Most cinephiles associate the Merchant Ivory catalogue with English dramas like “A Room With a View” and “Howards End” — even the film company’s own Wikipedia page makes amusing note of how many of their best-known features follow “genteel characters who suffer from disillusionment and tragic entanglements” and often involve some kind of house — but with 44 films in its library, Merchant Ivory contains its own vastly different multitudes.
One such unexpected entry: the Jean Rhys adaptation “Quartet,” inspired by the “Wide Sargasso Sea” author’s own experiences as an up-and-comer in swinging Paris. While the film’s pedigree is classic Merchant Ivory — written by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, directed by James Ivory, produced by Ismail Merchant — its subject matter and tone are a fair bit different than some of the more staid dramas in the company’s oeuvre. For one thing, it’s a surprisingly dramatic story of a love triangle (or, perhaps more appropriately, a love quadrangle) gone darkly awry.
The film premiered in competition at Cannes in 1981, and while it ultimately lost out on the Palme d’Or to Andrzej Wajda’s “Człowiek z żelaza,” it did pick up one major honor: a Best Actress win for Isabelle Adjani, who was also honored for her work in fellow competition title “Possession,” making her the only actress ever to win the Best Actress award at Cannes for two films at once.
Set in 1920s Paris, the film has all the usual splendor and expected period trappings of a Merchant Ivory production, with an alluring dark streak (plus a wonderfully wild Maggie Smith). Adjani stars as the vivacious Marya, who is forced to move in with some fancy acquaintances (Smith and Alan Bates) after her husband (Anthony Higgins) is imprisoned for art theft. Bates’ creepy H.J. has a predilection for ensnaring young ladies in romantic entanglements, but what unfolds between Marya, H.J., and even Lois is something different.
New York City’s The Quad will present the U.S. premiere engagement of the new 4K restoration next month, opening “Quartet” in NYC on May 7 and in Los Angeles on May 17. Check out IndieWire’s exclusive new trailer for the film below.