Cinema has been fickle with Henry James. It turned his classic ghost story “The Turn of the Screw” into a classic frightening film, The Innocents. Iain Softley elegantly transposed his The Wings of A Dove to film, and Agnieszka Holland skillfully carnalized his Washington Square in celluloid. But there have also been Jane Campion’s overwrought Portrait of a Lady and James Ivory’s stiff The Bostonians and flaccid The Europeans. However, a brilliant addition to Jamesian film has come from an unexpected source—director Karyn Kusama. Kusama’s work—from the excellent Girlfight to the horrid Jennifer’s Body—would hardly be described as Jamesian. It is usually expressionistic &/or stylized spectacle, not the intricate impressionism of Henry James. But her latest film, The Invitation, is both decidedly different and decidedly Jamesian.
The similarity between Kusama’s film and James’ work is two-fold. The first is in the film’s scenario used successfully and repeatedly by James. The Invitation centers around its protagonist Will’s (Logan Marshall-Green) reluctant return to his family home for a party held by his ex-wife, Eden, and her new beau, David. Still mourning the death of his young son two years past–and his broken marriage resulting from it–he enters the party fragile, guarded, and quickly suspicious. And as the party progresses, Will becomes more and more suspicious of–and hyper-vigilant over–the party, its unknown guests, and (particularly) his ex-wife and her strange, unctuous boyfriend. While James never wrote a thriller The Invitation will become, he did write many scenarios structurally similar to its one. In The Wings of a Dove, for example, the heiress Millie Theale must discern the increasingly suspicious relationship between her courter, Merton Densher, and her new close friend, Kate Croy. Similarly, in The Golden Bowl, heiress Maggie Verver must decipher the unsettling closeness between her husband, Amerigo, and her childhood friend, Charlotte Stant. In similar fashion, Will must determine the nature of the relationship between–and strange behavior of–his ex-wife; her boyfriend; their new age group, The Invitation; and the increasingly disturbing party around him.
It is this acutely impressionistic aspect of The Invitation that also makes the film Jamesian. James’ milieu is consciousness, not the world surrounding it. So, his novels usually require a special narration, one that reflects the consciousness of his characters engaging the world more than the world itself. James referred to this narrator as his “lucid reflector” reflecting the character’s consciousness–their “mode”–and the third person narrator’s description of the world—the narrator’s “voice.” Sometimes, with non-self-aware characters like Portrait of a Lady‘s Isabel Archer, mode and voice unite, with the narrator’s view absorbing the character’s. However, with highly self-aware characters like Maggie Verver or The Ambassadors‘ aging dilettante Lambert Strether, mode and voice stay separate. Thus the character’s mode surpasses the narrator’s voice, making it (not entirely) subservient. The character/protagonist becomes the reflector; the narrative voice becomes its mostly loyal aide
The Invitation’s Will is this type of protagonist. The camera does stray from Will, and objectively narrates him, but it still devotes and submits itself to the dynamics of his inner mind. Kusama, however, adds an element to Will’s mind rarely found in James’ characters—trauma. Still grieving the loss of his son & estrangement from his wife, Will enters the party a damaged reflector, one whose perceptions can’t be fully trusted by himself or his audience. This enables the film to use the lucid reflection of Will’s marred consciousness in three vital ways. It allows the camera to show how grief over his child and marriage have damaged his temporal and emotional perspectives. It allows it to show his dependence on inter-subjective clarity. And finally, it shows how both dynamics, and other phenomena, affect and influence his reading of the party’s events and suspicion of its impending danger.
The initial prerequisite for an accurate reading is proper recording of phenomena. The prerequisite for that is a stable, healthy state of mind able to make such recordings. A damaged reflector, not a lucid one, Will doesn’t have that. The movie begins with him clearly still bitter & resentful over his divorce. Driving to the party with his girlfriend, Kira, he tells how his wife and her boyfriend met, quickly adding, resentfully, “while we were married.” This sentiment continues when he arrives at the house, wistfully noting the house was “never really mine.” Will confirms its strength when he finally meets the overly friendly David, who ominously asserts “this is my house,” stirring David’s resentful feelings further. So, throughout the mystery of the film, Will must not only decipher the disturbing phenomena surrounding him, he must determine if his perceptions are true or reflections of his emotional state.
