Picks and Pans Review: Quartet

updated 11/16/1981 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/16/1981 AT 01:00 AM EST

Since the life-size mannequins in this painstaking look at the decadent side of Paris in the 1920s are always claiming to be "bored, bored, bored," it's hard to work up much interest in the talk, talk, talk spewed out in Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's adaptation of the late Jean Rhys' 1929 novel. Rhys, a former chorus girl and lover of author Ford Madox Ford, turned to writing to overcome her loneliness and fear of poverty. Her heroine is a crushed-petal type set adrift in the seedy café society of Montparnasse when her husband is sent to jail. This frightened girl, played by the intelligent and luminously lovely Isabelle Adjani, is the most believable character in the film. Those brilliant actors Maggie Smith and Alan Bates portray the English couple who take in the poor waif, but—aha—only so Bates can have his wicked way with Adjani in the guest room while Smith suffers in silence. Bates, it appears, is an aging rogue who's done this kind of thing before, resulting in one girl's suicide and his own nervous breakdown. Patient Maggie just keeps clearing the guest room. Director James Ivory tracks the protagonists through jazz clubs and porn parlors of not-so-Gay Paree, exhibiting the same exhausting attention to detail he displayed in his 1979 adaptation of Henry James' The Europeans. For Ivory, the sight of a dirty curtain blowing in the breeze can often be a substitute for characterization. Those who prefer real life to still life may find themselves more in agreement with Bates' final summation: "It's all so abominably sordid and pitiful." (R)

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