Up at the Villa
Reviewed in July 2000 / Updated in July 2009 below / Click Here to Comment
Director: Philip Haas. Cast: Kristin Scott Thomas, Sean Penn, Anne Bancroft, James Fox, Jeremy Davies, Derek Jacobi, Massimo Ghini. Screenplay: Belinda Haas (based on the novel by W. Somerset Maugham).

Photo © 2000 USA Films
The only coherent way to understand Philip Haas's Up at the Villa, the only way the film makes sense, is to interpret it as a sort of spoof of itself: not a standard-issue Brits-in-Italy melodrama, but a sly, subtle exposure of how overcooked and preposterous the entries in that genre tend to be. I have several friends who found Up at the Villa hopelessly labored, which was also the near-universal reaction of critics. But neither director Haas nor his screenwriter/editor/wife Belinda has ever made a film that served up familiar conventions without inviting us to ruminate on them, to observe them from a new distance. If I ever meet the makers of Up at the Villa and discover that their aim was to make a sincere World War II-era potboiler, I'll rescind the benefit of the doubt and accept that they've made a very great botch indeed. But these are smart people we're dealing with, and both the performances and the visual scheme betray enough winky wit that I'm confident in the project's status as an elaborate joke. And on those terms, I had a whale of a time watching it.

Kristin Scott Thomas, so stirring in Philip and Belinda Haas' Angels & Insects, stars here as Mary Panton, an unmarried Englishwoman living in Tuscany whose patrician features disguise her decidedly plebeian circumstances. Mary is flat broke, and in truth, her disguise isn't really working. The upper-crusty women who preside over Mary's social set know that she needs a husband to save her from "ruin," that perennial bogeyman of period drama. The film begins with a shot of these tongue-wagging dames, headed by Anne Bancroft's Princess San Ferdinando, standing on a balcony, looking down on Mary as she dances in the titular villa with Sir Edgar Swift (James Fox), a rising figure in English politics who is soon to accept a prestigious post in India.

Though Bancroft & Co. literally look down on Mary in this shot, we in turn are looking down on them; the camera is inviting us to examine everyone from a superior analytical position, which is an early cue that we aren't to take the characters or their plights particularly seriously. In fact the real focus of this scene isn't whether Mary is in social danger—who doesn't want to marry Kristin Scott Thomas??—but the gaudy decor and garish colors. Up at the Villa is on to how the British upper class, particularly their expatriate division, loved nothing more than to create enclaves of ostentation wherever they settled in the world, and to spend their time in these appalling settings feigning a concern with beauty, art, and "propriety." Indeed, probably the last thing that bored, independent Mary should do is wed a stuffed-shirt who will keep her trapped in this tedious, amoral sphere. Scott Thomas, a very sharp actress often underused, plays Mary as a woman less interested in following the rules than in showily defying them, but with ideas more limited and naïve than she thinks they are. Notching her voice up to a breathy whine, she purposefully makes Mary slightly ridiculous—she is not immune from the class critique the filmmakers are mounting—but, as ever, the actress's face is so fascinating that we never stop caring about Mary. We still like her, though director, screenwriter, and star make clear that we shouldn't love her.

Mary meets a perfect accomplice in her reckless social subversion in Rowley Flint, an American gadfly and globetrotter played by Sean Penn. Though Penn doesn't have as large a part as his billing suggests, he fares very well in a suave role utterly removed from his disparate bottom-feeders in Carlito's Way, Hurlyburly, and Sweet and Lowdown. Up at the Villa features two dynamite sequences, and they both focus on Scott Thomas and Penn. The first follows Mary and Rowley as he drives her home after a society dinner. His romantic and sexual propositions are severely rebuffed, but his iconoclastic temperament ignites Mary's most reckless impulses. After leaving Penn, she picks up an indigent Austrian refugee, an ill-qualified violinist named Karl Richter (Saving Private Ryan's Jeremy Davies), and takes him for a walk through her garden and a romp in her bed. This casual intercourse represents poor, misguided Mary's attempt at social activism. It simply doesn't occur to her that initiating a one-night tryst with a poor foreign exile she has no intention of seeing again smacks at all of condescension, or vanity, or complete political imbecility. The interactions between Scott Thomas and Davies, both before and after their hot night, are well-filmed, but the disastrous aftermath is better, when Mary enlists Rowley's help in destroying the evidence of her increasingly disastrous mishaps.

