Erik Jaccard returns with his take on Neil LaBute’s adaptation of A.S. Byatt’s Posession, and thinks about the valences of that word in academic and romantic contexts . . . and Aaron Eckhart’s hair.
Possession, dir. Neil LaBute
Ah, Neil LaBute, king of the truly fucked up love story. Not quite controversial, yet ten steps left of your grandma’s version of polite cinema, LaBute has always tread a careful line between provocation and shock, love and hate, sex and emotional violence. As a young, somewhat amorously disgruntled twentysomething, this was what I had come to expect from LaBute’s work, and for some reason I loved it. Perhaps it was because the films, at least superficially, confirmed some adolescent inkling I then clung to about the sly nastiness of human affection, or the often narcissistic tendency of lovers to work mostly in their own self-interest. From the acerbic and devastating In the Company of Men to the dolorous and pathetic overtones of Your Friends and Neighbors, not to mention the jaw-droppingly cruel conclusion ofThe Shape of Things, LaBute’s oeuvre had, by 2002, become my anti-valentine: a veritable repository of all the horrible things lovers can, and do, inflict upon one another in the name of love, commitment, desire, selfishness, and even art. So consistently had LaBute crafted twisted stories of cruelty and self-disgust disguised as love that I expected nothing less from Possession, LaBute’s adaptation of A.S. Byatt’s eponymous Booker Prize-winning novel.
Now, if I had known anything about anything when I tromped into the cinema that summer, I would have been better prepared for what was to come. However, not having read Byatt’s novel (I don’t even think I had heard of it), I made it all the way there with my illusions intact. Expecting more of LaBute’s patented contemporary assault on relationships, what I got instead was a measured and, frankly, overdramatic modern/period piece, “Neil LaBute trying to do Jane Austen,” as one reviewer somewhat accurately put it. While I didn’t hate the film, I also left the theater confused and uncertain as to what had happened. Sure, there had been angst and something resembling coupled bickering, but the film mostly seemed like a Bronte novel turned into a historical-literary detective story. While the earlier films may have been savage, they had also contained small slivers of a truth-in-savagery that Possession most definitely lacked. What I took away from the film in 2002 had something to do with romance, learning to love again, and the slipperiness of meaning and truth in art (most of what emerges from poetry emerges from its silences, not its statements). But in all honesty, I felt a little cheated. The film was good, not great, a shiny monument to pretty actors whose characters didn’t seem believable, and whose best moments were the times when they seemed to recognize their own disingenuousness. I didn’t know what to make of the way the film tried to let the Victorian half of its plot bleed into its contemporary action, much less how I was to interpret the point the film seemed to be making about how each of those two frames of reference have something to say about each other. Again, being honest, I was really just unprepared, uncertain, and therefore distrustful of what I was watching. Not sure what to think, I relegated the film to my mind’s dustbin and calmly went in search of other, more Labute-y films with which to occupy myself (which I would find in 2003’s The Shape of Things, as well as in the author’s 2005 play Some Girls, which I watched in a West End theater. Ten years later, I’m back to shake off the dust and give Possession another chance.
The film, like Byatt’s novel from which it was adapted, weaves together interlocking historical and contemporary plot strands, following two contemporary academics as they attempt to piece together a clandestine love affair between a pair of Victorian poets. Roland Mitchell (LaBute’s old BYU buddy and casting standby, Aaron Eckhart) toils his days away as a research assistant to a British Library scholar, the improbably named Professor Blackadder (Tom Hickey), an expert on the Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ashe (Jeremy Northam). While leafing his way through Ashe’s copy of Vico one day, Mitchell finds two heretofore undiscovered letters by Ashe, addressed to an anonymous female interlocutor. Titillated as only an academic can be by the possibility of disproving Ashe’s famous fidelity to his wife, Mitchell follows the trail to where it dead ends at the feet of the far less-illustrious Victorian poetess, Christabel Lamotte (Jennifer Ehle). This leads him to Maude Bailey (Gwyneth Paltrow), a distant descendant of Lamotte’s and, as fortune would have it, a Lamotte scholar. Upon unearthing actual evidence of a relationship between the two poets, Mitchell and Bailey proceed to play literary super detectives, unriddling the long buried romance, with all of the love, tragedy, deceit, and disappointment it trails in its wake. All the while they must contend with an avaricious American collector of all things Ashe, who seems intent on stealing away their new discovering and keeping them for his greedy self. Along the way, they reinvest (and reinvent) the love between Ashe and Lamotte, so bitterly suppressed by the mores of their time, and, in so doing, save what had been lost and forgotten for so long.
Now, that is a self-consciously banal summary of the film’s plot, which tries to conceal at least a little of what actually goes on (for those who are yet to watch it). I think this is mostly what I took away from the film the first time through, and I would agree that it doesn’t seem very exciting. But this time around I was also able to tease out some things that didn’t occur to me the first time round.
