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I should really have read the book this is based on before progressing to the film, so that I could see properly what Stephen Fry was doing with his source material. But it seemed like a natural fit on my Lovefilm list after Easy Virtue (the last film I saw), and a pleasant way to spend a Sunday evening. I can pick up the novel later.

Obviously, it presses a lot of my buttons. Stephen Fry, Evelyn Waugh, 1930s glamour and decadence, a fantastic period sound-track by Anne Dudley (who also did the music for Jeeves and Wooster) and an astonishing role-call of British character actors. It's hard to watch the film without mentally going "Jim Broadbent! Harriet Walter! Imelda Staunton! Nigel Planer! David Tennant! Simon Callow! Fenella Woolgar! Michael Sheen! Stockard Channing (not that she is British, obv)! Brief, unexpected Mark Gatiss! Peter O'fucking Toole!" Which is always a pleasant thing to do. Many of them I know best from later appearances in Doctor Who, of course, and all are familiar faces that I'm not surprised to see turning in great performances. All the same, though, I thought Fenella Woolgar stood out as particularly captivating in the role of Agatha (here Runcible, not Christie) - a great role which gave her every chance to be fabulous and flamboyant (including a spell looking rather delicious in black tie and tails), but which also touched on the empty void beneath.

The story seems a hackneyed one now that we're all familiar with the concept of youthful hedonism, though I'm sure it wasn't when Waugh first penned it. The trajectory reminded me of Human Traffic (1999), in fact - non-stop party antics turn to emptiness and tragedy, with some characters redeeming themselves by finding a more meaningful and fulfilling lifestyle at the end of the film. The main difference lies in the accessibility of the hedonistic lifestyle - in the 1930s restricted to the sons and daughters of the aristocracy, but in the 1990s available to everybody.

The pace is fast and a bit surreal. We plunge from dizzy heights to dismal lows very rapidly, and although the colour palettes capture this nicely, in terms of acting and dialogue the tragedies of some characters are skipped over in a very matter-of-fact fashion. I think that's deliberate, reflecting their uncertain grasp of their own emotions - they simply don't know any other way to express the effects of their own downfalls. But it can feel as though some of the emotional impact we would normally expect from scenes of suicide, social disgrace, financial ruin and madness is missing. The time-scale is strange too - you think for most of the film that you're in the late '20s or early '30s and then suddenly BAM! it's the Second World War. Again, though, that's part of the style of the film, fitting in with the surreal and erratic schedules of the party set.

One more strange thing: the film contains two scenes in which the main heroine, Nina, is 'sold' by one man to another. First the man she supposedly loves, Adam, sells her to the richer-but-duller Ginger in order to pay his hotel hill. Then, years later, Adam buys her back for a fortune which he has acquired largely by luck. Each time, these transactions actually only consolidate what is happening anyway - the first time, Nina is already drifting away from Adam towards Ginger, and the second time Ginger has realised she doesn't love him, and has recognised that he would be better off letting her go and leaving the country. So the 'sale' itself, and Nina's apparent lack of say in the matter, is less utterly obnoxious than it might be - more a way for the two men to come to terms with what is happening to them anyway, including her changing interests, than anything else.

But the motif struck me because it also popped up in another recent adaptation of an Evelyn Waugh novel - the 2008 adaptation of Brideshead Revisited, where Rex similarly 'sells' Julia to Charles (after which she is this time rightly outraged). That most certainly wasn't there in the novel, and the second scene from Bright Young Things can't be there in Vile Bodies either if, as Wikipedia says, it ends with Adam alone on a battlefield rather than reunited with Nina as in the film. So does this all stem from just one scene actually written by Waugh, in which Adam sells Nina to Ginger half-way through Vile Bodies? I'll have to read it to find that out for sure. But if so, why have modern adaptations seized on the motif so eagerly and repeated it wherever they could manage? I suppose it is an easy way to convey a decadent society and morally-questionable characters. But I think I would prefer it if we didn't collectively seem to be quite so vicariously fascinated with it.

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Comments

rosamicula
Aug. 31st, 2010 10:35 am (UTC)
So does this all stem from just one scene actually written by Waugh, in which Adam sells Nina to Ginger half-way through Vile Bodies? I'll have to read it to find that out for sure. But if so, why have modern adaptations seized on the motif so eagerly and repeated it wherever they could manage? I suppose it is an easy way to convey a decadent society and morally-questionable characters. But I think I would prefer it if we didn't collectively seem to be quite so vicariously fascinated with it.

I think it is a very lazy kind of shorthand, and isn't remotely true to the book, because the women in Waugh usually have quite a bit more agency than this implies.
strange_complex
Aug. 31st, 2010 11:13 am (UTC)
Although, considering what is fundamentally happening in these scenes, the women in the films come across with more agency than you might think. The 'sales' seem to me to be mainly about showing us the flaws and failures in the men for thinking that this is an acceptable way to behave, rather than seriously portraying the women as passive objects.

For example, Julia in the film of Brideshead Revisited goes absolutely apeshit at Charles for thinking that he can 'buy' her without even consulting her on the matter, and it's an extra reason why they don't end up together. So the 'sale' doesn't actually get Charles anywhere in the end. And Nina in Bright Young Things has already made it perfectly clear what she wants in both cases before Adam and Ginger start negotiating for her (e.g. by abandoning Adam and going off in Ginger's car at the races, and then later by keeping up a correspondence with Adam although married to Ginger).

But the way it keeps being repeated in the modern adaptations does suggest that Stephen Fry and Julian Jarrold are a lot more fascinated with the idea than Waugh (and / or think that their audiences will be). I'll be interested to find out how Waugh actually did handle it in the first place, and whether it was as much of a big deal for him as the modern directors have made it.

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