi Dench was impeccable as Lady Catharine, as I knew she would be. Caroline Bingley got short shrift, but oh well. I loved the ending. I got the European version, so no smooch, which fits, but god was I rooting for a kiss at that point. I just hope the alternate ending isn’t too mushy; you got to have a delicate balance with these things. I’d rather have no kiss than have them slobbering over each other.
And now, as if I wasn’t missing my books enough as it is, I’m dreaming of my Everyman Library hardback editions of Austen, hunter green cloth covers with cream woven paper (acid-free, bien sur), gorgeous black and white dustjackets, sigh. P&P is definitely up in the Austen Rotation this year (I read one Austen novel every year).
Well. That should have got the worst of Austenitis out of my system, hopefully. I only have the soundtrack to console me until I can get home.