The first thing is that the film’s success lies in its Victorian half, which is excellently, if dramatically done, and vibrant in a way only Victorian love stories can be (all repressed tension and such). The poets in question, Randolph Henry Ashe (a thinly veiled version of Alfred Tennyson) and Christabel Lamotte (a thinly veiled version of Christina Rossetti) are played with a luminosity that makes for a far more engrossing visual and narrative spectacle than the tired, overdone contemporary love story between Roland and Maude. In fact, it is in the silent agony and savage passion between Ashe and Lamotte that Possession comes closest to resembling what I above characterize as a typically ‘Neil LaBute-esque’ zeitgeist. This is due in large part to the Victorian leads, Jeremy Northam (who seems born for this kind of role) and Jennifer Ehle, both of whom manage to inhabit their characters without exaggerating them and without turning what could so easily become a stereotype (see the contemporary section) into another boring rehearsal of cultural Victoriana. Long the benchmarks of modernity, the Victorians are often only costumed props to be paraded about as a sign of how far ‘we’ have come. Thankfully, Possession doesn’t fall prey to that tired conceit.
Just as Maude so academically works her way through the many definitions of ‘sympathy’ in unraveling a parcel of Lamotte’s figurative language, so can we also take a deeper look at the film’s title, which clearly works in a number of interlocking ways. On the one hand, it clearly refers to the labor of the biographer or literary historian, who, in researching his or her material, becomes as one possessed. This makes sense to me, though I think it probably made even more sense in the novel, where the full extent of that possession could (and probably) be on display as a parade of biographical minutiae, detailed close readings, and paraliterary primary source material. In the film, we are treated to vicarious moments of erudition and academic skill, usually at the behest of Paltrow’s Maude, who has that uncanny ability to repeat any portion of Christabel Lamotte’s poetry verbatim at exactly the right moment (so as to unlock puzzling mysteries, naturally). Yet we never really glimpse the actual possession; there’s not even a studying montage of the two up late poring over 19th century historical records or some such thing (which must happen off screen, at least). Instead, this form of possession is strategically produced through the characters, who we learn would do these things and may even be doing them when we’re not looking.
As a graduate student in Scotland, I was once told by an instructor that Possession is a movie that all English graduate students ought to love outright, simply for the fact that it concerns a pair of literary geeks doing what we are all supposed to love most: research. And in a sense, Possession is just that, a nerdy adventure about two obsessed geeks playing Sherlock Holmes, trying to get to the bottom of a mystery only they and a select few other overly obsessed esoterics could appreciate. I’ll admit that I appreciate this angle and that it does, indeed, if only for a second, make me feel like what I do is worthy of being made into a movie. However, at the end of the day, the film’s academic veneer is precisely that, a superficiality. In 2002, I think I was willing to buy into this façade because I hadn’t enough experience at the time to know what was real and what was for show. But this time around, I found myself rolling my eyes more than once as I watched Eckhart and Paltrow go through the academic motions as a pretense for the development of the love story, which is, after all, meant to be front and center here (even the title of the novel is Possession: A Romance).
Allow me to digress for a moment. If you’ve followed my reviews here at Ten Years Ago, you’ll know that films which self-consciously efface interesting and intellectually stimulating source material in the process of building and maintaining banal love stories generally provoke me to the point of irritation. This is not because I object to romance or love, but because I find myself annoyed with films that purport to explain something about it while actually repeating the same tired, escapist clichés we all know so well we could phone one in while driving to work. For sure, this film pulls a lot of the same tired Hollywood tricks with romance that I’ve come to abhor. The inevitability of what will surely transpire between Roland and Maude is obvious to the point of exasperation. At the same time, one of the more interesting side-effects of the romance plot in Possession is the way the film—and probably the novel—works to explain just how much of the Victorian still abides in our own day, as well as the ways the Victorians were often better at being modern than us contemporary folk. Or at least, this seems to be the effect. For all their modern freedom, Mitchell and Bailey are just as repressed, if not more so, than the Victorian poets they’re researching. Rather than being repressed by social conventions (the conventions that would keep Ashe in a loving but passionless marriage and Lamotte in a hushed and forbidden ‘companionship’ with her lover, Blanche), they are repressed by their freedom from them. This may seem silly, but it’s also true.
