What Cinema Feels
— There are few more moving experiences in American literature than reading Henry James’ 1897 novel, What Maisie Knew, an intense depiction of the disastrous effects of parents’ divorce on a young girl’s life. The novel is a tour-de-force of linguistic control, as James spins various permutations of what Maisie knew, didn’t know, should have known, and most definitely should not find out. Through James’ intricate narration, we see the world from young Maisie’s point-of-view, struggling to come to learn what’s really happened when all we are being told is what a little girl might intuit from the seemingly arcane behavior of adults.
In one of the best studies of late 19th century literature, The Melodramatic Imagination, cultural scholar Peter Brooks explains the influence popular theatrical melodrama had on literature, defining what he calls the moral occult, a system of intense meanings presented by representations that replaced the firm dictates of Church and King destroyed by the American and French Revolutions at the end of the prior century. For Brooks, every gesture in a Balzac or James fiction is interrogated in exquisite detail, attempting to extract the buried code that is being revealed about how and why to behave.
Maisie is perhaps the most interesting of James’ miners of the meaning of signs, as she is ill equipped to understand the bestial complexity of adults. Before she has quite taken on board that her mother Ida and her friend Sir Claude are sleeping together, Maisie observes: “Ida smiled at Sir Claude with the strange air she had on such occasions of defying an interlocutor to keep it up as long; her huge eyes, her red lips, the intense marks in her face formed an eclairage as distinct and public as a lamp set in a window. The child seemed quite to see in it the very beacon that lighted her path; she suddenly found herself reflecting that it was no wonder the gentlemen were guided” (79).
Toward the end, as Maisie has grown into a teenager, she continues to read clues, but understands more. Now in France with her adoptive parents—the biological ones have all but abandoned her—Maisie observes her former governess, the second Mrs. Farange: “She talked mainly to her other neighbor, and that left Maisie leisure both to note the manner in which eyes were riveted and nudges interchanged, and to lose herself in the meanings that, dimly as yet and disconnectedly, but with a vividness that fed apprehension, she could begin to read into her stepmother’s independent move” (110).
As befits a melodrama, the story is convoluted, but once revealed, easy enough to reconstruct from the plot. In the novel’s first sentence, Maisie’s parents, Beale and Ida Farange are divorced. Each tries to punish the other by using poor Maisie as a pawn. Beale marries Maisie’s incompetent governess, Miss Overmore, while Ida takes up with a jovial ne’er-do-well, Sir Claude. As they did with their first marriage, both parents destroy their second marriages as well, exponentially multiplying the hardships on Maisie, who is forced to perpetually leave and reconnect emotionally with four parents, as she is volleyed back and forth across London.
James spares no punches in his bitter critique of how horrid adults in supposedly civilized culture actually behave. Both biological parents abandon Maisie, leaving the girl with the two stepparents, the second Mrs. Farange and Sir Claude, who themselves begin an illicit sexual relationship with each other.
In their most recent film, a cinematic version of What Maisie Knew, Scott McGehee and David Siegel have produced what surely must be the oddest Henry James adaptation ever committed to celluloid. As opposed to James’ ornate, showy prose, their film is quiet, at times silent, mulling over Maisie’s situation with deliberation and understatement. Unlike the standard Henry James adaptation—from William Wyler’s The Heiress (1949), through Peter Bogdanovich’s Daisy Miller (1974) and James Ivory’s The Bostonians (1984), to Jane Campion’s The Portrait of a Lady (1996)—What Maisie Knew refuses the tradition of quality adherence to turn of the century period settings, instead demanding that we see James’ portrait of childhood and divorce as pertinent to the present as to our past. Set in contemporary New York City, What Maisie Knew features Julianne Moore as Susanna (the Ida character, the original Mrs. Farange) and Steve Coogan as Beale, now an art dealer. Joanna Vanderham plays Margo, an au pair (James’ Miss Overturf, the second Mrs. Farange), who eventually falls for Lincoln, a bartender (the Sir Claude character from the novel).
What is magical about McGehee and Siegel’s film is that it almost completely eschews James’ complex dialogue, instead finding a cinematic idiom to convey the marvelous novel’s depiction of the two vicious divorcees. McGehee and Siegel propose the cinema as a medium of synesthesia, transcending words for the senses of touch, smell, hearing, and sight. Maisie doesn’t talk much because she cannot put into words the horrible things that are happening to her. Instead, McGehee and Siegel use the wonderfully precocious actress Onata Aprile to deeply inhale the smell of flowers, to go to bed amidst the light of a kaleidoscopic night light, and in the film’s exquisite final shot, run with boundless energy on a seaside pier. It is an elegant solution to filming the modernist novel, so obsessed with words and ideas. McGehee and Siegel propose that James’ verbal experiment pales in comparison to the cinema’s ability to get us to experience what Maisie felt, shockingly leaving the experience of reading about what Maisie knew somehow hollow. It is a grandiose cinematic achievement, and does surprising justice to the literary genius of Henry James.
– Walter Metz