For all kinds of reasons, this material, adapted from W. Somerset Maugham's novel, seems more satirical than sincere. If casting Kristin Scott Thomas as a sexual naïf and Sean Penn as Cary Grant doesn't already set off your parody alarm, Up at the Villa also offers a pointed narrative of how relentlessly the British hold Americans in contempt, until they need saving from their own international mêlées. Maugham's novel, like much of his work, offers its melodrama with such a straight face that critics and readers have debated for years whether he took his own plots seriously. Philip and Belinda Haas cheekily honor that tradition by refusing to play the satire too broadly, and I expect that's why so many viewers have dismissed Up at the Villa as inane. Quite to the contrary, I contend that the novel and the film both expose its British expatriate community as so hypocritically "refined" and so debauchedly epicurean—the film's funniest shot shows a tennis court conveniently rimmed with bushels of enormous tomatoes—that inanity is inescapable. In a way, Mary cannot possibly act "immorally" in a society so ignorant of real moral responsibility. Rowley knows this, and when Mary learns it, she takes a whole new sort of glee in confounding expectations and breaking codes. The parody is delivered so deftly that the broader comic stylings of Anne Bancroft, though less garish than we've come to expect from her, still seem crude by comparison.

The last half-hour of Up at the Villa deviates most drastically from its source material. The filmmakers work harder than Maugham did to overtly connect the deludedness of the characters to the political circumstances of Mussolini's Italy. I wouldn't call any of these scenes mistaken, exactly, but they do seem a little familiar from earlier films, and Up at the Villa coasts along showing us a good, hammy time without adding anything to its satiric agenda. Still, Scott Thomas and Penn appear to enjoy themselves extravagantly, and they made me wish Hollywood matched actors of their intelligence more often, and more evenly. Though Up at the Villa may not be as "good" a film as Angels & Insects, in a way it's even more unexpected and subversive, and I adored seeing empty-headed Italian escapades like Enchanted April and the unbearable Tea with Mussolini getting skewered within an inch of their weightless lives. Like those films, Up at the Villa lingers on its costumes, sets, and scenery, but this time we can't help noticing how ugly it all looks; it's the society that is overripe, not the film itself, which is wonderfully smart and controlled. Don't assume that filmmakers aren't laughing just because you don't hear any jokes. B+

A quick post-date on my review of Up at the Villa: I still agree with the spirit and drift of this review, even if a second viewing and nine years' accumulated experiences makes me a tad less sanguine about the filmmaking and a bit blanched about a few of my earlier overstatements. My frequent recourse to the language of "satire" and phrases like "whale of a good time" are likely to oversell the verve and implied joie de vivre of this frequently sedate movie. And I have to concede that the unimaginative cinematography and blocking and a slight aura of under-direction coming from the actors—palpable in Scott Thomas's and Davies's boudoir scenes and in several of Penn's line readings—obligate me to concede a few more of Up at the Villa's flaws than I was willing to do when almost every other critic was busy digging its grave. A few scenes do play as rather earnest attempts to mount a beach-reading period mystery, and they're rarely the most interesting scenes, though I still find it highly watchable throughout.

And yet, in its wittiest moments, the film deliciously restores me to my initial plane of enthusiasm, no less so for operating more subtly than I communicate in this write-up. I'm sure I didn't catch in 2000 the subtle pattern by which Haas and cinematographer Maurizio Calvesi repeatedly frame and light Mary's encounters with Edgar, Rowley, and the poor violinist in exactly the same way, drawing out Mary's failures to distinguish among them and her tendency to project her feelings for one of them incongruously and often recklessly onto the other. The shot of the tomato-lined tennis court still gets me, but the film features many more shots that highlight the peekaboo facetiousness of the film: look at Scott Thomas's wide-eyed paralysis in the face of Davies's dismal musicianship, or at Bancroft splayed out in a tactically engineered stupor, or at Scott Thomas looking miserable at her morning-after lunch with Bancroft & Co., jaundiced and slouched in her seat while Rowley digs blithely into his food. Someone has graffiti'd "Viva Il Duce!" on the rock wall behind this ostentatiously casual expat repast, but no one seems to notice or mind; only the audience is made privy to the smallness if also, in some sense, the tawdry typicality of this gaggle and their concerns. I'm cutting myself off before writing a whole second review, but if I did, I'd have to mention Mary's fabulous bristling at Penn's smarmy wave of compliments about her beauty when they first meet, and Rowley's suppressed impulse to guffaw when, at the broody scene of the pivotal crime, he realizes how pathetically Mary has behaved, however foolishly noble her intentions. I'd say something, too, about how the production design and the costumes do, pace my original review, make some case for the debonair appeal of the period idioms, at instances when the characters aren't total victims of their garishness, and how the occasional interjection of a truly unnerving image (Mary cowering from Karl in her mustard-colored bed, a bruised and beaten Rowley emerging from a pitch-black prison cell) preserves a register of danger that makes the film's impulses toward critique and subtle mockery all the trickier and more interesting, if less fully consistent than I once believed. I'd downgrade Up at the Villa to a B these days, but that's still a lot more credit than almost anyone else gave it, and especially if you're a Scott Thomas or a Penn fan, eager to see them testing each other and trying their hand at atypical roles, I'd urge you to seek it out.

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