Maude’s feminism, while a direct result of forbears such as Lamotte, is nonetheless figured as a kind of sterile pose, an intellectualism devoid of the actual freedom women like Lamotte and Blanche physically enacted, often at great risk. Maude, on the other hand, seems to consciously wear her feminism, as though style were the same thing as praxis or agency. But while she seems to suit up in consciously non-sexualizable turtlenecks and keep that long blonde hair in a bun, the film also goes out of its way to keep her steaming headlong towards a romance with the hunky American researcher. [Note the non-resistance offered when Roland needs to stay an extra night: “I suppose I could put up with you for one night” (STAY!); also, while running back to fetch a pun and notecards for some surly academic work, she nonetheless finds time (and the camera finds time to show us) to fix her hair.] While Lamotte surely suffers an existence that is ‘circumscribed and self-communing,’ it is still one dictated by her and controlled within a specific set of social coordinates (albeit extremely private ones). Maude, on the other hand, for all her freedom and feminist outrage, seems dominated by the world, by men, and by ‘Romance’ in a way that Lamotte is not. Roland, for his part, is meant to be the anti-Ashe, a sensitive soul free to love anyone, but who is nonetheless principled in his unwillingness to love anyone. A student of love poetry who is nonetheless mysteriously incapable of love, Roland seems designed, much like Maude, as a symbol of that clichéd exhaustion of the modern. The clunky, overstated point to be made is that us moderns just don’t know how to love like they used to (you know, back before God or Romance died or whatever), that we somehow need to the Victorians to tell us how to love purely again, how to be possessed by passion for things other than our commodities, machines, our instant gratification, etc.
In another sense, possession refers to the singular obsession of the American collector, Cropper, to physically possess the tangible artifacts of Ashe’s legacy as a form of cultural capital. Indeed, the film makes this point with its first edit major edit, cutting from an image of Ashe wandering Wordsworth-like through an idyllic English countryside and a voice-over of Ashe reciting one of his love poems to the Sotheby’s auction floor, where his words have become a ‘snippet’ intended to entice potential buyers intent on objectifying the poetry in its material form. For Cropper, ‘possessing’ Ashe in the form of original artifacts is tantamount to possessing the meaning of the work itself, its origin and, therefore, its essence. As the film so dramatically demonstrates, not only is this crude, materialistic desire to possess culture as a reified object impossible, it also turns you into a villain. Indeed, Cropper is one of the more clumsily handled characters in the film. With very little humanity to his credit, he ends up as a kind of nineteenth century-holdover, a Dickensian villain, one-dimensional and bent on pursuing his dastardly schemes no matter the cost, potential illegality, or moral quandaries involved. Cropper is like a villain in a Scooby-Doo cartoon, particularly in the culminating graveyard scene, where I half expected him to scream, “I would have gotten away with it, too, if it wasn’t for you snooping kids!”
In the spirit of bringing things full circle, however, I’d say that the most interesting way possession works in the film is as a concept underlining power, ownership, and control in relationships. What seems to scare both Maude and Roland so fundamentally, and what drives Ashe and Lamotte’s Victorian society to its unhealthy ends, is at least partly an understanding of love and human relationships as defined by concept and category, reduction and role, power and privilege. For Ashe and Lamotte, possession is both what love and passion allow, but also what their society literally believes it implies— (male) ownership, power, and control. For Lamotte, this is intolerable and, rather than admit to Ashe’s or her world’s strictures, she escapes, mangling the relationship, but maintaining her own ability to define and shape her existence. For Maude and Roland, the shape of things is a little more banal: he’s had negative experiences with relationships (and therefore lives in fear of the word ‘relationship’) and she’s loathe to submit to a relationship, which she reads as another word for disempowerment.
And it is in this way that the film finally takes its place alongside all of those other fucked up love stories LaBute has passed down to us all. The stories are fucked up not because they tell us something we don’t know—that so many of our relationships revolve around power and control—but because they work against the more common (and deceptively truthful) conclusion that they don’t have to. In your average Hollywood story this conclusion falls flat because it involves no real conflict, no real struggle between actual human beings trying desperately to enact love, which is nothing if not the seemingly impossible desire to feel fully vulnerable and fully invincible at the same time. LaBute’s films generally depict men and women working somewhere along this uncertain spectrum, but almost always with the assumption that relationships entail a game you can win (and that winning matters, means more satisfaction, more sex, more happiness, what have you). But if there’s a consistent moral here, and I think there is, then it’s that we will go to great lengths to keep from reaching the sense of balance we know is healthiest, but which also seems like giving up or giving in.
Much like the deformed creatures dreamt up in early Todd Solondz films, the average LaBute character is not, in my opinion at least, created in order to reveal the hidden nastiness underneath us all. While I may once have loved LaBute for what I thought he was telling me about how people really are, I’ve come to respect him instead for pointing out all of the ways it’s possible to distort and disfigure ourselves for the right reasons (and sometimes for the wrong ones). In doing so, he doesn’t presume to tell us that we are naturally destined to be unhappy, as one might presume from watching his films. Instead, his gross caricatures point us towards all of the ways we continue to work extremely hard at not being happy. How, in fact, we invent elaborate strategies and self-deceptions in order to continue being unhappy.Possession’s greatest achievement might be that, despite all the bogus Hollywood posturing, it manages to at least give a name to the delusion that we can take possession without giving, or that we can even begin to think of a love that doesn’t involve, as Christabel Lamotte would have it, coming into contact with another burning soul and consequently being set alight. As I may have implied all along, anything else is likely destined to be just another fucked up love story.