His grief makes this difficult. Still haunted by his son’s death, the world around him is in constant time flux. He can never fully perceive the present since his thoughts continually drift back into the past. This first becomes clear in his initial tour around his erstwhile home. Five steps in, he looks into the living room and is immediately transported backwards. He doesn’t see the room as it is, but as it was, occupied by his son and his toys. But the camera doesn’t present a temporal phantasm shaped by time and emotional coloring; it presents a perfectly detailed reproduction. Will’s son is playing with his tyrannosaurus Rex and other toys in perfect clarity. Will’s past has joined with his present, disrupting his perception–and the supremacy–of the latter.
This also occurs–with greater effect–when he first enters the kitchen. Taking a few steps, stopping, and drinking some water, he stares at the kitchen sink. He is then violently stirred by a disturbing phantasm. He no longer sees the sink, but himself struggling with his wife as she attempts suicide with a knife. Unlike the vision of his son, this one is charged with emotional shaping and coloring. The image is shaky, unlike his image of his son, moving frenetically from the knife to her bloody hands to his desperate face to her despairing one. And the colors are unnaturally vivid, expressionistically reflecting the sublimity of the moment and the passionate emotions of its reflector. The past isn’t just permeating and/or usurping his present, it is bringing heightened, intense emotions, distorting the actual phenomena surrounding him. This presents a second gauntlet Will must overcome if he is to accurately discern the nature of the dinner party and the intentions of its hosts. He must not only retain temporal clarity; he must temper the considerable emotional detritus lingering from his trauma.
He partially does this through a common tactic of the Jamesian lucid reflector: inter-subjective perception with a trusted touchstone. James’ self-aware, self oriented reflectors often relied on an outside source—or sometimes sources—to amend or augment their own perceptions and interpretations of them. For example, The Ambassadors’ Strether turns to fellow expatriate Maria Gostrey and her more cynical, more Europe-savvy perspective for assistance to his Romantic, naively-American one. For Will, his touchstone is his friend, the professor Claire. Will’s affection for and–more importantly– comfortability around her is immediately apparent, as he smiles effusively while discussing her recent tenure award. Also, she most share’s Will’s suspicion of, and uneasiness with, the party, its participants, and its events. When Will, troubled by David bolting up the windows & doors, asks, “What if there’s a fire,” Claire, sitting next to him, looks up at Will then assertively at David in agreement.
This inter-subjectivity comes to a head when David gathers the group into the living room for a viewing of a mysterious video. It is Claire’s, not David’s, skepticism the camera initially reflects, showing her looking concerned, asking, “Is this some kind of recruitment video?” Will quickly shares her skepticism, rolling his eyes at the disturbing video of a woman dying, then sharing a look of disbelief and contempt with Claire. This phenomenological connection continues–but shifts–when David, to cut the tension, suggests the group play a game of “I Want,” The Invitation’s version of Truth or Dare. Claire is immediately skeptical, asking “What kind of game are we talking about?” The game’s real nature becomes apparent when cocaine jokes quickly move to David’s odd friend Pruitt confessing to accidentally killing his wife and purging his grief with The Invitation. Still guilt-ridden over his son’s accidental death, David is somewhat taken in by Pruitt’s argument for self-forgiveness, staring at him un-judgingly. Claire, however is repelled, stating Pruitt’s view, “doesn’t seem very honest. It’s like you’re selling us something.” And after an awkward kiss between Eden and Will’s friend Ben, Claire is fully repulsed, saying, “I have to go. This is all making me a little uncomfortable,” echoing Will’s sentiment from the moment he entered the house.
With his touchstone gone–along with her vociferous support–Will can no longer rely on external perceptions. His other friends are too drunk or too forgiving to aid him in his detection. So, he must rely on his own perception, while abating the temporal & emotional disruptions blurring it. A damaged receptor, he must find lucidity, and he, ironically, finds it in emotional memory. As the camera—separate from Will, but reflecting his developing lucidity—slowly pans over the party members waking up the stairs and dining at the dinner table, Will drifts back to his son’s fifth birthday party. The memory is cool and serene, every pleasant detail clear and immaculate, until it ends with Eden screaming at his son’s death, and his own cathartic inner scream clarifying his sense and sensibility. He is now a lucid reflector, freed from temporal blurring and emotional intensity. He can now discern the meaning of the troubling phenomena surrounding him and the events they foretell.