A few thoughts:
Aaron Eckhart’s hair is the barometer for passion and romance in this film. For the first ¾ or so, it ranges from “I just slept in my clothes for the third night in a row”-messy to “I just survived the Great Storm of 1987”-unkempt, all the while wearing Roland’s supposed angst, disappointment, and bitterness better than Roland himself. In fact, the hair should get an acting credit. It tells us more of Roland’s attempts at a teenaged, puppy-dog, ‘I’ve sworn off girls’ pose than Eckhart does. By the time Roland sits down with Maude to uncover the truth about Ashe, Lamotte, and their illegitimate offspring, the hair has recovered, has been tamed to the kind of peaceful, Christmas card complacency that only love can produce. Yes, I’m still talking about a hairdo. Check it out for yourself. Aaron’s Eckhart’s hair for Best Supporting Actor.
Now, the contemporary action in the novel takes place in 1987. I have no idea what London buses looked like in 1987. However, the bus that Roland is riding when we are first introduced to him reminds me of 1952 London, with its open back that you can just hop right off as if it were a New Orleans streetcar. Again, I don’t know what buses were like in 1987, but you sure as hell can’t do this in contemporary London.
I’m sorry, but I’m still simultaneously enamored with and confused by the name of Roland’s superior, Dr. Blackadder. For one, it’s like out-Dickensing Dickens. Two, it’s the name of a famous BBC One sitcom; three…BLACKADDER. Really?
Every contemporary film set in London seems to feature at least one carefree English playboy figure, a wealthy dandy-ish type who provides much of the comic relief and most of the more-dodging devilishness. This film, however, has two, and is much the better for it. The first, Roland’s barrister friend Euan (Tom Hollander), meets clients in his ornate hallway wearing a bathrobe and drinking beer, but still flamboyantly exuding privileged, upper-class charm. The second, Maude’s on-again, off-again beau Fergus (Toby Stephens), makes his play as the conniving, side-switching academic out to make a name for himself by scheming against Blackadder. Neither really one-ups the other and both are excellent.
Eckhart’s imitation ‘Irish’ accent sounds somewhere between Sean Connery and Billy Connolly. The only time he gets even close is when he uses the phrase ‘magically delicious,’ and then he just sounds like a caricatured cartoon leprechaun.
Aaron Eckhart may have the deepest chin-dimple (chimple?) this side of Robert Mitchum.
Maude’s office at what is supposed to be Lincoln University is by far the nicest I’ve ever seen, though I will admit that my experience with universities is limited to the Universities of Washington and Edinburgh. But really, quite nice.
So, I was curious about some of the kissing that goes on between Eckhart and Paltrow, particularly their first make-out session, where they seem to be kissing each other sideways. Now, I’ve kissed as much as the next person, but never have I kissed sideways in just this way. Did they both have chapped front lips? Did they really want to stare at each other with one eye only? Or is there a whole side-kissing sub-culture on which I have managed to miss out?
Lena Headey as hyper-sexualized Spartan uber-wife in 300 is barely visible as Christabel Lamotte’s female companion/lover Blanche, and I suppose that is the point, after all.
I realize that Eckhart’s costumes here are meant to evoke the struggling, penniless academic type, but we really don’t all wear the same sagging sweaters and corduroy jackets all the time. You know, we have multiple sagging sweaters to choose from. And we certainly don’t have his abs. Well, most of us.
I can’t say that I understand the screenplay’s obsession with nationality, unless, of course, this is a holdover from the novel. Every character is clearly indexed by nationality and the America vs Britain joking and innuendo occurs so frequently, and with such overstated obviousness as to be extremely annoying. I’m not saying that the English (there are so few non-English characters that I feel safe dropping ‘British’) don’t bring up your nationality when you’re in their country. They do. The point is that I don’t understand what is so important about it that it needs to be referenced so frequently in this particular story. Yes, Roland is American, and yes, this seems to mark him as oddly outside/other in contrast with his peers, but this fact does very little to further the plot outside of, I suppose, contributing to the sense of isolation and loneliness we’re supposed to credit Roland with feeling. And this, one also supposes, is primarily meant to be a product of what he does, not where he comes from (which may or may not have anything to do with who he is). As with Roland, so with the American collector, Cropper, whose American nationality works as a metonym for a whole cluster of stereotypes, most notably the greedy, self-serving capitalist bent on owning everything he can. What’s more, this obsession with nationality is unevenly applied. No one notes that the very English-sounding Fergus or Euan have two of the most ethnically Scottish names ever, nor is much ever made of Professor Blackadder’s Irishness.